The fate of the tragic Greek figure Iphigenia is intrinsically connected to her environment in classical canonical source texts. Her death, depicted in Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, is the result of human failings, and yet the natural world and the climate play an integral part. In 2015, Gary Owen transposed the narrative of this classical heroine to Cardiff, Wales, to consider the ruins of contemporary Britain in an increasingly hostile environment of austerity. Owen’s play is a scathing indictment of the overpopulated and under-resourced urban environment, but it is ultimately a catastrophic climate event that leads to the tragedy within this adaptation. Classical tragedy is a predominantly anthropocentric dramatic form. However, with reference to Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott and utilising emerging ecocriticism and discourse, I argue that there is potential for an ecologically sensitive, revisionist perspective in contemporary adaptations of classical tragedy. Building upon Carl Lavery’s and Clare Finburgh’s provocation that, “the Anthropocene is a term that invariably attests to humanity’s inability to impact upon and intervene in natural processes [and] it simultaneously highlights humanity’s failure to harness or control such interventions” (34), I consider what the real tragedy is within Owen’s play. Is the tragedy of his Iphigenia a tragedy of humanity’s failure to cohabit with the natural environment without causing harm or, perhaps more broadly, a tragedy that reflects the failure of a historic and dogmatic anthropocentric view in theatre and beyond?
Keywords: anthropocene, tragedy, ecodramaturgy, weathering, ruins, adaptation
Adapting Iphigenia at Aulis
In her History of European Drama and Theatre (2002), Erika Fischer-Lichte suggests that one of the fundamental aspects of the theatre is that it “always symbolises the conditio humana, regardless of its different culturally historically determined forms” (2). This is most overt within tragedy, classical and after, as the central focus of this theatrical form is often the actions of humans. As tragedy so frequently prioritises issues considered universally human, any consideration of the natural world or environment is secondary, if featured at all. Philosopher Michel Serres directly critiques this oversight suggesting that “entertainment mongers show us only corpses, the vile work of death that founds and traverses history, from the Iliad to Goya and from academic art to prime-time television” (2–3). The spectacle of “conflicts or debates, thick with humanity and purified of things” (2–3) that serve as the archetype of ancient theatre, thus, make it the ultimate anthropocentric cultural form concerned with individual heroes and heroines, not their milieu.
Euripides’ final posthumously performed play Iphigenia at Aulis (405 B.C.) is somewhat anomalous compared to many of the other extant Greek plays, as its title features the name of the tragic heroine and the location that is integral to the dramatic action. The plot centres upon a godly demand to sacrifice Iphigenia to enable her father Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek Army, to sail to Troy to wage war there. Euripides’ title automatically ties the eponymous heroine to a particular location; from the outset, her fate and the town are inextricably linked. This link between the two is something that echoes in Gary Owen’s 2015 reworking of the myth, Iphigenia in Splott. Other links are less overt, as in Owen’s version the heroine is derivatively renamed Effie, and the setting moves from the fifth century B.C. Greek port-town to twenty-first-century Wales. Owen’s play foregrounds the individual tragedy of the protagonist, but the tragic experience is, in the most defining moment, inexorable from the natural world, Effie’s location and the social context associated with it.
It is the link between individual and environment in this twenty-first-century adaptation and its source text, that prompts my ecodramaturgical reading within this article. A consideration of Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott through this lens reinforces the interconnectedness of the two tragic sites, person and place, and ultimately produces a damning indictment of the anthropocentrically impacted socio-political context that catalyses the human tragedy. Though I focus largely on the human-made environment, I propose here that this critical framing highlights the anthropocentric tendencies of the tragic theatrical form. Once acknowledged, there exists the possibility for bridging points or strategies for future adaptations of classical tragedies to easily pivot towards ecodramaturgical agendas or sensibilities.
Anthropocentrism Then and Now
Classical Greek tragedy and its adaptations exist as part of a long-established tradition of retelling and reworking mythology. In acts of adaptation, classical Greek plays are frequently recontextualised in order to speak to a contemporary moment. Plays have been modified to question acts of international violence and terrorism; other adaptations have been reworked to reflect postmodern aesthetic demands or deconstructed to offer revisionist perspectives on universalising themes. In this present moment, there is no greater universalising tragedy than failure to acknowledge encroaching climate disaster. Potential climate catastrophe could unite the human species in a singular fate, and therefore, it is my hope that adaptations of tragedy can acknowledge the implications of planetary intersection and connection, to embed ecodramaturgical practices within continued explorations of what it means to be human. In other words, to reinforce the connection between the human and the non-human via strategic dramaturgical interventions.
Playwright Owen and director Rachel O’Riordan have never suggested that Iphigenia in Splott was created with overt ecodramaturgical intentions. Rather, it is described in the Sherman Theatre’s promotional material as a production that seeks to expose the injustices of austerity policies in the United Kingdom, to “[drive] home the high price people pay for society’s shortcomings.” Crucially, however, in this production the shortcomings of society and the violence of austerity measures are revealed within the landscape. In doing this, Iphigenia in Splott does, in fact, critique the pervasive nature of the Anthropocene as defined by Tobias Menly and Margaret Ronda. Their definition of the Anthropocene,
names the moment at which expanding global capitalism, with its increasingly destructive side effects of pollution, deforestation, and immiseration, reaches a threshold of self-destruction, as the accelerating conversion of all natural entities into forms of human capital becomes more and more patently in denial of ecological realities and limits.Clark 2
In transposing the adapted Iphigenia narrative to Splott, a district in the southeast of Cardiff, with its history of late-nineteenth-century urbanisation, and industrial heritage as the site of the former East Moors Steelworks, Owen’s play focuses on immiseration in the inorganic, man-made environment. The urban landscape of this play is perhaps more easily associated with human culture, rather than the natural world, and this is partly because, throughout Western history, the interdependence of nature and humanity has been undermined by a longstanding dichotomisation of the two.
Since at least the fifth century B.C. there has been a divide between nomos (culture/custom/law) and physis (nature) (Cless).[] The divide first emerged with the development of agricultural methods and the organised exploitation of natural resources for human gain. The success of such developments helped to perpetuate the misconceptions that natural resources are infinite and that nature or the natural world can be mastered; an anthropocentric view may suggest that nomos and physis are interconnected but only as part of an economically defined hierarchy, not as an ecologically sound partnership.
An ecodramaturgical approach seeks to confront the former perspective. Ecodramaturgy, as defined by Wendy Arons and Theresa J. May in their 2012 Readings in Performance Ecology, considers how to reiterate the interconnectedness of humans and the entirety of the natural world within the theatrical form. This is an onerous task given the scale and complexity of Earth’s organisms and species interdependency, and Arons and May claim a number of challenges to this endeavour. One of these is “reconsidering historical texts and performances with attention to the anthropocentric/ecologically hostile attitudes and behaviors they normalize” (6). Another challenge relates to the material conditions of theatre and performance, the “use of both inanimate and animate resources in the process of telling stories” (6); namely, the labour, materials and other energy that is required. I consider these two challenges in my discussion of Iphigenia in Splott, linking this with a brief discussion of Astrida Nermanis and Rachel Loewen Walker’s helpful theorisation of “weathering.”
Splott as Character: Austerity and Ruins
As already observed, classical tragedy often reinforces an anthropocentric perspective. Owen’s adaptation is formally no different, as the entire drama is communicated via an extended monologue performed by a single speaker, the protagonist Effie. However, throughout the duration of the play, Owen scatters such frequent references to the environment that Splott emerges as a character that, corresponding to Effie’s corporeal frame, becomes a site of tragedy. The identity of Splott is partly defined by its state of living ruin, and consequently, one of the defining characteristics of Owen’s play is ruination applied repeatedly to the representations of person and place.
At the start of the play, Effie introduces herself with a knowing nod to the on-going national media narrative that demonizes the working class and persons in receipt of state benefits.[] Effie’s introduction immediately ruptures any assumptions that this is a heroine cast in the virtuous mould of the self-sacrificing Iphigenia found in Euripides’ source text.
See I know what you thinkOwen 249
When you see me pissed first thing wandering around.
You think –
Stupid slag. Nasty skank.
Effie goes on to describe her day-to-day existence and the relentless cycle of excess and recovery, with graphic descriptions of her physical ruin following the revelry of the night before. The city locale, with its capitalist consumerist ideology, cultivates Effie’s behaviour, and part of her tragedy is that she succumbs to the conditioning of the economic situation and geography. Splott’s identity, as captured in the 2014 Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation, is that of an electoral ward that sits in the top ten percent of deprived areas in the country when considering factors such as Employment, Health, Community Safety and Education. Effie exists as a character with individual agency, but in Owen’s depiction of her world, with its intersecting forms of deprivation, there are limited options available to her.
Effie’s apathy is generated by the continually deteriorating situation in the microcosm of Splott, and Owen uses this to comment more broadly upon the wider impact of austerity in areas of the UK hit hardest following the economic crash of Autumn 2008. The deterioration is evident in the frequent references to the organic and inorganic world that frames Effie’s narrative as it presents a sense of ruin. An inventory of eco-political, austerity-driven failures serves as a form of epilogue and prologue. In the list feature several government-run public services that allegorically represent healthcare, education and leisure services: “doctors shut,” “the library they closed, / The swimming pool got knocked down” (Owen 250, 306). Despite the spatio-temporal distance, the repercussions of David Cameron’s “Age of Austerity” speech in Cheltenham, England in April 2009, and the subsequent policies of the Coalition Government become disconcerting realities for Effie and the wider population of Splott. The landscape of the play is “shut”, “knocked down” and “burned” (Owen 250, 306). The allegorical ruin of the inorganic landscape marked here by declining social provision acts as a simultaneously contemporary and historical palimpsest that traces this particular moment in time through its interrelated economic, social and ecological failings.
In economic terms, since 2009, austerity in the U.K. has been epitomized by cuts to local government funding, as well as to welfare services and benefits, and sectional privatization of the National Health Service. Ruins of these public services are seen in the spaces left behind as described by Effie,and thus, these ruins paradoxically represent both presence and absence. They expose the human impact upon the environment, and the purposelessness of the still standing architecture suggests an absence associated with failed progress. The ruins in Splott possess limited cultural capital. Nevertheless, in accordance with Effie’s own tragedy, Splott’s ruins materially reflect the prior importance of their past use, revealed through Effie’s memory of, and relationship to, those places in a different time. Owen, in an interview with Exeunt in 2016, describes Splott as a place where “[people] are struggling and don’t have much money, where people are particularly dependent on public services, and in which those public services are being withdrawn.” Owen argues that it is in times of austerity, when the fragile social contact breaks down, that the most vulnerable within the community are “the ones that face the worst cuts even though they’re the least able to take them” (qtd. in Bano).
Ruins of the human-made variety have the potential to represent what the organic world cannot. Salvatore Settis suggests that they “remind us of their ancient builders and users, but they also make us think about those who neglect, sacked and destroyed” (79). In Owen’s depiction of Splott, it is evident that the U.K. government failed to intervene and prevent the closure of the services vital to that community. Later in the play, in part three, there are more explicit mentions of the human impact upon the organic environment when Effie visits the beach; “it is the worst beach in the world, mind. / Strips of metal, car wheels, half a toilet, / Whole walls crumpled into the sand” (Owen 270). This depiction reveals the presence of human intervention upon the natural world and, equally, absence in their failure to intervene by responsibly removing their pollutants from such an environment.
The Anthropocene as Tragedy
Owen uses the failure to intervene as a leitmotif intrinsically linked to that of ruination. Although it is, in fact, an intervention beyond human control that causes the final tragic outcome. At the end of part four, Effie discovers that she is pregnant, following a one-night stand with a trans-femoral amputee soldier. The central tragedy of the play then emerges as Effie goes into early labour, and her local hospital is short of beds: “We don’t have as many special care beds as we used to / Cos of all these cuts” (Owen 304). Effie’s premature child dies shortly after birth in transit to a faraway hospital that may have had the resources to alter that outcome. The health service cuts are the reason that Effie must transfer hospitals; however, it is a natural obstacle, a particularly strong snowstorm, that ultimately prevents the ambulance from reaching its destination. The paramedics managing Effie’s care warn her that:
Snow’s a bit heavierOwen 299
Cos we’re getting up into the mountains
Just having to go
A bit more carefully, is all.
This cosmological intervention reinforces the futility of the man-made objects against the power of the organic world, despite continual attempts to control and master natural processes and events.
The snowstorm in Iphigenia in Splott is an adaptative alteration that differs from the weather event in Euripides’ source material. Although there is a connection between character, place and weather in both plays, the type of weather and dramaturgical significance has shifted. As an exchange for the sacrifice of Iphigenia in Euripides’ text, the Greek army is rewarded with fair winds for their journey. In Owen’s text, the weather event is the catalyst for the tragedy, not a consequence of it, and thus I encourage a reading of the weather as agential.
Building on the work of Stacey Alaimo (2008, 2010), Nermanis and Walker’s notion of “weathering” promotes this consideration of agential weather. In advocating for weathering understood as transcorporeality, they highlight “imbrication of human and non-human natures [that] denies the myth that human bodies are discrete in time and space, somehow outside of the natural milieu that sustains them” (Nermanis and Walker 563). When weather is viewed as agential in tandem with human agency, it invites considerations of reciprocity and responsivity. Anthropocentric hierarchy and its unhelpful dichotomisation are revealed as inherently flawed when the human and non-human collide in Owen’s dramatic moment. For Effie and her daughter, the mountain roads prove to be untraversable and the environment inhospitable, and yet, Owen subtly emphasises the potential beauty of where they find themselves as Effie comments, “Flakes of white drift down,” “Snow, little girl. / Snow on the day you are born” (Owen 298). Moments before her arrival, Effie claims that her daughter “. . . wants to see the snow and stars” (300). The somewhat romanticised aesthetic of the mountains and the climate are portrayed in stark contrast to the ruins in Splott. Nevertheless, the tragedy of Effie and her daughter cannot be extrapolated from these two environments, the organic and inorganic, and this supports a view of the interconnectedness of all planetary existence whilst challenging the delusion of human exceptionalism.
Human Intervention, Hubris and Sacrifice
Carl Lavery and Clare Finburgh suggest that while “the Anthropocene is a term that invariably attests to humanity’s ability to impact on, and intervene into, ‘natural processes,’ it simultaneously highlights humanity’s failure to harness or control such interventions” (34). The misplaced attempt to navigate the hostile weather environment in part nine of the play reveals an anthropocentric state defined by Downing Cless as eco-hubris (4). Hubris is, according to Cless, one hamartia (fatal flaw) that can afflict tragic protagonists. Emphasis upon or highlighted representation of eco-hubris is, therefore, a potential ecodramaturgical tool that could support ecologically revisionist adaptations of classical mythology and tragedy, shifting “overabundance of pride or arrogance” (4) from the realm of nomos to that of physis.
The common structure of classical tragedy is often that the tragic protagonist takes on something that is greater than themselves and is, ultimately, crushed by it. However, drawing on the literal meaning of her namesake, Iphigenia, strong in birth, after an initial desire for revenge, Effie demonstrates her strength by committing instead an altruistic act of self-sacrifice. Although she does not offer up her life, as Euripides’ Iphigenia does, Effie’s refusal of the potential compensation settlement in the capitalist era of the twenty-first century is a poignant statement that her tragedy cannot be quantified. The remuneration offered to Effie would be life-changing, but she makes a decision that, in her eyes, “saved every one of you, from suffering the same . . . what you should be thinking is, / Christ Effie, Thanks. You took the cut, for all of us” (Owen 305–06).
In the final moments of the play, Owen, via his heroine Effie, challenges the audience to consider how much suffering, social injustice and environmental ruination can be endured before action is taken. The immediacy in the language and direct address creates a shared moment and locale; the audience are performatively invited into a dialogue to be reminded of their own agency. The direct address used throughout the performance serves to emphasise culpability and consequences for a wider, perhaps, global community. Effie is Owen’s tragic figure, but the fatal flaw in this adaptation is bigger than the actions of a singular individual.
The ferocity of the final moments of direct address reinforces the urgency of the climate crisis. In the twenty-first century, the linguistic shift from “climate change” to “climate emergency” and “climate crisis” indicates the increasing severity in levels of concern (Watson 141). However, there remains apathy and even resistance to the issue, particularly for individuals and societies who are not currently experiencing the most extreme effects of the crisis because of privileges associated with geography, race, political capital, economic status and class, among other intersecting potential grounds for inequality. As Nermanis and Walker suggest, “[although] framed in a language of urgency and impending crisis, ‘climate change’ has taken on an abstract quality in contemporary Western societies” (559).
To overcome the abstraction of climate crisis, one common, and frequently critiqued (Watson 152), dramaturgical strategy is to centre human experience as a means of exploring the immense scale of the crisis on a micro level. Using this approach in new adaptations of classical tragedy does little to advance ecocritical reconsiderations of the historic source texts. Arons and May state that one of the purposes of ecodramaturgy is to expose “the dramaturgical structures that continue to foreground human conflict against the background of (rather in reciprocity with) a natural environment” (6). If human experience remains the principal lens through which to view the environment and the climate crisis, a human primacy is perpetuated rather than subverted.
Adaptation and Possible Revisionist Interventions
Using Iphigenia in Splott as provocation to consider alternatives that encourage subversion of this historic and dogmatic normalisation of anthropocentric tendencies, I offer two possibilities for adaptive intervention. Firstly, reiterating the transcorporeality encouraged by Nermanis and Walker can promote ideas of interconnectivity between place and person, as outlined above. Dual sites of tragedy that reflect organic and inorganic bodies offer a means of reorienting representations of tragedy. Weather has the possibility to unite the different bodies or sites, as it is a felt, natural phenomenon that already features in a number of extant Greek tragedies. In Euripides’ The Bacchae (405 B.C.), it is an earthquake accompanied by thunder and lightning that causes the collapse of Pentheus’ palace and frees the demi-god Dionysus imprisoned there.[] In Sophocles’ Antigone (441 B.C.), the Watchman describes a violent storm and whirlwind at the site of Polyneices’s outlawed burial.[] Weather, in these examples, features as a dramaturgical mechanism to reflect the divine influence of the gods, often in response to the hubris of the tragic characters.
If divine elements possess agency and frequently impact on human experience, these can offer another ecodramaturgical opportunity in revisionist adaptations of Greek tragedies. In contemporary adaptations, environment or climate could replace the agency historically attributed to divine beings. In Greek theatre, the gods exist in a symbiotic relationship with humans: they commune with them, demand sacrifice and supplication, and they also copulate with them, finding joy in human activity and frailty. In ancient cultures throughout the world, gods emerged as a way to make sense of natural phenomena; they are anthropomorphised creations developed in response to a world perceived by humans. If this ancient ideological framing is reversed, allowing the agency of the natural world to be reclaimed, then this could counteract the dominant modes of anthropocentric thinking inherent within the classical structure. Before trying to represent the magnitude of environmental possibility, the first step of simply replacing the divine with the natural may prompt revisionist considerations of how, in the same way that humans may incite the fury of the gods, the natural world reflects its own displeasure at the human exploitation of resources and land.
Ecodramaturgy and Staging
The scale of the natural environment was pronounced in the ancient means of staging, as all the performance spaces were outdoors. A thorough understanding of the original means of performing classical tragedy is lost to history, but looking at the ruins of the Theatre of Epidaurus in Epidaurus and the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens as only two examples, one noticeable feature they share is that the performance spaces are dwarfed by their natural surroundings. The stages are framed by sky, hills and mountains, architecture and vegetation that aesthetically reiterate the link between the human and organic worlds. Iphigenia in Splott adheres to the conventions of contemporary Western theatre and was staged indoors, and yet, the materiality of the production can still be considered in relation to ecodramaturgy.
The indoor staging of this performance is comparatively stripped back and relies on the direct address and storytelling of the singular performer (Sophie Melville). The staging choices unintentionally respond to the second challenge set forward by Arons and May; namely, to consider the means of theatrical production in an ecologically conscious manner. Arons and May insist that true “Ecodramaturgy pays attention to the environmental impact of theatrical production, creating reciprocity between the story told and the means of production” (6). In addition to a single performer, alongside Owen and director O’Riordan, the Creative Team includes just three other individuals.[]
The design of the production is aesthetically simple, relying on a predominantly empty space, a couple of chairs and the scattered, informal arrangement of energy-efficient fluorescent lighting tubes. The sparsity of the design of the production, the limited requirements of the overall mise-en-scène, as well as the small technical team and labour required of only one performer ensure that this production has a smaller carbon footprint than that of other contemporary adaptations with larger touring casts and more complex design needs. Nevertheless, Iphigenia in Splott retains its epic scope and demonstrates that there are dramaturgical possibilities to present large-scale epic narratives on an intimate scale.
It may not be intentionally environmentally conscious, but this mode of production does still reflect both the content of the piece and the experience of austerity in twenty-first-century Britain. The simple technical requirements of this production point toward the funding crisis that has affected culture and the arts, in the same way it affected other public services, such as education and health. The means of production exemplify the crux of Owen’s adaptation. There are geographical inequalities across different arts, heritage and cultural programmes related to decisions at the local governmental level, and this is reflected in the inequalities of climate crisis on a global scale. Inadvertently then, the material means of production of Iphigenia is Splott may point to the interconnectedness of human ecology and subsequent responsibility of this condition for all.
In concluding this discussion, I want to consider the representation of tragedy within Owen’s play and, firstly, focus on the inherently political link between person and place at the epicentre of the source text and his adaptation. Iphigenia in Splott is, like the majority of theatrical tragedy, anthropocentrically situated, and it was never Owen’s intention to question or challenge this dominant ideological state. However, his social consciousness and political intent to depict the sacrifices required to survive austerity policies in twenty-first-century Britain open this tragedy up beyond a singular perspective. The protagonist, Effie, transforms from one of the supposedly least desirable character tropes of “Broken Britain” to a victim of circumstance, from anti-hero to hero. Her tragedy reveals the interconnectedness of individual and environment, inorganic and organic, and forces a shift from individual to communal culpability, not usually found in the classical form’s catharsis.
For me, the next possible step within the process of adapting or reimagining classical tragedy is to try to shift the focus towards embedding consideration of the more-than-human world as well. Questions arise, then, as to whether there is a possibility to fully decentre the human within adaptations of classical tragedy or reframe and adapt so that the human tragedy is presented in such a way that reciprocity with the environment is foregrounded. I have suggested two possible ways in which the structure of classical tragedy can support ecodramaturgical intentions, by reiterating the transcorporeality of person and place and repurposing the divine within the dramatic structure and plot. Dramaturgically, classical tragedies were designed to reflect human experience, to communicate ideas on a large communal scale; still, as Zoe Svendsen has stated, “Climate crisis is a context, not a topic,” and thus any form of theatre can and should be informed by this urgent historical and future context.
Thinking in a holistically ecological manner, the greatest present and future tragedy of this contemporary moment is the decimation of the natural world because the full effects of climate catastrophe remain unfathomable. Faced with such an overwhelming prospect, ecodramaturgical approaches can only be one tactic in a multifaceted approach to climate activism. Despite intentions, ecodramaturgy as practice is reliant upon performative and theatrical forms, thus ensuring that it remains beholden to the anthropocentricism it seeks to dismantle. It is epistemologically confounding as a critical standpoint.
Nevertheless (to end with hope), if ecodramaturgical approaches can invite a symbiotic alignment of issues of nomos and physis within the genre of tragedy—with its canonical status, enduring popular appeal and seemingly limitless potential for adaptation and revision—there is capacity to continuously respond to the evolving awareness of human engagement with the natural world. Ecodramaturgically aligned theatrical tragedy has, I argue, the potential to prompt critical questioning in timely and evocative ways so as to keep reiterating the interconnectedness of the human experience and the environment it exists alongside.
 For a more detailed history of this binary charted all the way back to the Neolithic Period, see Cless’s Introduction in Ecology and Environment in European Theatre.
 To use Owen Jones’ phrasing, particularly his 2012 publication Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class.
 The / indicates a line break in the play text.
 See lines 575–95.
 See lines 417–21.
 The creative team for Iphigenia in Splott consists of Designer Hayley Grindle, Lighting Designer Rachel Mortimer and Sound Designer Sam Jones.
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*Stef Kerrigan is a theatre maker and Lecturer in the Music, Media and Performance Department at the University of Chester. Her research and teaching interests include psychophysical performer training, ecodramaturgy and adaptation. Her recently completed PhD thesis is titled: Postmodern Dramaturgies: Adapting Classical Greek Tragedies for the Contemporary Stage.
Copyright © 2022 Stef Kerrigan
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