Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.06.34

Edith Hall, Fiona Macintosh, Greek Tragedy and the British Theatre 1660-1914.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2005.  Pp. xxxvi, 723.  ISBN 0-19-815087-3.  $115.00.  

Reviewed by John Bulwer, European School Brussels 1 (
Word count: 2129 words

Table of Contents

In my record collection for a number of years has been a box of Purcell's Theatre Music. Much of this music is well known and often performed. The plays that these songs and interludes were written for, on the other hand, have largely vanished from view. Purcell's 'Music for a while', for example, is noted with few further details as coming 'Oedipus'. These are the plays that concern Hall and Macintosh (H-M) in this major account of the influence of Greek tragedy on drama in English. They say the subject matter of the book has slipped down "a vast chasm yawning between disciplines". Certainly these plays, which had significant impacts in their own times, have mostly disappeared, are almost never performed and even the texts are difficult to find. The Oedipus to which Purcell contributed the songs for the revival in 1692 turns out to be by Dryden with Nathaniel Lee and first performed in 1678, though in comparison with Dryden's other works it is little read. When we read the account of how Sophocles' original play was banned from the London stage by the Lord Chamberlain because of its references to incest this neglect begins to fall into place. Bernard Shaw, Gilbert Murray, Harley Granville Barker and others mounted a public campaign in 1909 against the ban, which led to the staging of Oedipus Tyrannus in Murray's translation by Max Reinhardt at Covent Garden in 1912. This journey, from Dryden and Lee in the late seventeenth century to Euripides on the London stage at the outbreak of the First World War, via Restoration Tragedy, classical burlesque and school and university productions in the original Greek, forms the narrative journey of the book. H-M thus take on theatre history, the socio-political history of the period, and English literature, but all from the point of view of the discipline of Classics. They say, in reference to Shaw's Major Barbara and Euripides, "discussion . . . is generally confined to questions of what the moderns did to the ancients"; they on the other hand wish to reverse this and say, "the focus will be on the . . . ways in which Greek drama exerted a profound influence on the modern play of ideas". This is the thread that runs through the book: to investigate this literature from the direction of Classics and to reclaim for the discipline an area neglected by others. In this way, Classics is seen here to be making a real contribution to these other disciplines and theatre historians and cultural and literary critics will be consulting this book regularly. In addition, Classicists themselves have much to find here: to reach an authentic interpretation of the original Greek texts they must be aware of the ways in which performance history and contemporary reception of these texts have affected the scholarly opinion which Classics today is heir to.

The material is organised chronologically into separate chapters each taking a Greek play and its socio-historical context. This treatment traces the rise and fall in popularity of certain plays at different moments. Euripides' Ion, for example, became prominent first in 1754 in an adaptation by William Whitehead (called Creusa, Queen of Athens) and then again in Thomas Talfourd's version (Ion) a century later. The tale of the foundling Ion in the 1750s is associated with the charitable movement of Thomas Coram to care for abandoned children at his Foundling Hospital (in which Handel and Hogarth were also active), but by the 1850s Talfourd's version is connected to the movement for reform and the transfer of power from the aristocracy to the people. This plot finally comes into the mainstream of modern drama when Oscar Wilde incorporated it into The Importance of being Earnest. Other chapters treat Iphigenia and Electra as regular early heroines, always in Sophocles and Euripides, Aeschylus having to wait for his impact to be felt. Eventually the questioning of the position of women in society led to the foregrounding of Medea as the archetypal figure for the Victorian woman. She receives a chapter of her own where nineteenth century marriage legislation is considered in parallel. The book as a whole contains a bewildering cast of fascinating characters not all well known now, but many significant persons in their own time. After Dryden in the first chapter, we pass through less familiar territory until reaching firmer ground at the end of the nineteenth century.

The line taken for the examination of each play in its context is firmly historicist. The theme of the play in question is shown to have been adapted and moulded to fit the ideas and morals of the age in which it is being performed. The eighteenth century's view of women is reflected in their versions of Euripides, but the female characters' attitudes to sex had to be softened to fit in with contemporary ideas of modesty. The so-called She-Tragedy with its female actors in leading roles appealed to the women who made up a significant part of the audience, but their actions were changed so that the audience are spared the worst crimes of Euripides' heroines. This approach is always relevant to productions of Greek tragedy (many saw references to the allied invasion of Iraq in a recent production of Euripides' Hecuba), and there has to be a reason for theatre managers to turn to these plays again and again. These reasons may be drawn from a whole range of socio-political phenomena, and H-M show how the distant mythological figures can provide shifting parallels over the different periods for each new set of ideas to attach itself to.

Classics has its difficulties in some countries with a reputation for elitism. H-M deal with this in their chapters on the way Greek Tragedy was associated with radical politics. They show that, far from being the sole preserve of the educated and conservative upper classes, classical tragedy could be identified with quite different causes. In the 1820s with the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence, theatres reflected the struggle in a number of plays including an Orestes in Argos, with the hero firmly portrayed as a tyrant-slayer. Thomas Talfourd was a man of modest background from Reading who identified with Whig politics and became a Member of Parliament and magistrate. He introduced the Infant Custody Act giving women for the first time rights over the custody of their own children. Yet this radicalism did not prevent him from turning to Greek tragedy to exemplify his views and he produced the successful version of Euripides' Ion. Later, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the group around Shaw and Murray used tragedy to create the new drama with its radical edge. Murray was to first to use Euripides' Trojan Woman to criticise the British treatment of the Boer women and children in the Boer War, much as Sartre was to use the same play to criticise the French government's actions in the Algerian War in the 1950s. These sections of the book ought to help change the impression that Classics has always been a conservative subject and to show it can be adopted by all shades of opinion at different stages in history.

Those of us who work with young people in the theatre will be heartened by the attention given to school based productions of Greek tragedy in the nineteenth century. Greek tragedy is well suited to student performance as it provides plenty of female parts for the volunteer actors. Not all classic plays are so accommodating, and finding enough men and turning down women is often a tricky problem. This was not a concern for Richard Valpy at Reading and Samuel Parr at Stanmore when they put on Oedipus and Alcestis among other plays with their boys. These plays inspired their participating actors and their audiences to imagine what it was actually like to be Greek and to experience a tragedy as its original audience had done. These performances, vividly described here in detail from obscure archive material, had considerable influence on many, such as Talfourd and Shelley, who went on to create their own versions.

The tragic chorus over the time span covered is a recurring element and is an excellent example of the way our modern conceptions of these vital passages have been moulded over the years. The difficulty of staging a chorus effectively is nothing new, and one of the major achievements of modern stagings of tragedy has been the way that the chorus has been made to move and live as a single organic unit by Peter Hall and others in their productions. H-M show that at one stage the chorus was felt to be such an embarrassment that it was often cut entirely. They also demonstrate where our view of the Greek tragic chorus, all wailing dolefully in statuesque poses, comes from. (This is the sort of thing neatly parodied in Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite.) Yet as H-M show this is only another interpretation, stemming largely from nineteenth century practice, which Classicists (and theatre audiences) need to put into context.

One of the major rediscoveries of the book for many will be the treatment of Classical burlesque in the Victorian theatre. These were popular shows combining song, dance and comedy based on Classical themes. H-M thoroughly dissect this medium, examining its ideology and questioning whether it shows a popular awareness of and affection for Classical tragedy or a satirical revenge by less well educated people on the "Classical education" of the upper classes. Perhaps both are possible. Parody of tragedy goes right back to Aristophanes whose sharp send-ups of Euripides are based on a deep appreciation of his techniques. We can enjoy a parody of Shakespeare without it implying any form of distaste for his work. There is more work to be done here on this particular art form, perhaps republication of texts and even a stage revival.

In a book covering such a lot of ground there are inevitably areas that lead to further questions. The role of music and opera in the story of tragic performance is beyond the scope of the study, yet one would like more investigation on occasions. Strauss' Elektra is there in the background of the early twentieth century productions but goes undiscussed (though the authors do say that this has been dealt with by Goldhill 1). The role of the chorus in oratorio seems relevant to the discussion of the burlesque, as do the many operas on classical themes including comic treatments such as Handel's Semele.

The book is well illustrated with many plates of prints, playbills and later photographs. The frontispieces of volumes of the play texts reveal aspects of their productions, as do contemporary paintings of dramatic scenes and of actors in role. Playbills are reproduced providing valuable evidence of performance practice, including the surprising announcement that in 1825 at Covent Garden Orestes in Argos was followed by Aladdin, or the Wonderful Lamp, on the same bill. By the late nineteenth century, performance history can be supplemented by engravings and photographs of the sets and action. All this is excellently reproduced. Footnotes are in their proper place at the foot of the page and the index (running to 82 pages) is a remarkable tool of reference. It is accompanied by a chronological appendix, which lists all the works and performances appearing in the text and is almost a good read in itself. Slips are very few: capital P for Palace (p.335), and unreadability not unreadablity (p.451 n.55). Some personalities are referred to in different ways: Thomas Talfourd's son is called both Frank and Francis. Some readers who are not Classicists may be unfamiliar with such abbreviations as the OT and the IA.

The authors say, "If Classics is to find a purpose and role in the third millennium, it needs to ask questions about it purpose and role in past centuries" (Preface ix). This book helps to nudge the discipline in this new direction. However, the scale of the enterprise that attempts to cover such a wide period means that inevitably the full socio-cultural and historical background of each chapter is left unexplored in all details. It may be that the future of reception studies will develop in a different way from this kind of broad survey. In-depth investigations into one particular production of a Greek tragedy with a full and detailed look at all aspects of the culture of the time may be the way ahead in reception studies. Nevertheless this is a major contribution to work done in this area by the Archive of Performance of Greek and Roman Drama at Oxford, with the authors' other work on the performance histories of Agamemnon2 and Medea3, and of modern versions of Greek Tragedy.4


1.   Simon Goldhill, Who Needs Greek? (Oxford 2002).
2.   Agamemnon in Performance, 458 BC to AD 2004. Edited by Fiona Macintosh, Pantelis Michelakis, Edith Hall and Oliver Taplin (Oxford 2006).
3.   Edith Hall, Fiona Macintosh, Oliver Taplin, Medea in Performance 1500-2000 (Oxford: Legenda, 2000).
4.   Dionysus since 69: Greek Tragedy at the Dawn of the Third Millennium. Edited by Edith Hall, Fiona Macintosh and Amanda Wrigley (Oxford 2005).

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