Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.10.57 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.10.57

Amanda Wrigley (ed.), Translation, Performance, and Reception of Greek Drama, 1900-1960: International Dialogues. Comparative drama, Special double issue, Vol. 44.4, Winter 2010; Vol. 45.1, Spring 2011.   Kalamazoo:  Western Michigan University, 2011.  Pp. 182.  ISBN 00104078.  


Reviewed by Geraldine O’Neill, The Open University (g.oneill@open.ac.uk)

[The Table of Contents follows this review.]

This special double issue of Comparative Drama contains a collection of essays from new and established scholars on ancient Greek drama.. In her introduction, Amanda Wrigley, guest editor, comments on the particular focus of the essays and common themes that are discussed. She then gives a useful synopsis of each essay. This is followed by brief comments on the Research Notes section that indicate areas that, she suggests, warrant further treatment. She concludes with comments on the Afterword by Lorna Hardwick and some thoughts on the collection’s place in the established literature on this topic.

The first essay begins, appropriately, in Greece itself. Eleftheria Ioannidou considers the politics at play in performances of Greek drama in ancient theatre spaces in Greece during the twentieth century. At the heart of her argument is Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, that is, “geographical as much as ideological places, which, unlike utopias, organize the community’s imaginings around an existing site”. She focuses on the emergence of the ancient theatre of Epidaurus as the “sacred” theatre used, almost exclusively, for productions of Greek drama. She identifies three phases in the use of ancient theatres in modern Greece: first, the newly excavated theatre of Dionysus in the late nineteenth-century symbolised the resurrected Greece; second, the excavations of ancient theatres in the first half of the twentieth century led to an interest in founding drama festivals; but the crucial step came in the postwar period with the establishment of the Epidaurus Festival. Throughout her essay runs the idea that performance in ancient Greek theatres provides an unbroken link with an ancient national heritage.

In the second essay Debra Caplan presents an interesting study of adaptations of Greek tragedy—in particular, plays with a maternal figure—for the modern Yiddish stage. First, she gives an account of the antipathy which Jewish teachers felt towards Greek culture, believing it to be fundamentally opposed to their moral values and religious practice. The Greek theatre was viewed as another manifestation of Greek culture and, therefore, was forbidden by the Rabbinic authorities. However, early in the nineteenth century, followers of the Jewish Enlightenment tried to introduce European-style drama (although specifically not Greek drama) into Jewish literature. Writers came to adapt European classics for the Yiddish stage and in 1897, in New York, Jacob Gordin published a version of Medea which proved to be very successful. For several decades after this, adaptations of Greek drama became a feature of the Yiddish stage. A character as challenging as Medea is to the idealised Yiddisher Momma had to be substantially revised. For example, Jacob Gordin portrays Medea as driven to insanity by her children’s adoration of their new stepmother. However, after Medea kills them, there is no triumph on her part. She is haunted by her actions. In Z. Libin’s play Henele, or the Jewish Medea, Henele commits suicide after she kills her daughter. She cannot live with the knowledge of what she has done.. In 1935 writer Mendl Elkin adapted Oedipus into Yiddish, again substantially adapting the character of Jocasta. It too was published with great success. Debra Caplan ends with a summary of the fundamental tensions that existed between Jewish culture and the Hebrew Bible on one hand and Greek tragedy on the other.

In the third essay Simon Perris considers Gilbert Murray’s translation of Euripides’ Trojan Women(1905). He explains how it came to be perceived as the archetypal antiwar play after Gilbert Murray (who was the first scholar to do this) had identified the play with the sack of Melos by Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Simon Perris is chiefly concerned with detecting in the translation many of the “causes” with which Murray was associated in his lifetime: war, peace and internationalism. He describes the fluctuation in the play’s reception depending on the political situation of the country in which the play was performed. For example, the pacifist tone of the play did not go down well during a tour of the United States in 1915. However, in 1919 a postwar production of Trojan Women in support of the League of Nations, in Oxford and later in London, drew a different response: people in the audiences could identify with the wartime sufferings of the women. Over and above this, Simon Perris comments on the quality and style of the translation itself. He quotes actress Sibyl Thorndike who referred to the “deeply moving music of Murray’s verse”.

Essay number four by Niall W. Slater is also concerned with the translations of Gilbert Murray to some degree. Principally, it discusses how Harley Granville Barker, theatre director and playwright, along with his actress wife, Lillah McCarthy, toured the northeast coast of America with two of Murray’s translations, Trojan Women and Iphigenia in Tauris. He explains how Granville Barker claimed to have been inspired to stage outdoor productions of Greek tragedy: having seen the ancient theatre at Syracuse in Sicily and then the Yale Bowl in America, he believed that outdoor stadia replicated the performance conditions of the ancient Greek theatre. Consequently, he organised a tour of five universities along the northeast coast of America with the intention of staging his productions in their sports stadia. The focus is primarily on the production of Iphigenia in Tauris, on its staging and costumes. But he also comments on the use of outdoor venues and, using reviews of the time, speculates as to who actually attended these productions.

Trojan Women comes to the fore again in Robert Davis’ essay. On this occasion it has been renamed Trojan Incident as a production of the Federal Theatre Project under its director, Hallie Flanagan, in 1938. The rather comical title of this essay “Is Mr. Euripides a Communist?” belies a sinister interrogation of Hallie Flanagan by the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities in December 1938. The Federal Theatre Project came into being as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, mainly to provide work relief in the short term. But the long-term goal was to establish “theatres so vital to community life that they will continue to function after the program of the Federal Project is completed”. Trojan Incident was the first Greek tragedy to be produced under the new project. Hallie Flanagan was inspired by a visit to Greece with her husband, Philip H. Davis, a Vassar professor of Greek. It was Davis who wrote the play, which was set in a distinctly modern world: all references to classical figures and place- names, except for Greece and Troy, were removed. For its time, the play was very innovative in making the text relevant to contemporary crises, such as Fascism in Italy and Germany, Franco’s Spain, and the bombing of Guernica. Robert Davis gives an enthralling account of the play and its reception and the fate of the Federal Theatre Project.

Betine Van Zyl Smit’s essay deals with the use of the theatre in the construction and development of national and community identities, in this case, the Afrikaner identity in South Africa. She focuses on translations and productions of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus. She describes the recognition of Afrikaans as an official language in 1925 and how this inspired Afrikaans poets, authors and playwrights not only to create new works, but also to translate into Afrikaans the great works of world literature, such as Greek and Latin classics. She then describes three landmark Afrikaans translations and performances of Oedipus in 1927, 1938 and 1955, including details of the translators as well as relevant historical information. There are also interesting references to two South African actors, the veteran actor André Huguenet and the young Athol Fugard. The links between the development of an Afrikaans theatre and a national identity recall the subject matter of the first essay in this collection: the use of ancient theatres in modern Greece to reaffirm a national identity and heritage.

Essay number seven by Gonda Van Steen is a fascinating account of how opposing political ideologies used the same line of poetry for political propaganda. The line of verse is from Aeschylus’ tragedy Persians (405) “Now the struggle is for all”, which the Persian Messenger says that the Greeks shouted before they faced the Persian forces at the battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. On 28 October 1941 BBC radio broadcast a play by Louis MacNeice entitled “The Glory That Is Greece” which celebrated Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas’ rebuff to the ultimatum for passage, followed by the Fascist Italian invasion of Greece. In the play there is a very clear analogy between the Fascist Italian invaders as the Persians of old against the resurgent Greek army of the day, coupled with civilian resistance representing the fifth-century Greek forces. However, just five years later, there was a completely different interpretation of the same line of verse by the Greek Right when they used a production of this tragedy by the Greek National Theatre to celebrate the same anniversary. Against the background of the Civil War, the production was used to renew patriotic fervour against Communist forces, Greek and non-Greek alike. “The struggle is for all” became the slogan for anticommunist propaganda, a clear case of cynical manipulation of a line of verse.

The final essay by Michael Simpson discusses T. S. Eliot’s play The Elder Statesman(1958) and how the writer draws on Sophocles’ Theban plays, Oedipus The King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. He portrays this particular work of Eliot’s as a reaction to the contemporary theatre represented by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger(1956) and Berthold Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble in Britain also in 1956. The essay is an intricate analysis of Eliot’s play. Not only does he detect inspiration from Sophocles’ Theban plays but he also draws parallels between the main character and the figure of Anthony Eden, recently retired Prime Minister against the background of the Suez Crisis.

In Research Notes, Michele Valerie Ronnick details how William Sanders Scarborough, a former slave and first African-American classicist, provides the only eyewitness account of a screening of a film of The Oresteia at Cambridge University in 1921. Giulia Torello presents a study of Alberto Savinio’s Alcesti di Samuele(1949) and his use of Euripides’ Alcestis to reflect the war against totalitarianism. Claire Warden discusses how Ewan MacColl adapted Aristophanes’Lysistrata as a tragicomedy,Operation Olive Branch (1947), for the highly influential Theatre Workshop. C.W. Marshall highlights two translations of Aristophanes, Frogs (1957) and Birds(1959), into the Scottish language by Douglas Young and their reception.

Lorna Hardwick in the afterword places this collection within modern scholarship. She identifies problems facing researchers in this field. She also comments on the struggle for “ownership” and how ancient drama texts have become “icons of struggle, used both to legitimize and to subvert”.

In conclusion: for devotees of ancient drama, this book is a veritable treasure trove to explore, to learn from and to enjoy. It fully lives up to Comparative Drama’s claim to encourage “studies that are international in spirit and interdisciplinary in scope”. It also confirms the universal and timeless appeal of Greek tragedy.

List of Contents

Greek Drama in the First Six Decades of the Twentieth Century: Tradition, Identity, Migration, Amanda Wrigley, Guest Editor, 371
Toward a National Heterotopia: Ancient Theaters and the Cultural Politics of Performing Ancient Drama in Modern Greece, Eleftheria Ioannidou, 385
Oedipus, Shmedipus: Ancient Greek Drama on the Modern Yiddish Stage, Debra Caplan, 405
“The Kingdom of Heaven within Us”: Inner (World) Peace in Gilbert Murray’s Trojan Women, Simon Perris, 423
Touring the Ivies with Iphigenia, 1915, Niall W. Slater, 441
Is Mr. Euripides a Communist? The Federal Theatre Project’s 1938 Trojan Incident, Robert Davis, 457
Oedipus and Afrikaans Theater, Betine Van Zyl Smit, 477
“Now the struggle is for all” (Aeschylus’s Persians 405): What a Difference a Few Years Make When Interpreting a Classic, Gonda Van Steen, 495
Oedipus, Suez, and Hungary: T. S. Eliot’s Tradition and The Elder Statesman, Michael Simpson, 509
Michele Valerie Ronnick: African-American Classicist William Sanders Scarborough and the 1921 Film of the Oresteia at Cambridge University, 531
Giulia Torello: Alberto Savinio’s Alcesti di Samuele in the Aftermath of the Second World War, 533
Claire Warden: Politics, War, and Adaptation: Ewan MacColl’s Operation Olive Branch, 1947, 536
C. W. Marshall: Aristophanes and Douglas Young, 539
Afterword: Lorna Hardwick, 545

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