BMCR 2008.03.34

How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today

, How to stage Greek tragedy today. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 248 pages : illustrations ; 21 cm. ISBN 9780226301273 $18.00 (pb).

It isn’t often that we see the idiom “How to” prefacing the title of an academic study. In that sense, Simon Goldhill’s no-nonsense How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today, is singular, but in more important ways such as organization and utility, Goldhill’s book is equally impressive.

In his introduction Goldhill identifies six production values that confront “any company that chooses to produce a Greek tragedy” (3). These issues are the organizing principle and chapter headings of the book.

Chapter One, “Space and Concept,” is a discussion of “spatial organization” in the staging of Greek drama, and addresses the “logic” that Goldhill asserts is “fully built into the writing of Greek plays” (7). He uses a drawing of the Theater of Dionysus in Athens to identify various conventions and “principles” of the early drama, and to show how they “provide a set of essential coordinates” for modern directors and designers (9, 10). These essentials incorporate four elemental concepts of design allocation: helical dance patterns for the chorus, entrance and exit ramps, the central stage doors (a metaphor for the inner and outer world), and the “vertical axis” created by the intersection of stage and stage building (10). Chapter One is, in essence, a pre-production design lesson with a single prospectus: “First, Find Your Space…” (7).

Chapter Two, “The Chorus,” examines various problems and solutions of directing the chorus in ancient and modern contexts. Goldhill pinpoints “the role” and “voice” of the chorus as “the biggest challenge and the biggest stumbling block for the modern director” (60). Goldhill’s assertions on the centrality of the chorus are forthright and unswerving — “the very heart of Greek tragedy” — (79), and his advice to directors is cautionary: “if the chorus is not thought through, the production will stumble” (69). Cumulatively, chapters one and two resolve questions of “mass” and “area” in pre-production strategies, and are the province of directors, designers and theater technicians.

Chapter Three, “The Actor’s Role,” identifies “basic problems of acting Greek tragedy” (81), and offers advice to the actor through subtraction; that is to say, things the performer cannot look to for comfort (no “small talk,” no “business,” no “props”) (86) in mastering a classical role. Goldhill also offers demonstrable programs in textual analysis (the messenger speech, the formal speech) character building, oral interpretation (“Speaking the Language of Tragedy” is a subchapter, 94), and even lifestyle. And although he insists the chapter is not an acting manual, it occasionally sounds like one. His discussion of archetypes and prototypes is quintessential “Royal Academy”:1 “Just as when an actor plays Winston Churchill or John F. Kennedy, certain attributes of power need to be slowly developed, so Agamemnon has an inevitable strut to his stride from his back story” (116).

Goldhill’s descriptions of “the stylized world” of The Importance of Being Earnest and the hallowed atmosphere of Hecuba) (83) are moving, but his discussion on active and pregnant silence in Greek texts is particularly crucial: “Silence is a marked mode”; “[silence] is an aggressive gesture”; and, finally “Most modern actors (and audiences) are accustomed to the comfort of silence; in Greek tragedy, silence is a frightening, dumbstruck refusal to speak” (93-94). This is direct, mindful, workshop pedagogy — astute coaching on active listening (listening for content and meaning), and verbal punctuation (silence and pausing) that instructor and performer can feed on.2

My final comments on this chapter pertain to Goldhill’s application of the infamous red-carpet scene of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon as a pedagogical and rhetorical sledgehammer. The explication of dramatic and production values as found in this scene are (again) as basic as they need to be, but (purposefully) forbidding: “In the so-called Carpet Scene of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Clytemnestra spreads the blood-red tapestries on the floor before the door of the palace and asks Agamemnon to tread across them into the house. It is, of course, a highly symbolic gesture — to march as if in blood to the house; to trample on fine things; to destroy the house’s wealth; to be shown to act in such a way before the people” (111). This is unabashed Cambridge orthodoxy— British classical technique versus the “American Stanislavsky” — “acting stripped bare” (85) minus the psychology of “method,” “motivation,” and “sense memory.” He writes, “Here is a good example of how the ancient idea of ‘character’ lets us see the heart of the action, where a modern idea of psychological motivation conceals what really matters” (111).

This exhilarating chapter is the midway point of Goldhill’s highly idiosyncratic “Greek” study, and the gateway to chapters on politics, translations, and the anthropology of performance in modern productions.

“Tragedy and Politics: What’s Hecuba to Him?” is an assessment of the political “attractiveness” of Greek tragedy for producers, directors, and audience and contains a discussion of theater-as-agitation as well as tangential conversation on war, democracy, NATO, the Balkan Mafioso, Bill Clinton, Rambo, Mary Robinson (“the Irish Prime Minister” (sic)) 3 and right-wing atrocities (as fodder for left-leaning directors). Goldhill also examines the dangers of (and alternatives to) agenda-setting, political over-simplification, flag-waving and “the mishmash” of contemporary reference (133) found in contemporary productions of Greek tragedy.

This discussion of political sensitivities imbedded in Greek tragedy segues into “Translations: Finding a Script,” where Goldhill presents strategies for finding the right translation for the right production: “The translation really matters, and is worth some care and attention to get the best one for your production” (184). He is particularly fond of Tony Harrison: “Harrison’s verse has an insistent rhythm, reinforced by his aggressive alliteration. His jagged portmanteau terms create a mountainous language out of simple words. The syntax can be tautly direct…” (159).

The final chapter, “Gods, Ghosts and Helen of Troy” covers topics such as “Ghosts, Monsters and the Face that Launched a Thousand Ships” and “Getting the Gods Onstage.” Goldhill dismisses such crass and indulgent filmic metaphors as Marilyn Monroe’s lipstick (a dumbed-down Helen of Troy) and Andy Warhol’s Converse sneakers (a craven Hermes) and reconfirms storied conventions such as masks (a legitimate form of non-traditional casting); monsters and furies (as rehabilitated in science fiction and horror movies); and the sanctity of ghosts, heroes and “God talk” (the lingua franca of ancient tragedy) (189ff). His final essay is devoted to Euripides’ Bacchae, and his assessment of this enigmatic play and character is estimable: “It is fitting that this book should end with The Bacchae, a play which embodies the richness of ancient theatrical resources as well as the power of ancient writing” (222).

Throughout the book, Goldhill carefully infuses the lexicon of early dramatic art into his discussions: aulos, ekkuklema, deus ex machina, skene, stichomythia, the “sword” of Ajax, Philoctetes’ “bow” are identified and contextualized for the student, as are dates, titles, scholiasts, and various neo-classical revivals and movements. Aristotle, Racine, Hofmannstahl, German Romanticism, the Beyreuth Festival, Anouilh’s Antigone (as Nazi subterfuge), Knox, Fagles, Marianne McDonald, Oliver Taplin, Ted Hughes, Timberlake Wertenbaker and others are cited relative to their contributions to classical renewal, and always in the context of production. Perhaps academic theater is given short shrift (one generous discussion of the triennial Cambridge Greek Play), but as Goldhill explains, his case-studies are calibrated on (and almost limited to) his viewing experience: “But almost every production discussed in this book I have seen myself in the theater, and a few others I have seen on video” (4).

This is justifiable, but Eugene O’Neill enthusiasts might argue that a full picture of the tragic milieu should include, at least, honorable mention of the author of Mourning Becomes Electra (a neo-classical movement by itself), and Memoranda on Masks (a declamatory essay on ancient dramatic ideals), considering that Electra, as both play and archetypal character, are the epicenter of Goldhill’s six-point syllabus.

Goldhill is direct: “The third solution [a design approach for Euripides’ Bacchae ] is the most mealymouthed” (41). And on another occasion he opines: “Mendelssohn’s music for Antigone would sound extraordinary now to a modern theater audience” (69). He culls theater experiments and interviews that offer painful and clever object-lessons on acting, tradition, and vocation. His examples are extensive and range from compulsive touching in naturalistic play-texts, to the absence of tactile communication in classical Greek texts. His interviewees also exclaim symptoms of sensory and physical deprivation in classical performance. Here are a few revealing instances: Zoe Wanamaker’s Electra : “This part is a killer”(116); and Fiona Shaw’s Electra : “I was physically wrecked from it — lame, thin, ill” (116). Such highly charged and corporeal descriptors of a rigorous, even debilitating, theater process provide lasting education for tepid performers, as well as valuable case-study for conservatory trainers. In his opening chapter, Goldhill identifies recent productions which he considers to be the seminal happenings of Greek tragedy in our time; and he consistently returns to these productions: Ariane Mnouchkine, Annie Castledine, Katie Mitchell, Lee Breuer, Deborah Warner, Jane Montgomery, Peter Stein, and the Redgraves. These redoubtable artists resonate with Goldhill because they reorder space and physical boundaries in their productions, a process that Goldhill believes to be central in reconciling the Greeks: “the aim of a modern production should be to create a theatrical space that can recognize and work with the way that Greek tragedy has been written — a space that minimizes the dire effects of trying to force a round play into a square box” (11).

In the latter chapters Goldhill continues to educate through example and returns to signal translations and adaptations of classical drama to bolster his ideas. His case-studies include Wole Soyinka’s The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite; Ariane Mnouchkine’s Les Atrides; Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Antigone; Athol Fugard’s The Island; Lee Breuer’s The Gospel at Colonus; Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy; and even a South African version of Antigone with Nelson Mandela as “Creon”. Goldhill tags these incontrovertible classical reinventions as benchmarks in the reclamation and recovery of a tragic ethos: ” The Island is not an adaptation of Antigone, but a play about putting on Antigone in prison. Yet it reveals vividly a central dynamic of Sophocles’ play, and why modern performances of ancient tragedy have something special to contribute to the political imagination” (136). Goldhill closes Chapter Five with an admonition to eager directors and dramaturges: “But much as the acting style of a generation ago can look hilariously mannered, pretentious, or merely slightly outmoded, so to translations are completely of their time” (187).

A particular strength of this spare and powerful publication is its brevity. There are notes and suggestions for further reading. In addition to plans and general illustrations, stage tableaux of Athol Fugard’s The Island, Mnouchkine’s Les Atrides, and the Peter Hall/Tony Harrison, Oresteia, provide accompaniment to Goldhill’s guided discussions, as well as excellent examples of formal composition and pantomimic dramatization.


1. The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the prestigious London acting school.

2. For more on “active silence” and “pausing” see Speaking Clearly, 6th edition Jeffrey C. Hahner and others, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

3. Mary Robinson was (at the time of Goldhill’s citation) the President of the Republic of Ireland, a more ceremonial role than Prime Minister.