BMCR 2011.09.37

Performing Greek Drama in Oxford and on Tour with the Balliol Players

, Performing Greek Drama in Oxford and on Tour with the Balliol Players. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2011. xvi, 320. ISBN 9780859898447. $75.00.

(Chapter titles are listed at the end of this review.)

How rare and wonderful these days: a book whose title exactly describes its contents. Amanda Wrigley’s Performing Greek drama in Oxford and on tour with the Balliol Players offers something more than an accurate title, though; she has produced a carefully researched, often entertaining account of the reception of Greek drama in a single place. Local receptions of Greece and Rome are beginning to attract attention; as Wrigley remarks, “Observing how a community chooses to engage with antiquity sheds light not only on how it views antiquity, but also on how it views itself and how it may wish to be viewed” (p. 6).1 The eminent place of the University of Oxford in the educational and cultural life of Great Britain ensures that a book about classical reception in Oxford will touch on large themes: the place of Greek drama in British culture, the shifting position of Classics in the nation’s life, and even attitudes toward gender and sexuality. Wrigley broaches all these issues, although she leaves plenty in the keg for later scholars to drink. This is above all a work of narrative and documentation, but as Edith Hall has observed, in the present state of reception studies excavation in archives and presentation of evidence remains a fundamental task.2 Wrigley accomplishes it well. Her work is firmly grounded in archival research. This book is one of many fruits of that splendid research tool, Oxford’s Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama (APGRD), but Wrigley has burrowed into other archival treasuries as well and brought forth valuable information.

A foreword from Christopher Stray introduces author and work. The book itself falls into three parts. Two chapters survey academic drama in Oxford from the 1480s until the watershed production of Agamemnon in 1880 and the founding of the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS) in 1884. The tension between Puritan condemnation of all drama and the humanist belief in its educative value set the terms of engagement with ancient drama during this period, and OUDS in its early days was all high seriousness, Shakespeare, and Greek tragedy in Greek, partly to quell anxieties about young men in drag (there had been a scandal around an Oxford troupe performing in London) and partly because Jowett’s Oxford was genuinely and highly serious.

Three further chapters treat performances in Greek by OUDS in the period 1887-1914, including the 1892 Frogs with music by Hubert Parry, Gilbert Murray and his influence, and productions at the Oxford Playhouse and on radio. These chapters, and the last in particular, struck me as a somewhat miscellaneous gathering. One account of a production and its reception follows another. None is without interest, but I wondered whether “Oxford” was a sufficient theme to unify Robert Bridges’ 1904 masque Demeter in the quad at Somerville, Sybil Thorndike emoting as Medea at Christ Church (with Dudley Moore and Emlyn Williams in supporting roles), and Minos Volonakis’ Bacchae of 1959, in which Sean Connery played Pentheus.

The book breaks new ground, however, in its last three chapters. These tell the story of the Balliol Players. This group of undergraduates, established in the 1920s, owed something to Gilbert Murray, Penelope Wheeler, and John Masefield’s Boars Hill Players (Masefield’s son Lewis was an early Balliol Player). In the beginning the Balliol Players shared the Boars Hill group’s earnest idealism and belief in the power of classical drama to appeal to and elevate popular taste. This missionary impulse was widespread in the years after the First World War, and in the 1920s it must have been hard to move about England’s green and pleasant land in summer without bumping into classical theater groups with Oxford links, like the Holywell Players, the Isis Players, and others, performing the Oresteia or Oedipus for an audience of bemused rustics and local dignitaries. Wrigley suggests that this phenomenon “can be understood in terms of drawing on the arts as a palliative for the horrors of war, or as an attempt to impose some control on the new social mobility which the First World War had occasioned” (p. 102). Kenneth Johnstone, one of the early Balliol Players, put it this way as he looked back on the group’s first decade: “If one of the ends of a humanistic university is to interpret the classics to the outside world, and if some of the noblest classical works happen to be stage plays, then, notwithstanding differences of language or theatrical technique, the representation of those plays should be one of the means by which they are kept alive. No one, I think, however little Greek he may have, can see one of these plays even passably well done and not feel that he has been shown a new and unique kind of beauty, which very few are capable of creating for themselves from the printed page” (quoted p. 136).

Others were less sure about the missionary motive. Another early Balliol Player, Tommy Usborne, speculated thus: “To most of us, I think, the raison d’être of the Balliol Players was no high-souled missionary urge for carrying the pure milk of Classical Drama into the benighted provinces or inculcating ‘uplift’ into the rude forefathers of the western hamlets. Any such laudable notion as this disappeared, and in us the dominant and, I believe, only motive for undertaking the tour was the apolaustic desire to take advantage of a first-class excuse for legitimate vagabondage” (quoted p. 145). The Balliol Players of the 1930s brought Aristophanes into their repertoire, usually Frogs, Birds, or Clouds, although Acharnians made an appearance as war loomed. Comedies alternated with tragedies, and one of these, Ajax from the 1934 tour, is the subject of a half-hour silent film, which Wrigley discovered in the Balliol archives. It is, she claims, “the earliest known moving-image record of a production of Sophocles’ Ajax ” (p. 159), although there are certainly earlier films of Greek tragedy, beginning at least as early as André Calmette’s Oedipe Roi of 1908.3 The Balliol film records not only the production, but also rehearsals and escapades of the Players on tour. It is entertaining to read about these, but I wished for more analysis. An amateur production can reveal contemporary assumptions about what Greek drama is in ways that professional presentations push into the background. Amateur productions, especially under the improvisatory conditions of the Balliol Players’ tour, throw manners and mores into high relief. Wrigley alludes to “an overt but apparently unconscious consideration of the beauty of the male form at rest and at play” (p. 160) in shots of Players swimming or relaxing by rivers and pools, but she does not develop this insight. Her chosen work, however, is description, and in this she excels. Her account made me want to see the 1934 film and to hope that it can be made available to researchers, perhaps on the APGRD web site.

In the years following the Second World War the apolaustic triumphed over the missionary impulse, and the Balliol Players turned to Aristophanes, and inward to the public school world from which most of their members came. Wrigley’s final chapter makes fascinating reading not only as a case study in the reception of Greek drama, but also as a window onto the interaction of class, privilege, and education in postwar Britain. As the Balliol Players’ productions became increasingly campy, contemporary, and satirical, the old conflict resumed between Puritan suspicion of drama and Hellenic enlightenment (if that is the right word for productions that included characters with names like Ffiona Ffitzgropesworthy and all the high-toned wit of an Austin Powers movie). The Players were banned from several public schools and became an item on the agenda of the Headmasters’ Conference; at the same time, they were more than once invited to perform at Chequers. It may have helped that one of that house’s tenants, Prime Minister Edward Heath, was a former Player. His name allows Wrigley to end her volume with a truly Aristophanic play on words.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Oxford’s Greek play ‘tradition’
1. The academic drama in the humanist curriculum and culture of Oxford
1.1 William Gager’s defence of acting
1.2 Catalogue of plays in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
2. ‘The Young Men in Women’s Clothes’
2.1 Oxford’s classical burlesques
2.2 The great London scandal and the ban on undergraduate drama
2.3 The ‘serious and artistic’ 1880 Agamemnon
3. Languages of translation: productions in ancient Greek by OUDS, 1887-1914
3.1 Alcestis in 1887: melodrama in the New Theatre!
3.2 Aristophanes revitalized: music and ‘stage business’ in the 1892 Frogs
3.3 Hubert Parry’s music in OUDS’ Aristophanic tradition to 1914
4. Women, war and Gilbert Murray
4.1 Robert Bridges’ 1904 masque Demeter and Oxford’s Persephones
4.2 Penelope Wheeler, Greek plays at the Front and the Boars Hill Players
4.3 The ‘missionary’ urge; or, public engagement with Greek drama
5. The Oxford Playhouse, inter-war OUDS and connections with BBC Radio
5.1 J.B. Fagan’s Playhouse on Woodstock Road
5.2 Translations after Murray, ‘apposite and fresh, living for our modern minds’
5.3 The Meadow Players and Minos Volonakis
6. The Balliol Players’ social idealism and their performances for Thomas Hardy, 1923-1927
7. ‘A first-class excuse for legitimate vagabondage’: the Balliol Players, 1928-1939
7.1 The end of one era, and the beginning of another
7.2 The silent film of the 1934 Ajax
7.3 Towards the Second World War
8. The Aristophanic Balliol Players, 1947-1976
8.1 The forties and the fifties
8.2 The satirical sixties, and beyond
Appendix: Production Chronology


1. See for example the Classicizing Chicago project at Northwestern University, and the incipient Classicizing Philadelphia.

2. Edith Hall and Amanda Wrigley, eds, Aristophanes in Perfomance 421 BC-AD 2007: Peace, Birds, and Frogs (Leeds, 2007), p. 66.

3. Martin M. Winkler, “Oedipus in the Cinema,” Arethusa 41.1 (Winter, 2008), pp. 67-94.