BMCR 2013.10.12

Re-imagining Greek Tragedy on the American Stage. Sather Classical Lectures, 70

, Re-imagining Greek Tragedy on the American Stage. Sather Classical Lectures, 70. Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2012. xv, 375. ISBN 9780520272446. $95.00.


This book, the published version of Helene Foley’s 2008 Sather Classical Lectures at the University of California, Berkeley, is an extraordinary achievement. It confirms the author’s position as the leading U.S. expert on ancient Greek drama in performance and provides an essential resource to scholars and students working in this area. Foley began her career with fine scholarship on Greek dramatic texts ( Ritual Irony [1985], Female Acts in Greek Tragedy [2001], many articles, book chapters, and reviews) and gradually added performance studies to her repertoire. She is also fortunate to have resided since 1979 in New York City, the drama capital of the U.S., home to many theater companies and their archives as well as special library drama collections.

This project’s ambition and scope are huge: to examine “the full range of performances of Greek tragedy from translations of the original plays to adaptations and new versions” (xii) from the beginnings to the present. The book aims to “define and isolate central developments” in American productions of tragedy, arguing that “America particularly favors Greek tragedies that permit an exploration of the struggle to establish a self in a world that can appear to encourage and allow self-determination but can finally betray that effort in different ways” (3). But Foley deftly avoids potential unwieldiness, promising “a more extensive version of Greek tragedy’s story on the American stage than before” which will nevertheless be “only a beginning” (xiv). She focuses on two periods: 1910 to the Depression, and the 1970s to the present. Many of the productions discussed took place in the northeast United States, but other areas are also represented. Pages 12-26 of the Introduction give a preview of coming attractions by discussing productions of Electra (primarily Sophocles’ version) as an example of the approach she uses in the book as a whole, demonstrating how various productions respond to particular cultural issues by remaking the Greek originals for a modern audience. The juxtaposition of O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) with very different productions from 1974, 1976, 1987, 2004, 2005, and 2010 succeeds brilliantly, not only in evoking important elements of the productions but also the issues basic to the original script and the meaning of those issues in the American context where Electra is “an initially innocent female victim of a dysfunctional family in a violent and corrupt political and social world. The focus on Electra’s difficulty in establishing and recognizing a self in these new versions remotivates her cultural inability to act in the Greek originals . . . and gives point to her suffering in an American environment that eternally hopes that recognition will perform cures” (26).

The following chapters amply fulfill the promise of the Preface and Introduction. “Greek Tragedy Finds an American Audience” discusses early productions (including academic ones, which Foley otherwise avoids), outdoor performances, and significant figures such as Katherine Tingley, George Cram Cook, and especially Margaret Anglin.The second chapter focuses on choreography and music—elements all too rarely included in contemporary productions—including Greek influences on the development of American modern dance from Isadora Duncan to Martha Graham, and productions by Serban, Partch, Will Power, and Robert Wilson, as well as the better-known Gospel at Colonus. The third chapter discusses dramatic explorations of specific public and political issues. Here again the historical and geographical sweep is broad: an 1890 Antigone in Boston, comparing its domesticated and feminine heroine to later feminist productions; an extended discussion of the Living Theatre’s “promotion of anarchism, pacifism and sexual and emotional liberation” during its career (132-138); versions and productions of Aeschylus’ Persians and Sophocles’ Ajax influenced by the Gulf wars; and productions of Prometheus Bound, including one in a closed steel plant which sought to recreate the reconciliation which presumably ended the original trilogy. The conclusion discusses different ways of doing politically oriented American productions, including avoiding or embracing anachronism and maintaining or violating genre boundaries, suggesting that recent productions “have conveyed a greater sense of pessimism and irony about public life and its corruption that is in some respect foreign to the American myths of progress” (159). The last two chapters focus on different approaches to individual plays. Oedipus Tyrannus has been staged ritualistically; with focus on the plague and its meaning, or issues of abandonment, or questioning the idea of fate; as part of a trilogy (not always Theban); and more. Foley concludes that U.S. productions often focus more on the hero and his family than on his political role. American productions of Medea have involved slavery, social criticism, various ethnicities, immigration, and sexuality. Each of the chapters is complete in itself, so the Epilogue does not try to wrap things up but instead introduces new material, including productions of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, Iphigenia in Tauris, and Hecuba. The variety of production styles and the adaptations chosen (playwrights include Alfaro, Auletta, Berkoff, Chaikin, Dove, LaBute, McLaughlin, Mee, Moraga, and others) is remarkable.

The book is accessible to non-specialists and a pleasure to read: the ancient scripts are thoroughly described, the choice of comparanda keeps the discussion engaging, the arguments are fully documented and thoroughly cross-referenced, the scholarship impeccable and the bibliography ample, the writing both sprightly and lucid. This book would be superb even if that were all, but it concludes with seven appendices listing ‘Professional Productions and New Versions’ of the plays discussed, listed in chronological order, with thorough details about translations/versions, authors, companies, directors, actors, and reviews. The book is worth acquiring for these 169 pages alone. A personal testimony: I have just completed a book chapter on Greek Drama on the U.S. West Coast 1970-2013, and Foley’s methodology, discussions of individual productions, appendices, and bibliography have provided invaluable help.

Foley does not offer her own critical reactions to the productions she discusses (xii); that is a sensible position, since obviously she has not personally seen all of them. One can assume that she has chosen not to discuss productions that she considers less successful, and she includes both positive and negative judgments of reviewers. I wish that she had discussed academic productions, for various reasons (including the greater availability of videos of those productions), and that she had included a broader range of ancient plays. The twenty-six illustrations provided are excellent, though I wish there could have been more, and especially that a website with video clips of some productions could have been provided. But any lacunae provide opportunities to those who will surely follow the lead of a scholar who rightly claims the role of “pioneer” and who has fully succeeded in her goal “to leave behind a set of questions and projects for future exploration” (xiv). Everyone who cares about staging Greek drama in the United States owes a huge debt to Helene Foley for this indispensable work.