BMCR 2022.04.12

Adapting Greek tragedy: contemporary contexts for ancient texts

, , Adapting Greek tragedy: contemporary contexts for ancient texts. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. x, 436. ISBN 9781107155701 £90.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of this review.]

Adapting Greek Tragedy is a terrific volume. Leading experts in ancient Greek and Roman theatre have been gathered to write with authority and nuance on the slippery subject of ‘adaptation’ and Greek tragedy. The predominant focus is on adaptation for live theatre in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (the ‘contemporary contexts’ of the book’s subtitle) but there is some acknowledgement of the longer history of adaptation stretching back to antiquity in several chapters, as well as a broadly chronological overview in a chapter following the introduction (‘Prelude: Adapting Greek Tragedy: A Historical Perspective’). Together, the chapters present a picture that is both cohesive and kaleidoscopic: cohesive in their insistence on an expansive and generous interpretation of ‘adaptation’; kaleidoscopic in showcasing approaches to adapting, translating, receiving, and rebooting ancient Greek dramas from repeated but various angles. We see a few of the same productions and practitioners across the chapters, but the case studies discussed tesselate neatly to give a thoroughly enjoyable examination of what it has meant to adapt Greek tragedy in the last hundred years or so.[1]

A co-written introduction teases and contextualises the chapters that follow. It also gives a sophisticated synopsis of what ‘adaptation’ is and can be. In doing so, this introduction acts as stimulation for a profusion of issues and questions, old and new, about the place(s) of Greek tragedy in the modern world. It makes a valuable contribution to our current understanding of the reception of Greek tragedy in laying out the terrain with such clarity and energy. It also will give any reader a sense of which chapters may be most useful to their specific interests and so I will not rehash the useful summaries written by the editors.

The very best chapters are those where a contributor has been able to apply their broader expertise to contextualising productions with which they have engaged deeply. Lecznar’s chapter provides an excellent example, presenting a theoretically informed ‘View from the Archive’. The Derridean account of the usefulness and challenge of how productions are archived is deft and illuminating. The focus on one theatre building (London’s Royal National Theatre) is balanced by the wildly different circumstances of adaptation for each of the three productions discussed: Sophocles’ Philoctetes, a Senecan Oedipus, and Soyinka’s Euripidean Bacchae. The combination of theory and theatre history, with a close attention to the practical exigencies of getting a play on its feet and into rep, makes for a fascinating contribution. Worthy of special mention, too, is Lorna Hardwick’s analysis, formidable in depth and scope, of the overlapping concepts of adaptation and translation.

Edited volumes on the topic of reception and ancient literature have often offered the perspective of practitioners, usually in the form of an interview with an academic or a shorter piece that is clearly marked as being from a practical perspective. This volume follows suit, containing a significant number of chapters that integrate personal experience within academic analysis. Scholars who have or have had real skin in the theatre game are multiple among the contributors and they make this an explicit feature of their discussions (e.g. Montgomery Griffiths’ account of her own role as author and actor in an Antigone). Even scholars who may not have a predominant focus on theatre-making have been given the space to unleash their own creativity in the discussions. The openness with which contributors manifest this creativity (Liapis’ engagement with Carson’s Antigonick is lyrical at many points) is refreshingly honest. The reader is helpfully confronted by these presentations of personal and academic responses to the theatre of ancient Greece, giving the lie to any sense of ultimately objective methods for distinguishing what ‘counts’ as, or what is valuable in, a given adaptation.

The audience that stands to gain the most from this volume are readers who are familiar with some of the ancient Greek plays but less certain on their history and proliferation beyond antiquity, the medieval, or early modern periods. I found myself assigning various chapters to students almost immediately and planning to add contributions to reading lists and syllabi for both undergraduate and graduate students. Most chapters aim to and are successful in giving a sketch of previous scholarship on points of contention related to their chosen method or medium of adaptation (e.g., Campbell’s discussion of technology, media, and the postmodern in recent theatre history) before moving onto some concrete examples to illustrate the current state of play. More established scholars in the field of reception and Greek tragedy’s afterlives might find less to get their teeth into, but the collection undoubtedly provides a welcome resource for teaching and general orientation in the field.

It is also the kind of volume that invites further query and questioning; a chapter with an overview that is informed, but flawed, can be an excellent place to find a new line of enquiry. Liapis’ ‘Prelude’, mentioned above, gives an efficient outline of some of the landmark adaptations in western Europe but the reliance on Highet’s excellent but now rather dated The Classical Tradition (1949) means there are some imbalances (gender being the most obvious). Fischer-Lichte makes a rather surprising claim that after the 1585 Oedipus the King in Vicenza ‘the first performance of a Greek tragedy to use an unabridged, ‘faithful’ translation was Tieck/Mendelssohn’s Antigone in Potsdam in 1841’ (p.272). This is misleading if, as Fischer-Lichte will go on to do herself, we include performances in places of learning or non-commercial stages; we know that there were many, many productions that occurred across Europe of ‘close’ translations of Greek tragedy in Latin, even pre-dating the Vicenza Oedipus (e.g. George Buchanan’s Medea and Alcestis, featuring none other than Michel Montaigne, in 1540s Bordeaux). These are more quibbles than criticisms, but similar delinquencies can be found in a few of the ‘survey’ sections of the volume. I note them in the same breath as acknowledging the difficulty of writing such surveys and the abiding usefulness of the examples this volume contains.

Clear effort has been made to look and push beyond a stale, restrictive western-European field of vision, with two chapters directly addressing ‘non-Western’ adaptation and many more including adaptations and productions rooted in cultures beyond the European. I couldn’t help thinking that the binding duality of ‘west’ and ‘non-west’, nevertheless, continues its limiting work in this volume, by continually reinscribing ideas of canonicity and ‘appropriation’ into the global picture of Greek tragedy’s presence in the twenty-first century. These are knotty issues, to be sure, and will not have a solution that satisfies every reader. There are, also, a couple of bum notes: a reference to a ‘mulatto Oedipus’ (p.314) without any quotation marks around what is widely regarded as an out-dated and offensive term; ‘a fairly primitive African village’; or ‘a stereotypical African dictator’ (both p.319). These are rather surprising to find in a chapter that opens with so useful and assured an introduction to postcolonial theory. On the whole, the strong commitment to an inclusive attitude towards adaptation itself (and a vociferous rejection, generally, of uncomplicated conceptions of ‘fidelity’) maps intellectually onto the consistent integration of productions that may have traditionally sat outside an accepted canon of ‘significant’ Greek tragic adaptations (including those that would by most standards themselves be seen as radical, e.g., Berkoff’s Greek, Breuer and Telson’s Gospel at Colonus, or Castellucci’s Oresteia). This adds considerably to the complexity and rigour with which the concept of adaptation is discussed throughout the book.

In sum, this is a volume that is broad in its aims and encompasses vast swathes of intellectual enquiry, political event, and theatrical activity. It will be especially useful for teachers of Greek tragic reception, and of interest to wider audiences too. It presents a field that is, still, very vibrant and reveals some of the directions that theatre practitioners might point academics towards. As ever, it will take time to catch up with those practitioners, but Liapis and Sidiropoulou have given us an excellent starting point.

Authors and titles

Introduction. Vayos Liapis and Avra Sidiropoulou
Prelude: Adapting Greek Tragedy: A Historical Perspective. Vayos Liapis

Part I. Adapting Greek Tragedy: Definitions, Conceptual Foundations, Ethics
1. Definitions: Adaptation and Related Modalities. Katja Krebs
2. Forsaking the Fidelity Discourse: The Application of Adaptation. Peter Meineck
3. Translation and/as Adaptation. Lorna Hardwick
4. Adaptation as a Love Affair: The Ethics of Directing the Greeks. Avra Sidiripoulou

Part II. Adaptation on the Page and on the Stage: Re-inscribing the Greek Classics
5. Interlude: Speaking Up: Theatre Practitioners on Adapting the Classics. Avra Sidiripoulou
6. The View from the Archive: Performances of Ancient Tragedy at the National Theatre, 1963-1973. Adam Lecznar
7. Compromise, Contingency, and Gendered Reception: The Case of the Malthouse’s Antigone. Jane Montgomery Griffiths
8. Technology, Media, and Intermediality in Contemporary Adaptations of Greek Tragedy. Peter A. Campbell
9. Violence in Adaptations of Greek Tragedy. Simon Perris
10. Adaptations of Greek Tragedies in Non-Western Performance Cultures. Erika Fischer-Lichte
11. Cultural Identities: Appropriations of Greek Tragedy in Post-Colonial Discourse. Elke Steinmeyer
12. Trapped between Fidelity and Adaptation? On the Reception of Ancient Greek Tragedy in Modern Greece. Anastasia Bakogianni
13. Adaptation and the Transtextual Palimpsest: Anna Carson’s Antigonick as a Textual/Visual Hybrid. Vayos Liapis


[1] Moments of disagreement between chapters do, unsurprisingly, occur. For example, the approach to adaptation in Perris’ chapter is noticeably less plural than generally seen elsewhere in the volume. Fischer-Lichte’s compelling rejection of the inherent ‘universality’ of Greek tragedy, drawing on and adapting Greenwood’s suggestion of ‘omni-locality’ (p.298), is contradicted by more uncomplicated restatements of this alleged universality in other chapters.