Ancient Drama in Performance

by Pat Easterling
Emerita Regius Professor of Greek
Cambridge University, UK

I want to start at the modern end, with two very recent books which in their different ways deal with modern performance of ancient drama. These are Rush Rehm's Radical Theatre (London 2003) and Dionysus since '69, edited by Edith Hall, Fiona Macintosh and Amanda Wrigley (Oxford 2004). Between them they illustrate very tellingly the vast scope and extraordinary rate of growth of this area of research. Thirty-eight pages in Dionysus since '69 are devoted to the details of productions from 1969 onwards (and these are by no means all the productions that have taken place, of course, just the ones discussed in the volume), demonstrating how much has been happening, and how fast the raw material waiting to be studied is accumulating. The remarkable thing about this phenomenon is not the modern staging of ancient drama, especially Greek tragedy, as such, but the fact that it is happening globally and with serious box-office prospects. The challenge for everyone with an interest in ancient drama is to get used to the notion that an art form which until recently has been the preserve, more or less, of elites is becoming a popular medium, with all the implications of such a transformation, and to try to work out a methodology for approaching it.

Both these books help in important ways. From Edith Hall's Introduction to Dionysus since '69, which situates the Greek drama explosion of the past 35 years in a context of profound social change, it becomes clear that the fascinating question 'Why?' is one that can only be answered provisionally. But Hall's analysis of the interesting ways in which the essays in this collection relate to one another shows how many factors we have to take into account. These include: the impact of the feminist movement and changing attitudes to sexuality and the family; the ever more complex and threatening political problems of the post-colonial world; the 'performative turn' in theatre, the rediscovery of ritual and non-Western performance traditions, the interconnections of theatre, film and television; and finally the whole range of critical trends associated with postmodernism, which have given 'Greek inherent appeal to our psychological and intellectual subjectivity.' (p.42) There is a huge field to be explored, and the challenge is to find a systematic way of discussing and evaluating the findings of explorers.

Rush Rehm suggests one direction in which the discussion can be taken. His main question, in effect, is 'What are the problems of modern society that Greek tragedy can help us to face?', and believing as he does that live theatre can and should have a serious political and social role, he explores the possibility (even more difficult) of 'engaging the original form of ancient tragedy ... rather than altering the material to fit contemporary tastes.' (p.17) What Rehm means by 'original form' is 'the structuring principles through which each play delivers its "deep content" ', and what he is resisting is the slick, sentimental or reductive treatment of the plays in productions and adaptations designed to 'go down easy' and evade or trivialise the issues that were central to the originals. He has some equally robust criticism of the more imperialistic claims of performance theory and what he sees as its refusal to engage with lived experience. This is how he puts his sense of the way tragedy functions: 'Requiring moment-to-moment realization in a mimesis not co-extensive with reality, Greek tragedy reminds us that humans live real lives (the only ones we have) and die real deaths, however hard we try to deny it.' (p.20)

The issues raised by these books certainly need to be addressed and will provoke plenty of discussion, but in this short note I want to look at the idea of the discipline more generally, asking what it means nowadays to do research on the performance of ancient drama.

Starting from Now
The study of modern performance has been growing very fast, trying to keep up with, and make sense of, what has been happening in the theatre. It has been stimulated by the fact that reception history had already been establishing itself as a discipline, with work in Germany, Greece and Italy helping to pave the way.

In the UK the last decade has been crucial for building up resources and laying the foundations for future research on the performance and reception of particular plays. The Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama at Oxford, and the Open University's research project on the Reception of Greek Texts and Images in Late Twentieth century Drama and Poetry in English, have both been influential (many of the essays in Dionysus since '69, for example, began life as lectures sponsored by the Archive). A new Centre for Ancient Drama and its Reception has been established at Nottingham; there was a session on 12 March in the colloquium 'Studying the Ancient Greek Theatre', co-organised by the Hellenic Society and the Institute of Classical Studies, at which each of these projects was presented and discussed.

Electronic communication has made all this data-gathering easier and at the same time more ambitious: archive material has to be incorporated in searchable databases, and on-line seminars like the one run by the OU, or journals like Didaskalia, are designed to keep researchers in touch with events, developments and issues as they come up around the world. The extraordinary expansion of interest in Greek drama throughout and far beyond its traditional European and European-influenced centres makes an active international network all the more crucial. One example is the European Network of Research and Documentation of Ancient Greek Drama performances, set up by Platon Mavromoustakos and Oliver Taplin in 1995. Others will surely follow, and a great deal of work has already been done on the gathering of American archive material.

Working out a methodology
There have been interesting conferences in this country and abroad, good contexts for scholars and theatre practitioners to compare working methods and critical assumptions, but we shouldn't be surprised if it takes time to build up a sense of a fairly coherent hermeneutic tradition. My own impression, from attending e.g. 'Theatre Ancient and Modern' at Milton Keynes in 2000, the Tantalus day at King's College London, 'Agamemnon' at Oxford in 2001, and 'Greek Drama III' at Sydney in 2002, is that such events can be genuinely liberating for traditionally trained scholars. But each time I have also had the feeling that there is still much to be done before we can systematically debate fundamental issues like the status of the 'original' text in modern performance, or refine our definition of the guiding principles of reception studies.

From my own point of view, as a student of Greek tragedy and the history of texts, these new experiences have stimulated what I hope is a more joined-up way of thinking about the reception process than the one I used to have. If we think of the process starting as soon as a play was first put on in antiquity and continuing until now, everything that seems to be related to it (admittedly not always easy to identify) is then potentially relevant to our understanding of the play's capacity to have meaning for different audiences and cultures. Some productions, like some critical interpretations or some translations, will be trivialising or perverse, and will turn out over time to make very little difference; but nothing is ruled out in principle, and all can be seen as 'readings' of sorts. The more conscious we are of the way canons get formed (and continually re-formed) the more use we can make of the 'serviceability' test: does a particular work, or way of approaching it, have the power to go on being useful in some way or other to new readers/audiences? And if it does, what makes it so serviceable? (If it doesn't, it will get filtered out soon enough.) This is why I find it exciting that the study of reception in antiquity is becoming less isolated, and the idea of a continuous process becoming more familiar and acceptable. Even in Byzantine times, after all, when the theatre had been abolished, some Greek tragedies were regularly studied in schools, and texts were regularly re-copied, giving them more chance of surviving to be revived on stage when the time came.

Starting from Antiquity
The linking of ancient and modern reception has important implications, too, for another aspect of the discipline: the study of all aspects of the culture of antiquity that might throw light on performance, particularly material culture, from theatre design to vase-paintings, mosaics, frescos and even graffiti. Research in this field has a long history — Pickard-Cambridge and Webster are still influential presences in the literature, and their work has shaped much of what has followed — but it has certainly benefited from the impact of the 'performative turn' and from the development of electronic resources. The publications of the Ancient Theatre Project at the Institute of Classical Studies, and Richard Beacham's work at Warwick on Virtual Reality reconstructions of ancient theatre structures, are two important examples; Richard Green's bibliographical survey articles on Theatre Production—Lustrum 31 (1989), 37 (1998) with a new one coming out soon—demonstrate how fast the subject has been moving.

The last decade has been remarkably productive: Green's Theatre in Ancient Greek Society (London 1994), Eric Csapo and William J. Slater The Context of Ancient Drama (Ann Arbor 1995) and Jean-Charles Moretti Théâtre et société dans la Grèce antique (Paris 2001) have helped us to think about performance in the larger context of society and culture, and the more society-focused interest is seen, too, in the work of Charlotte Roueché on Aphrodisias, Brigitte le Guen on the Dionusou technitai, Peter Wilson on choregia and many others. When Edith Hall and I were editing Greek and Roman Actors (Cambridge 2002), it was very clear to us that developments both in the study of antiquity and in more recent reception history had made classical scholars better disposed to the idea that 'late' did not necessarily mean 'decadent', and that performance traditions like pantomime (which have no textual tradition) might even have something to tell us about tragedy.

The subject has gained strength, too, from the work of scholars who write on ancient theatre from the vantage point of their professional involvement in contemporary drama studies and who themselves direct plays: here I am thinking of recent books by David Wiles (Tragedy in Athens and Greek Theatre Performance, Cambridge 1997 and 2000), and Rush Rehm (The Play of Space, Princeton 2002).

Forging the links
Of course not everyone will be interested in starting in the fifth century BC and working forward through the centuries, and most directors and audiences are more likely to want to make a direct leap between now and that distant past. Erika Fischer-Lichte (Dionysus Since '69, p.351) quotes Peter Stein's bold claim: 'Through the text that is handed down and in a rather adventurous way, [the actor] is able to make contact directly with something which happened 2,500 years ago.' At the same time, as Fischer-Lichte goes on to point out, Stein's production of Oresteia was designed to suggest that 'whatever we think we know about the past is a kind of re-invention — a construction, a fantasy.'

This is where the translator has a specially delicate and responsible role, and one of the best outcomes of the Greek drama explosion has been the great upsurge in new translations, some of them directly associated with productions or based on workshops and experiment. The Everyman translations of Sophocles (1999, 2000) were worked out on the basis of productions directed by the translators, Michael Ewans, Graham Ley and Gregory McCart, and their notes include detailed discussion of how they realised the texts in performance. The series edited for Methuen by Michael Walton, and Peter Meineck's translations for Hackett, are informed by the same professional awareness of how theatre works - see David Wiles (2000, pp.196-208, 236) for a discussion of some of the issues.

Translators who are also creative writers—Tony Harrison, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Seamus Heaney—have the power to give the modern performance of ancient plays a special appeal for contemporary audiences, contributing to the perception that this medium is no longer one that belongs to the narrow world of the academy. As academics we ought to be delighted by what seems to be a move into the mainstream, even though it makes our job a great deal harder: the boundaries we try to draw round our subject are constantly being challenged and extended, and this can only be good for us in the long run.

Pat Easterling