Olga Tribulato as Tiresias and Marta Zlatic as Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus the King, 2004

With the curtains just closed on the 40th Cambridge Greek Play since the 1880s, Greek classicist Simon Goldhill reflects on how this creative genre still speaks to a modern audience.

His detailed analyses of so many past productions are rare and exciting. His unfolding of the Greek texts and the many different translations is both instructive and exhilarating.

Vanessa Redgrave CBE,actress

Every three years since 1882, University of Cambridge students have brought ancient Greek tragedies to life again through their performances in the Cambridge Greek Play, a showcase of theatrical and academic expertise that is spoken entirely in the original language.

The first play – Sophocles’ Ajax – was, as the publicity of 1882 boasted, the first full performance of a Greek tragedy in ancient Greek in the modern world, and the show roused extraordinary interest. It was reviewed in all the national newspapers, and special trains had to be put on from London to bring the fashionistas up to Cambridge to see the event of the season. England was still in the grip of an intense ‘philhellenic’ love of all things Greek; classics took up 80% of the curriculum at the best schools and universities; the neo-classical paintings of Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Frederic Leighton drew crowds of thousands; Greek love was the ‘dirty secret’ of the fin-de-siècle decadents. For Victorian England, the Cambridge Greek Play represented a rare chance to see an art form that featured vividly in the cultural imagination.

Archaeological accuracy really mattered to the Victorian audience – the play had to embody the best scholarship, the most recent research. In 1882, this was ensured by the involvement of the world-famous Greek scholar Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb, Regius Professor of Greek. This connection with research continues today, with a thriving academic interest that both feeds into and benefits from the performances. What can the surviving plays tell us of ancient Athenian society? How can we know how to pronounce a long-dead language? How can the ancient world inform our understanding of the modern world? What is at stake when Greek tragedy is staged in the theatre today, and how are its most difficult problems to be faced? It is this final question that has been of particular interest to me – how audiences might see ancient Greek theatre accurately realised on stage again, 2500 years after it was born in Athens.

Resurging interest

That first astounding show in 1882 heralded one of the most surprising developments in modern western theatre. Since the turn of the 20th century, ancient Greek plays have become part of the repertoire of all modern theatres and, since the 1970s, there has been the most remarkable explosion of performances of Greek tragedy across the world – not just in Europe and the USA, but also in Japan and Africa and Russia. In London, Paris and New York, almost no year goes by without a revival of one of these classics. In 2001 alone, there were 17 productions of Aeschylus’ great trilogy the Oresteia in the USA, which is more than there were in the whole world in the first 65 years of the 19th century. In London, three separate productions of Sophocles’ Electra were staged over a few months. When theatre director Peter Sellars wanted to stage his anguish at the Gulf War in the early 1990s, he turned to Aeschylus’ Persians – in California, Edinburgh and Austria. There is no sign of this growth slowing, on campus or in the professional theatre. Greek tragedy seems once again to speak urgently and authoritatively to a modern audience.

A voice in modern times

Why does Greek tragedy speak to us today? As with the 5th century BC, our age is an era of great confidence in the progress of science and knowledge: Greek tragedy ruthlessly exposes the pretensions in human claims to control and certainty. As with the 5th century BC, our age is obsessed with the tension between the brutal realities of war and the rhetoric of politicians: Greek tragedy anatomises this tension with painful insight. Moreover, Greek tragedy is obsessed with conflict between the genders, between public and private duty, between self-control and a sense of helplessness in the face of the world’s violence: all this too finds a powerful echo with modern audiences.

Staging Greek tragedies

It is far from clear how these great masterpieces of theatre should be translated from the page into the theatre. When the genre first flourished between 500 and 300 BC, the convention was for actors to wear specially crafted masks. All the actors were male, with a limit on how many could appear on stage at one time, and the chorus had to be composed of Athenian citizens.

How can the old conventions of the chorus work without looking like a Hollywood musical? Can masks evoke anything but bad clowns for today’s theatre? Is Greek tragedy destined to be crushed by its own formality, and end up as no more than men in black yelling portentous clichés at each other?

The book How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today stems first from my research into ancient theatre and the history of theatre performance: I have been engaged for many years with exploring the political and social impact of theatre in ancient Athens, as well as with how these old plays became so important in the cultural life of Europe, especially around the turn of the

20th century. But my concerns in this book also come from a more direct set of experiences. I have been deeply moved by some great performances in the theatre; I have also been annoyed, bored, outraged by others. I wanted to explore why so many productions failed, and why the truly great productions were great.

I also had the hands-on experience of producing the Cambridge Greek Play over 12 years, with two outstanding directors – Dr Jane Montgomery, who was the Leventis Visiting Fellow in Greek Drama, and Annie Castledine, from the Complicite Theatre Company and who has also directed at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Seeing how professional theatre is made at the ‘down-and-dirty’ level is not something most academics are privileged to do, and anyone who writes about theatre can learn a lot from such an experience. But the immediate stimulus to write my book was when I was asked to provide some suggestions for Vanessa Redgrave to read about tragedy – she was rehearsing a production of Hecuba at the time. I found to my chagrin (and to the detriment of my dignity as a Cambridge professor) that there was nothing I could really recommend to an intelligent modern actor or director to help them when daunted by the task of performing Greek tragedy. So I sat down and wrote what I hope will answer that need.

I examine the six most pressing questions any company faces with the task of staging a Greek tragedy: the theatre space, the chorus, the actor’s role, the relationship between tragedy and politics, the translation, and the representation of the gods and heroes.

I look at what we can learn from the ancient world about these issues, how the most successful modern productions have dealt with them, and how a company can negotiate a way through some of the most difficult problems these texts provide.

My hope is that actors and directors embarking on the journey of staging a Greek play might have some guidance. I hope too that, for the reader wishing to know more about these truly remarkable plays and their extraordinary re-emergence on modern stages, this might inspire them to consider what makes Greek tragedy so exciting and so relevant a genre today.

‘Simon Goldhill’s new book is enthralling. A ‘can’t put down’ and a ‘forever re-read’. His detailed analyses of so many past productions are rare and exciting. His unfolding of the Greek texts and the many different translations is both instructive and exhilarating.’
Vanessa Redgrave CBE, actress
For more information, please contact the author Professor Simon Goldhill (sdg1001@cam.ac.uk) at the Faculty of Classics. How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today is published by University of Chicago Press.

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