Audiences across the Pond: Oceans Apart or Shared Experiences?
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter focuses on theater productions that have crossed the Atlantic. It explores questions, sometimes contentious, about how performance is shaped by overt and covert assumptions concerning the cultural horizons and socio-political perspectives of audiences. This in turn raise issues about the distinctive agendas of writers and producers, including the commercial considerations that underlie festival and global touring productions. The examples analyzed represent cultural traffic across the Atlantic in both directions: Tony Harrison’s Hecuba, Seamus Heaney’s Cure at Troy, and Lee Breuer’s Gospel at Colonus. The discussion also contributes to wider debates about the relationship between aesthetic and contextual aspects of performance and its histories, and of translation. The role of the spectators (actual and imagined) is crucial in negotiating this interface and includes theater critics as well as the bulk of the audience.
Oceans apart—these words … conjure images of the harsh physical journeys across huge expanses of sea. They also suggest the often brutal suppression wrought by colonial invasion. But most of all they suggest an expansive imaginative territory between places of extraordinary cultural diversity.
(Jonathan Mills, in “Welcome to Festival,” Edinburgh 2010)
This chapter discusses cultural traffic, focusing on theater productions that have crossed the Atlantic. I have chosen examples that raise questions, sometimes contentious, about how performance is shaped by overt and covert assumptions concerning the cultural horizons and socio-political perspectives of audiences. These in turn raise issues about the distinctive agendas of writers and producers (including commercial considerations). I hope that these examples also contribute to wider debates about the relationship between aesthetic and contextual aspects of performance and its histories. The role of the spectators (actual and imagined) is crucial in negotiating this interface. I use the term “spectator” to include theater critics as well as the bulk of the audience and in analysing performance I draw on the categories set out by Erika Fischer-Lichte: co-presence of actors and spectators; ephemerality and intensity; production of meaning in performance and performance as event (Fischer-Lichte 2010). Equally important is the way in which theater poetry both energizes and is contained by the formal elements of Greek theater and its texts.
(p. 820) Setting the Scene: Tents in the Camp
In 2005 Tony Harrison’s version of Euripides’ Hecuba was staged in the United States. It crossed the Atlantic after a poorly received run at the Albery Theatre in London (Fig. 52.1). The reasons for the theater critics’ dislike of the London production mingled the aesthetic and the political. The critics (variously) thought that Vanessa Redgrave’s long awaited return to performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company was disappointing, her Hecuba insufficiently “feral,” and that Harrison’s performance text was too bulky and full of epithets and alliterations. Critics objected to the use of neologisms like “coalition,” to the description of Talthybius as “Agamemnon’s ADC,” and to the “pseudo American accent” of Darrell D’Silva’s Odysseus. Some commented that there was “tragedy fatigue” after the plethora of adaptations that had addressed political conflicts in Ireland and the Balkans, as well as Iraq. Paradoxically, critics were determined to read the production as simplistically equating the Chorus of Trojan Women with Muslims (in defiance of the set and costumes used in the London production). They also pointed to ideological weariness—“there is something rather smug and pointless about the theatricals declaring how anti-war they (p. 821) are to audiences who are probably equally convinced of the same position” (Lawson 2005). In contrast, few critics commented on how close Harrison’s text was to the Greek, notably in its presentation of the parody of democracy in Euripides’ play, for example in the army’s debate about whether to sacrifice Polyxena. In that sense, their reaction could be seen as a denial of the most radical of the ancient play’s relationships to the present.1
The rehearsals had been beset by difficulties, ranging from Redgrave’s illness to problems in the working relationships between cast, director, and writer. When the production toured to the United States, the director (Laurence Boswell) did not, and Tony Harrison in effect took over—the play was described in the press materials as “written by and developed for its US engagements by British poet Tony Harrison.” In the States the play was staged at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (May/June 2005, with Accenture as the Global High Performance Business Partner of the Royal Shakespeare Company) and in the Brooklyn Academy of Music Spring Season (June 2005, with Calyon Corporate Investment Bank as the presenting sponsor) (Fig. 52.2). The synopsis given to spectators, as in the London program, contextualized the play by proclaiming that “the first Great War between the East and the West is over.” In his New York Times review of the BAM performance, Charles Isherwood commented on the unhappy history of the production and added, “the most reliable way to tap into the power of Greek tragedy is not by larding it with topical allusions but by giving full expression to the range of emotion its formal structure so elegantly contains” (Isherwood 2005).
In fact, the most striking change from the London performances was not to allusions made in the performance text but in the set. In place of the London design, which was neutral in terms of modern place and suggested the shape and texture of ancient pottery, Harrison substituted a series of tents representing the Greek army camp, with the initials US or UK painted on their roofs. These visually dominated the audience’s view and intensified the resonances with the present. Harrison also subsequently recalled that the second-hand materials had come impregnated with insecticide, giving off an overpowering stench that nearly overcame the stagehands. It is unlikely that Harrison thought that U.S. audiences would be less quick than British to spot the contemporary allusions in the text so the set surely represented a defiant gesture toward the critics, as well as a reaffirmation of the passionate closing paragraph of Harrison’s introduction to the published text: “We may still be weeping for Hecuba, but we allow our politicians to flood the streets of Iraq with more and more Hecubas in the name of freedom and democracy. The audience might weep for Hecuba in Washington when the tragedy plays there, but will they squirm with regret for Iraq, or for the re-election of George Bush or pause a moment before going for the gullet of Iran?” (Harrison 2005: x ).
Cure and Reconciliation
I turn now to a play in which, after the initial performances, the author toned down rather than intensified the direct political references, claiming that there were aesthetic reasons for doing so. Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy was first performed in 1990. Subtitled “A (p. 822) (p. 823) Version of Sophocles’s Philoctetes,” it was created for the performance program of Field Day. Field Day was founded in Derry in the north of Ireland in 1980 by the actor Stephen Rea and the playwright Brian Friel, whose play Translations (1981) was the first Field Day production. Derry/Londonderry is a city near the border between the north of Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The way in which it is referred to usually indicates political affiliations (desire for even-handedness has been satirized in the term “Stroke City”). Field Day’s activities came to be cultural, political, and literary as well as theatrical and it subsequently published a three-volume anthology of Irish writing and a series of pamphlets and monographs.2 There has been considerable controversy about whether and how Field Day’s idealistic aims for cultural, social, and political life in Ireland could in practice be achieved in ways that reflected the plural and sometimes overlapping identities of Irish people from north and south, whether from Catholic or Protestant traditions (Howe 2000: 107–45).
Heaney joined the editorial board of Field Day in 1981, along with Tom Paulin, David Hammond, and Seamus Deane (O’Driscoll 2008: 414–16). The Cure at Troy toured in Ireland as part of Field Day’s aim of taking theater into the community. Venues included Andersonstown, a working-class area in Belfast, where the performance continued a tradition of staging Sophocles’ play in areas of unemployment and deprivation that had a precedent in the economic depression of 1933. Cure was subsequently staged at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, and in England and Scotland by a number of companies (Hardwick 2007b: 319, fig. 21.2). It was performed at the Tricycle Theatre Kilburn (an area of London noted for its Irish diaspora) and at several arts festivals, including the Edinburgh Fringe. In 1995 it crossed the Atlantic and was staged at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (directed by Tony Taccone) (Heaney 2002a). It was also produced in New York in 1997 (Jean Cocteau Repertory).
Two factors make the play of particular significance for this volume. First, the performance history ranges from community halls and student companies to major theaters and festivals so its actual and assumed audiences cross a wider than usual spectrum for an adaptation of a Greek play. Secondly, Heaney has recorded in a number of interviews and essays his observations on the creation of the play and on changes in his views about it, including comparisons with what he wanted to achieve in his later work with another Sophocles play, Antigone (which became the basis for his 2004 version The Burial at Thebes). This material offers a map of his perspectives through time as well as the opportunity to cross-check different sources. The extensive evidence from interviews provides important insights into the relationship between creativity, aesthetics, and cultural politics, both in the genesis of the play and in the judgements and decisions that Heaney subsequently made about it (and which influenced his future work with Greek plays).
The Genesis of The Cure at Troy
In response to a question about why Philoctetes was chosen, Heaney has described how the play was part of “the theater of your own conscience and consciousness” and also indissolubly linked with the audiences for which it was intended:3
(p. 824) Well, undoubtedly, it was the conditions we were living in, or have lived in, in Northern Ireland. They were intensified and made romantic and extreme from about 1968 to 1996 but anyone who grew up in the north of Ireland from their moment of consciousness was aware of, if you like, a public dimension to their lives. They were bonded into a group, one side or the other side. And they were also living in the theater of your own conscience and consciousness [italics added]. So, the demand for solidarity was there from the start with your group, and if you were growing into some kind of authentic individual life, the imperative for solitude or self-respect or integrity or self-definition was there also. So there was always … an ill-fit between the group line, the party line if you like, and the personal condition. And that is precisely what drew me to the Philoctetes, where … the young fellow, Neoptolemus is caught between the demands of loyalty and solidarity. He is a soldier on the Greek expedition and so he has to help the cause but in order to help the cause, he has to do something which infringes his own sense of truth and justice and self-respect, he has to tell a lie to this wounded man. So it’s that friction between the demands of the group and the demands of the individual integrity. … I changed the title of Philoctetes or Philoctetes—because I wasn’t quite sure how you pronounced it among other things—but mainly because it was being toured in Ireland, to certainly non-classical people. It was being brought into all kinds of parish halls and arts centres and, as my mother would call them, the common five-eighths were coming in to see it [italics added]. So, there is a miraculous cure at the end of the play; Philoctetes, the wounded man is cured. So, I thought in that phrase, the Cure at Troy, [the senses] the word “cure” has for both sides in Ireland, north and south, there can be, if you like, faith healing cures or they can be miraculous cures at Lourdes and holy wells and so on. So it gave it that kind of, if you like, anthropological dimension.4
Heaney’s Idiom and Audiences: Local, American, Global
A major aspect of Heaney’s approach to the Sophocles was his use of existing translations. In many respects his play stuck closely to the theatrical conventions of the Greek but he did make major additions to the Choral Odes, and these are included in the published text (Heaney 1990). Heaney commented that he wrote the play in verse “in order to preserve something of the formal ritualistic quality of the Greek theatrical experience” but had nevertheless “felt free to compose a number of new lines for the Chorus” (Program Notes, Tricycle Theatre production, 1991). The extra Odes for the Chorus are at the very beginning and near the end. In Sophocles the Chorus first enters at line 135, after the prologue between Odysseus and Neoptolemus. In Heaney, the Chorus opens the play, introducing Philoctetes, Hercules, and Odysseus to the audience (“Heroes. Victims”) (Heaney 1990: 1). The opening Chorus controversially implies in idiom and image the connections between the story of Philoctetes and the Irish context of the time (“Licking their wounds | And flashing them round like decorations”) (Heaney (p. 825) 1990: 2) and reflects on the role of poetry in crossing the borderlines between reality and aspiration. This poetic agency is picked up in the additional Chorus material at the end of Heaney’s play, when an Ode is added following Neoptolemus’ exchange with Philoctetes (Sophocles, line 1484).
Two interpolations in the new Ode that have been widely discussed:
- But then, once in a lifetime
- The longed-for tidal wave
- Of justice can rise up,
- And hope and history rhyme. (italics added) (Heaney 1990: 77)
The phrase proved rhetorically memorable and was taken up as a “sound-bite” by public figures, including: Mary Robinson the President of the Irish Republic (1990–7), in her inauguration speech; U.S. President Bill Clinton in a speech given on the steps of the Bank of Ireland (December 1, 1995) (Denard 2000); the address by the President of the European Commission Jacques Santer to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin Castle, 1995; newspaper headlines at the time of the Good Friday peace agreement (Belfast 1998). Subsequently, Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister under the power-sharing agreement, gave a framed copy of the lines, written on parchment by Heaney himself, to the Democratic Unionist First Minister Ian Paisley to mark the latter’s retirement and Paisley hung this on the wall of his room in the Stormont Parliament (see interview with McGuinness, Observer (September 1, 2013), News, 23). The second interpolation was, in contrast, specifically related to the time and place of Heaney’s original intended audiences. It was widely criticized as anachronistic, intrusively overt, and even as “an attempt to create a new mythology” (Meir 1991). It occurs earlier in the same Ode, when the Chorus meditate on suffering:
- A hunger striker’s father
- Stands in the graveyard dumb
- The police widow in veils
- Faints at the funeral home.
I asked Seamus Heaney about those images of the suffering that was endured by both communities, loyalist and nationalist, during the Troubles in the north of Ireland and he commented on the lived experience that underlay them:
During the [IRA] hunger strikes in 1981, the second hunger striker to die was a guy called Francis Hughes whose parents lived very close, I knew his father, I knew his brothers and sister, I didn’t know him. But he died in the Maze Prison and of course, it was highly emotional time … after he died, he died in the prison, they [the security forces] took control of the body and … they delivered the body to Toomebridge which was a few miles away from his birthplace so there was kind of outrage at that. (Note: Heaney subsequently reflected on that experience in his poem “The Wood Road”)
(Heaney 2010: 22–3)
(p. 826) In 1995 in the production notes that he compiled for the director of the U.S. performances, Heaney justified the Choral interpolations that “were meant to contextualise the action, and not just within a discourse that could apply to Northern Ireland politics. These two speeches also (I see it even more clearly in retrospect) defend the right of poetry/poetic drama to be something other than “protest”’ (Heaney 2002a). In those notes Heaney also refers the director to a sequence in his essay The Government of the Tongue (1988), in which he wrote,
In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil—no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense it is unlimited. It is like the writing in the sand in the face of which accusers and accused are left speechless and renewed.
(Heaney 2002a: 173)
Yet subsequently Heaney changed his views about the aesthetic impact of these particular images of suffering and especially about their shortcomings in making the links between the local and the global:
I thought that I made a mistake, actually, in Cure at Troy, introducing the pointed up relevant information, the kind of hook and eye to the present moment relationship. The Cure at Troy had a touch of, if you like, the adult education broadcast about it. I mean, I offended the conventions of Greek theater by having a Chorus come on at the beginning and, you know, lay down the law about what you’re going to see. I actually felt that the audiences wouldn’t know who the blazes Heracles or Hercules was and that all this was necessary. Like a BBC Third Programme introduction to the first act of an opera, you tell them what’s going to happen. So, I did that, that was the first thing I had ever done for the stage and I think it was an error, definitely. And then when I saw the thing and heard the thing on the stage, police widows, hunger strikers, I thought it was altogether too pious towards the audience and towards the situation so when I reprinted that chorus in Selected Poems, I left out that stanza.5
However, Heaney did include in his play northern Irish idiom and intonation that was part of his “subliminal orientation” for his non-metropolitan audiences in Ireland (Heaney 2002a: 172). He emphasized that although he “meant to make the play at home in the ear of its [first] audience,” he had not been aiming for a dialect drama and suggested that intonation (though not idiom) should be changed for U.S. performances (Heaney 2002a: 174). This is partly a practical matter of actors’ voices and audiences’ ears but nevertheless, there is no doubt that in his 1995 notes for the director of the U.S. productions, Heaney was already drawing back from his radical emphasis on the suffering of both sides in the Irish context. Also in 1995, in a lecture at Trinity College Dublin, Heaney commented, “I think if I were doing that again I would leave out the local colour stanza … I remember feeling it was like a puncture … Nowhere else is there Northern local reference.”6 It has also been suggested that these lines were deleted in a U.S. performance in the same year,7 and they were omitted from the recitation by the actor Liam Neeson for Across the Bridge of Hope (1998), a compilation album produced in aid of the Omagh Bomb Memorial Fund.
(p. 827) Heaney’s Multiple Identities in Tension: Northerner, Irishman, Catholic, Nationalist, Writer
The question then becomes whether Heaney had the pragmatic aim of avoiding specific Irish cultural referents that would puzzle or even alienate U.S. audiences that were not part of that particular “interpretative community”—a community that might not appreciate that suffering in the Troubles crossed all sections of both the Catholic and Protestant communities, whatever their attitude to British presence in the North—or whether he was changing his poetic and social stance on the relationship between the local and the universal, a relationship that he had imbibed from the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh (Hardwick 2011; Heaney 2002c; Stafford 2010: 1–30).
The risk of alienating Irish-American audiences, who might have had a standpoint originating in experiences earlier than the late twentieth-century Troubles, should not be underestimated. The importance of generational distance in the different phases involved in the formulation of cultural memory has been extensively studied. Subjective and experiential memories are collectively assimilated into social memories and then mediated into political and cultural memories, which can then mutate into a mythology of the past (Assmann 2006). In his memoir Just Garret: Tales from the Political Frontline (2010), the former Irish Taoiseach and Minister for External Affairs Garret Fitzgerald recounts in some detail the perceptions of the Irish situation and especially of the role of the IRA held by Irish-Americans and others in the United States in the last part of the twentieth century. IRA supporters disrupted meetings he was addressing in visits to the U.S.A. (for instance in 1974 in New York) and he recounts the comments of a New York policeman: “I t’ought de IRA was de good guys. Aint dey fighting de British? But when I went to the old country last summer everyone told me dey were [expletive deleted]. I don’t understand it all anymore” (Fitzgerald 2010: 231 (sic)). Fitzgerald also documents similar attitudes that he encountered in various U.S. Congressmen and committee organizers (Fitzgerald 2010: 293).
Fitzgerald formed the view that second or third generation Irish-Americans had inherited parental or grandparental memories of “what they saw as a colonial war, and with their curious frozen-in-aspic concepts of Irish nationalism, saw democratically elected Irish governments, whatever their composition, as quislings” (Fitzgerald 2010: 231). He writes at some length of the difficult process of “challenging the IRA myth in the US” (a process started by his predecessor Jack Lynch in 1972) and so reducing “the flow of funds from Noraid to the IRA.” Fitzgerald uses strong language when describing the aim of successive Irish governments in cooperation with the nationalist party in the North, the SDLP, to “win as much as we could of Irish America back from its tendency to sympathise with the IRA as an atavistic expression of inherited anti-British feeling” (Fitzgerald 2010: 293).
(p. 828) In evaluating Fitzgerald’s analysis as evidence about the issues discussed in this essay, it should be noted that he was a member and then leader of Fine Gael, which was the party known as the descendent of the Treaty Party in Ireland, i.e., the groups that had been in favor of coming to an agreement with the British after the war of independence (dispute on this question between political groups in Ireland led to civil war in 1922–3; Fine Gael was formally established in 1938). However, both Fitzgerald’s parents were strongly involved in the Easter Rising in Dublin (1916). His father (Desmond Fitzgerald) was imprisoned by the British before he eventually became Minister for External Affairs in Cosgrove’s Irish government in 1923 (Lyons 1971: 455), and Garret Fitzgerald records that although his father supported the Treaty his mother did not (Foster 2014: 284). Fitzgerald was to be the lead negotiator for the government of the Irish Republic in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which marked a step in the progress toward the Good Friday peace agreement made in 1998. His records of his experiences of political negotiations in the U.S.A. in the 1970s and 1980s draw both on governmental and political contacts and on demotic accounts of the kind quoted above. Taken together, these provide some evidence that in the 1970s and 1980s attitudes to the [Provisional] IRA and to militant republicanism among Irish-Americans had been shaped by a cultural memory that was into its second and third generation of development, and necessarily included “post-memory,” i.e., perceptions that were not based on direct experience but which resulted from the oral testimony of those who had experienced the situation of Ireland when it was under British rule but had generally not experienced life in Ireland at the time that Heaney and his fellow writers were growing up and publishing their work. Post-memory in particular has been widely investigated as a major feature in ongoing trauma and its literature.8
In addition, I think the generalization “Irish-American” is also problematic in the context of Heaney’s play in that Irish immigrants to the U.S.A. had also included substantial numbers of Ulster-Scots, who continued to have close affinities with Protestant loyalists in the north of Ireland and who were equally likely to have “post-memory” (although of a different hue) as the basis for their attitudes to Irish politics. Taken together, these factors suggest that U.S. audiences were unlikely to have the nuanced immediacy of understanding of the reality of the sufferings of both communities. It was this element that allowed Heaney’s choral odes a radical resonance with audiences across the sectarian divide in Belfast, when the Chorus accepted the “policeman’s widow” and the “hunger striker’s father” as of equal significance in the suffering of the communities. W. B. Stanford suggested in his study Ireland and the Classical Tradition that the classical strand in Irish culture (which he called the “fourth cultural root of Ireland,” alongside the Gaelic, the Christian, and the British) provided common ground between polarized elements in the population, providing “an intellectual and emotional link” between those in conflict (Stanford 1984: viii; ix; 245). Heaney seems to have aligned with this view in his creation of The Cure at Troy for Field Day and his play can be seen as an attempt to bring together different strands in cultural memory and to shape a new kind of consciousness. However, the complex temporal, cultural, and spatial disjunctions between Irish-Americans and Irish people in Ireland, north and south, (p. 829) provide a political as well as an aesthetic rationale for the changes made in the choral odes when the play crossed the Atlantic in the late twentieth century. Cultural horizons in the U.S.A., and the experiences that shaped memory and post-memory, were simply different from those in Ireland (or indeed in Kilburn).
Further problematic relationships between the local and the universal/international are intertwined with the stresses sometimes imposed by Heaney’s own multiple consciousness. There is evidence from his lyric poetry of his continuing concern with the tensions between conflicting aspects of identity. For example, in the Antaeus poems in Death of a Naturalist, 1966, and in North, 1975, the struggle is between Antaeus and Hercules, who lifts Antaeus from his roots in the earth and leaves him as “pap for the dispossessed.” The struggle for balance between dual burdens comes out in “Terminus” (The Haw Lantern, 1987) in which “Two buckets were easier carried than one | I grew up in between.” Poems such as “Requiem for the Croppies” (1969) and “Orange Drums, Tyrone 1966” (1975) mark Heaney’s engagement with the continuing history of Irish nationalism and the present emblems associated with its repression, while the sequence “Whatever You Say Say Nothing” (1975) reflects on the fear of being misrepresented that underlay reticence.
However, in the case of Heaney’s renouncement of the Choral interpolation in Cure, I think the decisive factor in a complex web was probably not the cultural weight of reticence but the impulse for poetic freshness, in terms of aesthetics and “public” context. This rested on his conception of his own status as a writer. Already in his 1995 Notes to the U.S. director, Heaney had referred to the burden of “dutiful commentary-type drama (‘Troubles art’)” (Heaney 2002a: 178). The desire to break free of this became apparent in his 2007 reflections when, in response to a question about why his 2004 play The Burial at Thebes, commissioned to mark the centenary of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, had not exploited the civil war theme of Sophocles’ Antigone in order to address the history of early twentieth-century Ireland, Heaney commented:
by 2004, 2003 when I started this thing [sc. Burial], you do a thing once in literature, the second time you do it, it’s cliché, you know? So, you do a thing once in life, you do it a thousand times … But, you know, you’re gonna get fed up with it. So, the Irish question was imaginatively exhausted in a way, as far as I was concerned.
It is significant, too (especially in terms of this discussion), that, rather than revisiting Irish political history, Heaney seemed by 2007 more interested in writing a version of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, notably in order to follow the path of W. B. Yeats but also because of the OC’s force as a play of religious resolution and closure. Perhaps that will come. However, so far as Heaney’s overtly “political” plays are concerned, it seems that it was his understanding and experience of flexible and plural identities and his aesthetic practice of “two-mindedness” that initially drew him to Philoctetes, and which also induced him to first to implement and then to change the didactic approach to the audiences (“spelling things out like that is almost patronizing to the audience”; and, more generally—“To transmogrify Wilfred Owen’s famous line, I’d say that the politics are there in the poetry”).9
(p. 830) Lee Breuer’s The Gospel at Colonus
My third example is of a production that crossed the Atlantic in the opposite direction in 2010. Although Lee Breuer’s The Gospel at Colonus had been workshopped three decades previously (including in the Assembly Rooms at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 1982) and had toured internationally, its development into a substantial theater event had been on the U.S. stage and its contexts of performance and interpretation were American. Justine McConnell (this volume) discusses its migration from the iconic performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983 to Broadway (1988). The full performance history of Gospel requires comparison of productions through time as well as place but here I shall focus entirely on the production context and audience expectations and responses in the situation of its further migration to the Edinburgh International Festival of 2010.
Gospel was staged at the Edinburgh Playhouse over three days, August 21–3, 2010, as a centerpiece in the Festival’s International Program. There were four performances in all, two matinees and two evenings. The Playhouse is a nineteenth-century proscenium arch theater that can seat approximately 3,000 people and a total of over 9,000 spectators saw the production. The theme of the 2010 International Festival was “Oceans Apart” and in a TV interview the Festival Director, Jonathan Mills, cited Gospel as an example of international enterprise, a meeting of “new” Classics and liveliness.10 The context of this interview was a debate about criticisms that the International Festival had become “flat” and was being overtaken by other festivals (not least the Edinburgh “Fringe”); there was also concern about the demographic of the audiences at the international festival (audiences were thought to be predominantly white, middle class, and middle aged). Mills’s broadcast comments and his foreword to the program for the production sought to present an alternative view. His program note thanked the sponsor Standard Life (described as a corporate partner and “an iconic Scottish financial institution”) and characterized Gospel as “extraordinary” and “exuberant,” bracketing it with a companion production at the Playhouse, the world première of the Paco Pena Flamenco Dance Company’s Quimeras. The sponsor’s note in the same program took up the tone, describing the performance of The Gospel at Colonus as “unique and pioneering” and the festival as “a vibrant and innovative gathering from the performing arts,” with Gospel contributing “40 powerhouse voices.” Another TV program, The Culture Show, broadcast to the whole of the U.K. at a more popular time slot, also promoted the production as evidence of the vibrancy of the Edinburgh International Festival but added that, at a time when many people were suffering from the uncertainties of the depressed economic situation (following the global banking crisis of 2008), the production “promoted the feel-good factor” (sic).11 This claim was accompanied by clips of Oedipus, with the Blind Boys of Alabama and Antigone, taken from the later part of the performance.
(p. 831) What the Audience Saw: What the Audience Read
The festival director’s promotion of the production was clearly intended to appeal to a modern, international, and perhaps “younger” audience, attracted by spectacle. The Culture Show was explicitly linking this to the capacity of the arts to “cheer things up” at times of economic crisis. The extended Notes in the program to the performance displayed a different set of assumptions about the likely audience. The program, which was extensively illustrated with photographs, included information about the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Broadway productions, a detailed breakdown of “Musical Numbers and Settings” for each of the two acts, and three informative articles. The first and longest, “From Ancient Greece to North America,” was contributed by the Classicist and ancient theater scholar Edith Hall. Hall summarized the ancient context of composition and production, explaining that the three surviving Sophoclean plays on the family of Oedipus were not designed to be performed as a trilogy. Her article included detailed discussion of the differences between ancient and modern theatrical contexts and of the differences between the worldviews of ancient pagan and modern largely monotheistic audiences, with special attention to the problems of adapting the metaphysics of ancient tragic theater to its Christian framework of performance and understanding represented by Gospel. Hall also pointed to the increasing engagement in modern adaptations of Greek tragedy with “the counterpoint between the collective and the individual perspectives on painful and momentous events,” linking this to musical modality and especially the ways in which the ancient tragic chorus shifts “between moods and in and out of a marked group identity” (remarks which could equally well apply to the Chorus in Cure).
Hall quoted Lee Breuer’s argument that making links between apparently disparate traditions is a necessary part of liberation from the culturally imperialistic associations with European theater. She also identified the major changes from the Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, commenting on the inclusion in Gospel of passages from Oedipus Tyrannus and Antigone. Pointing out that there are losses as well as gains in cultural translocation, she acknowledged that “any authentic North American classicism must inevitably be Christianized, especially if it is going to integrate (as it must in order to be authentically American) a Black sensibility.”12 Yet she also acknowledged that the response of the religiously sensitive singing collective in Gospel would lose “the harsh grandeur of ancient Greek ethics and metaphysics” as the oratorio moved to “a proto-Christian redemptive metaphysics wholly alien to the ancient Athenian hero cult which the original drama explained.”
The inclusion of an essay of this kind in a theater program assumes that at least some members of the audience are not only interested in performance that goes further than spectacle but are also able and willing to reflect after the performance on the cultural significance of the production and the traditions on which it draws. This assumption (p. 832) about the audiences was reinforced by the second essay in the program—“Music of the Soul,” contributed by another academic, Jerry Zolten. His essay summarized the genesis and history of African-American gospel music, characterizing it as “music that evolved as a balm against the pain of slavery and, later, institutionalised segregation” (italics added). Zolten asserted that “gospel” developed from late eighteenth-century “spirituals” that were derived from a blend of English hymns (introduced by slave owners wishing to convert slaves to Christianity) and African performance style. He pointed out the importance of improvisation as a characteristic of spiritual performance and charted the changes in spirituals after the American Civil War, describing how they were sometimes used in concert tours in the nineteenth century to raise money for the education of freed slaves and young people. Zolten also discussed ways in which the gospel tradition became infused with other musical styles popular with African-Americans, including rhythm and blues. This resulted in the creation of new songs and the introduction of a larger range of modern instruments, including electric guitar, as well as innovation in performance styles that combined “roots” music with sensitivity to contemporary oppressions, war, and poverty. Zolten described the histories of the singing groups associated with gospel, such as the Blind Boys of Alabama, and commented on how they popularized gospel music to international audiences. However, effects were not to be confined to popularization and he emphasized the exploitation of every nuance and range of the human voice in order to communicate emotion and “move audiences to spiritual nirvana.” Unlike Hall, Zolten did not point up potential conflicts, either within gospel music or in its interactions with other traditions. In particular, he did not draw out the contrasts between gospel and the spiritual. Spirituals originated in the brutality and alienation of slavery whereas gospel involves a joyous affirmation of liberation from bondage in which instrumental and vocal music expresses jubilation.
The information given to the audience members in Zolten’s essay paved the way for the third in the program series, a short discussion of Breuer’s career by Mark Fisher (freelance writer). Fisher’s essay brought out another aspect of the tensions and multiplicities in Gospel by giving examples of the many strands in Breuer’s artistic development. Breuer was shown as auteur (rather than director) and Fisher drew attention especially to his positive approach to changes, both from the ante-text (whether Ibsen or Sophocles) and in the performances of a particular work:
There are two reasons for making changes: first, I feel I have better ideas about the production, that I understand things more … the second is the idea of keeping the performance alive. I put in changes to the Gospel at Colonus, for example, 28 years after we opened.
Two questions then become paramount. First, to what extent is creative tension between the specificities of cultural genesis and the multiple different performance contexts possible, and secondly, to what extent were the strands in the religious aesthetics and performance histories evident to the Edinburgh spectators, most of whom were unlikely to study the program essays in detail until after the performance (if at all)?
(p. 833) I use the word “spectators” advisedly. In contrast with the performances in Brooklyn and Harlem discussed by Patrick Pacheo in the National Theatre Magazine (1988), the audience in Edinburgh 2010 was clearly not regarded as a “congregation.” The performers connected with the audience by waving as they entered (performance documented, Monday August 23, 2010, 2.30 p.m.). This promised a closer relationship to come and compensated for the fairly slow start in which the music was subservient to the impact of the Messenger/Preacher’s announcement that his text would be from “the Book of Oedipus” (which prompted delighted laughter from the audience). The limitations of the proscenium arch theater as a performance space contrasted with the scaffolding that had allowed to the congregation to sit on three sides in the 1985 performance at the American Music Theatre Festival in Philadelphia.13 The effects of the playing space in Edinburgh meant that staging had to be a more self-conscious process. The ushers used the blind Oedipus’ white stick to prod the singers into their places on the stage, recalling the rod-bearers who kept order in ancient Greek theater (see the scholion at Aristophanes Peace 724). Direct address was used, not just in the Messenger/Preacher’s welcome and invocations but also in comments on the performance (“shall I go for this note?”) and in the way in which the references to specific lines in Sophocles’ text were directed outward to the audience. The visual impact of the costumes was intended to be stunning (and was), especially the brightly colored African robes and head-dresses worn by female singers. Equally striking was the architecture of the set, which set the arches and columns of the palace at Thebes as a backdrop to the steps that spread across the whole stage and provided places for the singers and the stage congregation that were visually accessible to the audience and yet enabled a stream of movement and color as the smaller musical groups came and went.
The lighting and sound design, especially in the storm scene, fulfilled the claims for the “spectacular” impact made by the publicity. A new feature (so far as I have been able to ascertain) was the multimedia design in which graphics projected onto the buildings showed the dead Oedipus and the falling figures of Jack and Jill in the vicissitudes of the storm. Other than showing a “nursery-rhyme” projection of the effects of a fall, it was hard to see what this somewhat pantomime effect added to the production. Because of the stepped stage there was a contrast between the musical physicality of the large singing groups and the somewhat contrived movement when the smaller groups were in place; at one point the blue-suited guitarists even seemed to be replicating the stereotypical gestures that older members of the audience might have remembered from the Black and White Minstrel Show, a popular TV program in Britain in the 1960s in which white performers “blacked up,” played banjos, and sang songs associated with the deep south of America.14 Since the Edinburgh International Festival audiences are usually drawn from many different countries, including the U.S.A., it is impossible to tell how many made that connection or what construction they placed on it.
The performance that I attended was rapturously received by many but a noticeable number remained firmly sitting in their seats during the standing ovation at the end. The most positive response that I had in discussions with fellow theater-goers (p. 834) was from music aficionados. As the Festival Newssheet put it in a top rating 4* review (September 2010):
Gospel at Colonus juxtaposes Greek classical theater and black American religious music and those highbrow allusions may have offered it a place on the official festival programme. But forget Greece, abandon your intellect. With a cast including the Blind Boys of Alabama, the legendary Soul Stirrers and the Steeles, it’s an inspirational celebration. Yes, there’s a bit of theatrical jiggery-pokery, and it’s surprising and a little worrying, to see frail leader of the blind Boys, Jimmy Carter, leaving the stage strapped to a piano, but this is all about the music.
An emphasis on spectacle and the exotic as well as music was evident in the responses of theater critics. For example Susanna Clapp in the Observer Review commented that “Oedipus jumps, Antigone swings and the chorus wear turbans so saffronly, crimsonly gorgeous that you begin to wonder why anyone bothers with hair” (Clapp 2010: 32–3). She judged that “This is probably the most popular theatrical event of the festival—with the 3,000-seater Playhouse packed to the gills even on a sleepy matinee. The swaying, shoulder-rolling, tambourine-shaking chorus doesn’t quite get the audience into the aisles—it remains, just about, not a concert but a drama” (Clapp 2010: 32–3). For Clapp, as for many spectators, the ritual and congregational ambience had been lost in the translocation to a multimedia theatrical space. However, Clapp did experience a sense of disjunction: “The idea is that the story of ‘evil Oedipus,’ followed on his last day on Earth, can be taken as a text at a Pentecostal meeting, and rendered as a tale of Christian redemption. But that is to sugar over Sophocles, in whom rage and resignation are more present that the hope of reward” (Clapp 2010: 32–3). Clapp’s emphasis suggests that awareness of Breuer’s manipulative double consciousness in embedding the communal experiences of oppression and slavery (see McConnell, this volume) was lost somewhere during the migration of the work to Edinburgh. Broadway spectacle had taken over from Brooklyn rawness and the interwoven strands of African-American history had been further eroded in the Edinburgh desire for a production that could be marketed as exotic. Even the exotic can, however, be mocked in the parochialism of a blinkered interpretative community—one of Clapp’s jibes was that “Sophocles’ cast has undergone a sea change in the vowels of the American south. Our hero is Edda Puss. His mother becomes a little-known relative of a former Observer editor, Joke Astor.” Clapp’s comparative framework, and probably that of most of the audience if they had one at all, was taken as Sophocles/Breuer and no attempt was made to extend to comparison between the cultural and political subtlety of Breuer’s concept as staged in its early performance history in the U.S.A. and its dilution and refocusing in the performance created for Edinburgh audiences.
What then might be the most illuminating points of comparison to be made about the three productions that crossed the Atlantic? Two closely related aspects seem to me to be crucial. The first is the smoothing out of the jagged experiences that are part of the interaction between performance and cultural memory. Both Cure and Gospel were generated by the rawness of oppression and suffering. Both saw those aspects progressively eroded by (p. 835) distance, both chronological (in terms of the length of performance history) and spatial (in terms of performance locations). Both these aspects intensify issues of cultural distance. Cultural distance between ancient and modern was complicated by the differences in cultural provenance and expectations in the audiences on either side of the Atlantic (even allowing that in both cases there would be an international diversity). This marked a repression of experiences that were not easily assimilated into the consciousness of international audiences and involved at least a partial sanitization of suffering. Both perhaps also marked a desire to move toward a new conception of societies, Irish and American. In contrast, Tony Harrison’s resistance to blandness (within a much shorter chronological span of performance history that preserved the urgency for audiences of the “present” impact in his work) provided an example of the “auteur writing back.”
The second aspect of comparison is partly derived from the first and concerns the nature and direction of the catharsis/resolution focus. This is again shared by Cure and Gospel, both of which are religious works, the second more overtly so. Although all three productions started as radical and “edgy,” Harrison’s Hecuba has a different tone (Fig. 52.3). Here, the driving vision of the modern writer was secular (and the timescale for assessment of the impact of the production is much shorter). Harrison was raging against “denial,” not just of the effects of war but also of the deficiencies in the workings of the democracies that instigated or colluded with it. His audiences, on both sides of the Atlantic, had been very recently immersed in the public controversies that accompanied the U.S./U.K.-led invasion of Iraq. There was an immediate and shared basis of public (p. 836) experience and contextual understanding. Perhaps that is one reason why Harrison felt that he could and should be more aggressive in order to provoke further response.
In contrast, the performative dynamics in both Cure and Gospel had a religious tone—strong in Gospel, but nevertheless present in Heaney’s language of healing and resolution in Cure. Both were rooted in suffering and violence but in some ways aimed to transcend the traumatic histories that had generated them. This process was complicated by the conditions of the travelling revivals, which had to appeal to audiences who had not directly experienced the visceral pain of the contexts from which they arose. Both had to aim at a transformative effect on their audience’s understanding; to enrol the audiences in the “post-memory” community. The migrations of both Cure and Gospel offer insights into the aesthetic implications and the interpretative variations that occur when actual or imagined audiences are less attuned to the cultural histories and nuances of “imported” productions. The prospect of resolution, whether in the rhyming of “hope and history” in Cure or in the singing of “Now Let the Weeping Cease” (the Closing Hymn in Gospel), is problematic. It can be interpreted (and exploited) as a means of smoothing over the pain of vicious oppression and struggle, of reimagining the cultural memory and repressing historical energies. It can be appropriated as part of a drive toward the creation of a “feel good” factor in a troubled society. Or it can be seen as a basis for “moving-on,” of emancipation from the constraints of victimhood and the gateway to development of an autonomous future, artistically and politically.15 Heaney’s impatience with the Irish Troubles topos can be seen as an aspect of this.
Trends in the global adaptation and performance of Greek tragedy are already shedding a good deal of light on this “past slavery” and “past colonial” watershed, which is closely linked with the role of the construction and transmission of post-memory. Cure and Gospel in their different ways provide insights into what can happen when a work generated by a sense of political urgency is “exported” and the initial energy and hermeneutic framework of the spectating communities transformed. They provide a window into the successive and multiple refractions involved in re-performance across temporal and spatial boundaries. The challenges to the original jaggedness and urgency of both works also enable a nuanced focus on some of the claims that have been made about globalization of culture. For example, Irene De Jong has written that the association of the “spatial turn” with globalization has accentuated the significance of locations (De Jong 2012: 2). In the case of the performances discussed here, analysis shows that the accentuation was on the location to which the work was transferred, rather than on the one in which it was created. There may well be other examples, especially in the case of iconic productions such as Gospel. For example, The Island was a radical work of protest in its initial performances in apartheid South Africa but its metamorphosis over time into a staple of the international stage complicated the transformative function of interventionist drama.
The migration of productions in both directions across the Atlantic provides a microcosm of global traffic and suggests some ways of approaching larger questions about whether and in what respects long-lived iconic modern productions can still offer their extensive audiences an experience that is “good to think with” and even transformative. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has expressed this global potential aspirationally as:
(p. 837) Reading globalectically is a way of approaching any text from whatever times and places to allow its content and themes to form a free conversation with other texts of one’s time and place, the better to make it yield its maximum to the human. It is to allow it to speak to our own cultural present even as we speak to it from our own cultural present. It is to read a text with the eyes of the world; it is to see the world with the eyes of the text.
(Ngũgĩ 2012: 60)
Reading performance globalectically is complicated because no two performances are the same, even if they are part of the same production sequence (Fischer-Lichte 2010). Productions that travel encounter a new set of circumstances, not the least of which is the positioning of the successive audiences, both to one another and to the communities represented through and in the performance. Ngũgĩ saw the hierarchies of language as an impediment to globalectics because of the way they carry markers of power and prestige (Ngũgĩ 2012: 61). The examples analyzed in this discussion suggest that temporalities and spaces of experience and the construction of memory are equally important in allowing, shaping, and redirecting audience response; furthermore, commercial and artistic power and prestige are certainly not absent. The Harrison example was the least complicated, partly because it had the smallest time-lag between première and revival and partly because it was directed at audiences with a high degree of commonality in their experiences and attitudes. It did, however, raise crucial questions about the complacency of liberal audiences and their possible denial of the most radical elements of Euripides’ treatment of democracy. The Heaney play The Cure at Troy occupied a midway point between this position and that of The Gospel at Colonus and provides a window into different possible interpretations of the changes that were involved. The test for Gospel lies still in the future—whether its translocation to an international festival marks a contribution to what Ngũgĩ (following Auerbach’s assertion that “our philological home is the earth”) characterizes as “a global consciousness of our common humanity” (Ngũgĩ 2012: 61). In his meditation on the situation of poets in Russia and Eastern Europe, Seamus Heaney used the metaphor of “amphibious survival” to describe the tension between the pull of “the time” and that of the creative moral and artistic self-respect of the writer (Heaney 1988). The image resonates with the crossings of the Atlantic that I have discussed, but it demands extension from its poetic context to include the role of the spectators, theater practitioners, and sponsors. Intrinsic to their moral and artistic status is their awareness that the pull of their own “time,” temporally and spatially, is only one strand in the dynamics between the histories and the presentness of performance.16
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(3.) Interview with Lorna Hardwick (September 2007).
(4.) Interview with Lorna Hardwick (September 2007).
(5.) Interview with Lorna Hardwick (September 2007).
(10.) Broadcast interview on BBC2 Newsnight Scotland (Wednesday August 25, 2010, 11 p.m.).
(11.) The Culture Show, BBC2 (Thursday August 26, 7 p.m.).
(13.) See the video from the “Great Performances Series,” Educational Broadcasting Centre, 1985.
(14.) On minstrelsy and “black face” in the U.S. context of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, see Rankine 2013: 9, with bibliography on self-parody as a response to stereotypes and pseudo-scientific racist literature; also Rankine, this volume.
(16.) Special thanks to Carol Gillespie (Project Officer at the Reception of Classical Texts research project at the Open University) and Naomi Setchell (Archivist at the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama, Oxford) for their help in researching material for this essay. An earlier version of this chapter was presented at the Classics seminar at the University of Nottingham and I thank the participants for their comments and questions. I am also very grateful to Justine McConnell for her comments and editorial guidance.