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(p. vii) Preface

(p. vii) Preface

For many centuries of the post-classical world, Greek drama was frequently read but seldom heard and rarely seen. From the 1880s onward a few scattered performances of the Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannus were staged in France, Britain, Australia, Canada, and America, but these productions, especially in England and America, rarely won critical or popular acclaim.1 Critics recognized that the plays were to be appreciated as works from a glorious past but they rarely consider them to be stage-worthy productions, both because of the dramas’ static style and their apparently immoral content.

The first performance in America of a Greek tragedy recognized as suitable and relevant to its times occurred in 1915, when Granville Barker brought Euripides’ Trojan Women to outdoor theaters in New York and other venues in the northeast.2 Throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, this script has remained continuously popular, brought to theaters every time the United States has entered into a military conflict. Trojan Women, most frequently staged during the Vietnam War, was also the anti-war play for the 1900s during the years that American soldiers and innocent civilians have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since that early production, the number of Greek tragedies staged in the Americas has steadily increased, while interest in the history of performances of ancient dramas has also continued to grow in Europe and expanded into Latin America, with the number of performances reaching new heights within the last several decades of the last century and the initial years of the present. One might wonder why these most ancient scripts were performed in a culture that prefers the new to the old, action to words, happy to tragic endings. As the many chapters in this volume show, the reasons for the more frequent staging of Greek plays are various but, in many cases, the choice to offer a Greek tragedy has been tied to contemporary events: using the old to illustrate the new. Directors, producers, and actors have come to understand that the ideas from the classic texts ring true for any age. Throughout the decades of the twentieth century, the people who do theater have come to realize that it is important for an audience to see characters on stage take responsibility for their actions, to seek the truth at whatever cost, and to stand up to tyranny. Especially popular have been plays that show the results of war, the ruin it brings both upon the innocent who suffer its consequences, as evidenced in Trojan Women, but also upon those who fight the battles; in this context Sophocles’ Ajax takes pride of place in recent years as illustrative (p. viii) of the post-traumatic stress from which so many returning veterans suffer (see further Lodewyck and Monoson, Shannon, this volume).3

PrefaceClick to view larger

Fig. 0.1 Margaret Anglin as Medea, by courtesy of the APGRD.

PrefaceClick to view larger

Fig. 0.2 Judith Anderson as Medea (1951). Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress.

As Greek dramas gained further popularity in the 1900s, it was often the female characters created by Sophocles and Euripides that earned their plays a place in theater repertoires; Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra had to wait to gain recognition, perhaps because she is not the titular character in her play (Hall 2005: 53–76). Well-known actresses opted for Euripides’ Medea as their character of choice, followed closely by a preference for Sophocles’ Electra. It must be the famous monologues of these tragic women which attracted attention, as neither character is particularly appealing. Nevertheless, the production history of Greek drama on the post-classical stage includes numerous performances of Medea and Sophocles’ Electra. From the 1920s to the 1990s, actresses (p. ix) who brought Medea, Electra, and Clytemnestra to life include Margaret Anglin, Judith Anderson (Figs. 0.1, 0.2), and Isabell Monk.

That other great female protagonist of the ancient stage, Antigone, seems to have been less popular as a character herself. Sophocles’ play has been more frequently produced in a political context (see further Macintosh, Dixon, Fradinger, Marshall, this volume). In more recent times the idea that Creon is the drama’s main character has probably pushed Antigone from the American boards, although (as several essays in this volume show) the play has wide popularity in countries where the politics closely reflect those of Sophocles’ Thebes.

In the middle of the twentieth century, productions of Greek tragedy, again especially the Electra plays, began to feature touring companies from Greece, whose performances were widely acclaimed. At the same time, the ancient plays began to be performed in (p. x) more popular venues and with a more varied cast. Joseph Papp offered the Electra at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park and in 1969 the Mobile Theatre produced the play in Washington Square Park with an African-American cast, the first Greek play so staged. In all of these productions, it was Sophocles’ drama that was selected; Euripides—and Aeschylus—had to wait until the later years of the century to be seen in American theaters. The growing popularity of the Athenian dramatists was not limited to the United States or Canada; as readers of this volume will see, the ancient texts were brought to audiences in the Caribbean and Latin American countries, while performances became ever more frequent in Europe as well. Directors in Japan also turned to Greek drama, using the plays as comments upon their nation’s experiences during World War II, and Japanese productions of Medea attracted audiences totaling in the thousands (Macintosh 1997: 312–14).

Greek drama came into its own on the American stage with the dawn of the Vietnam War era and all of its challenges to society and authority, its sexual and verbal freedom. The years 1960–70 might well be termed the Decade of Euripides, with a touch of Aristophanes. To anti-war productions of Trojan Women and the ever more popular Iphigenia in Aulis was added Euripides’ psychologically interesting Orestes, as producers recognized the play as a testament to how suffering can destroy a man’s sanity. The tear-producing anti-war plays were, however, frequently lightened with productions of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.

In the 1960s Euripides’ Bacchae was finally, to use the ancient expression, “granted a chorus”; indeed, it became the play of the decade. Not once during the first 60 years of the twentieth century had this play appeared on the American commercial stage. The story of Dionysus, who demands recognition, and Pentheus, King of Thebes, who refuses to do him honor, and whom the god brings to a violent death, was not selected for production. The Bacchae was apparently too foreign, too frightening, and too disturbing to be offered to an American public that preferred musicals to mysterious tragedies. The events of the 1960s changed such preferences. While many interpretations of Euripides’ play were probably too extreme even for an ancient Greek audience who understood a god’s anger—the Greeks preferred to hear about, not see, sex or violence on stage—one can say that the true message of the Bacchae was evident in several productions. The more reasoned versions recognized that it was good to live at one with nature, to celebrate the god who gave wine to mortals, to acknowledge new cults and accept new ideas. Most productions, however, neglected the final message of the play, namely that excess is, in the end, dangerous and that it is impossible for a government to triumph against its people’s beliefs.

In the final decades of the twentieth century Aeschylus finally garnered a recurring place on the American stage. Staging his complete Oresteia trilogy is a major undertaking but, as soon became clear, doing the Agamemnon without the remainder of the plays left audiences thinking that they had seen but one act of a drama and their feelings were correct. When for the 1967–8 season Douglas Campbell and Sir Tyrone Guthrie staged (p. xi) John Lewin’s version, a trilogy he titled Atreus to make it clear it was not Aeschylus’ drama, the show, first offered at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and then toured to New York, attracted attention on many fronts: theme, costumes, and stage grandeur. It did not, however, initiate a general interest in the great 458 bce trilogy; it was finally in the 1990s that Aeschylus’ drama came to the boards most frequently, often with various Euripidean tragedies added to round out the theme. Beginning in the 1980s the John Barton–Kenneth Cavander ten-play epic, The Greeks, which had premièred in London in 1980, offered as a multi-day production, was attempted at various theaters. The most widely acclaimed, however, was the version created by Ariane Mnouchkine, who brought her Théâtre du Soleil from Paris to America in 1992 to present the House of Atreus story, opening Aeschylus’ trilogy with Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis and titling her play Les Atrides.

In the opening decades of the twenty-first century, Greek dramas have appeared as almost regular offerings in theaters of the United States, Canada, and Latin America. The staging of these ancient texts, however, has been various and varied. Seldom does an audience see characters in what is generally considered to be ancient garb, although masks are, perhaps, more frequently used as a part of a character’s costume than in earlier generations. The African-American theater companies have also embraced the ancient texts, recognizing how they feature characters often caught in situations over which they have no control.

Theater audiences around the Americas also see not only updated versions of the plays but rewrites of the scripts to make their ideas and concepts better known, lifting the stories beyond their classical contexts. A leader among those using ancient themes for his contemporary plays is Charles Mee, whose Greek-based plays are considered to be a part of his (re)making dramas (see Erin Mee’s interview with her father, this volume).

In whatever venue, however, and in whatever ancient or updated form, the texts of the Athenian playwrights are brought to the contemporary theater for their relevance to the world today. In ancient Athens, the playwrights’ texts broadly reflected current political and social concerns; on stages in the Americas these plays are also staged in response to these concerns. The interpretations of the myths told in these plays have varied over the years, of course, and each decade has added its own understanding of the ancient plays. Only Trojan Women has remained constant in its message: from 415 bce to the present time, the suffering of war’s innocent victims has consistently spoken to audiences in nearly every decade of the past century—and, alas, it is still relevant in the early years of the current one.

Although the concepts set out in the ancient dramas have been variously interpreted over the years, the unchanging texts of the ancient Greek playwrights have offered producers, directors, and actors a message that has had validity for their own society. During the years covered within this volume the plays from ancient Athens have been recognized as important not only because they were “classics” but because they set out ideas of morality, political protest, and responsibility, a quest for self-identity, and the nature of sacrifice and the need for it. These are concepts important to any society at any time. (p. xii)


(1.) Macintosh 1997: 286–8 for an overview of Antigone’s early production history.

(2.) For this and other production histories in the States, see Hartigan 1995 and for the 1915 Trojan Women, in particular, see 15–17.

(3.) Brian Doerries’s Theater of War project brought the Ajax to modern attention, with productions beginning in 2008.

Foley, H. P. (2012), Reimagining Greek Tragedy on the American Stage. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London.Find this resource:

    Hall, E. (2005), “Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra versus her Senecan Tradition,” in F. Macintosh, P. Michelakis, E. Hall, and O. Taplin eds., Agamemenon in Performance 458 bc to ad 2004. Oxford.Find this resource:

      Hartigan, K. V. (1995), Greek Tragedy on the American Stage: Ancient Drama in the Commercial Theater, 1882–1994. Westport, CT, and London.Find this resource:

        Macintosh, F. (1997), “Tragedy in Performance: Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Productions,” in P. E. Easterling ed., The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. Cambridge, 284–323.Find this resource:


          (1.) Macintosh 1997: 286–8 for an overview of Antigone’s early production history.

          (2.) For this and other production histories in the States, see Hartigan 1995 and for the 1915 Trojan Women, in particular, see 15–17.

          (3.) Brian Doerries’s Theater of War project brought the Ajax to modern attention, with productions beginning in 2008.