Greek Theater Tradition Alive and Well at UK Colleges

By Frieda Klotz

Anybody who has ever studied ancient Greek will have heard once, if not a hundred times, a version of a line from Shakespeare: “It’s Greek to me.” The joke gets stale pretty quickly, but the fact remains: Classical Greek is difficult. And to stage a play in the ancient language is harder still.

This week, King’s College London is doing exactly that, bringing to the stage a production of Euripides’ Helen, in Greek with surtitles. Helen is a peculiar play that has long puzzled scholars. A late composition of the poet, it’s a whimsical blend of tragedy and comedy that falls neatly into neither genre. Speaking over the phone from rehearsals at the Greenwood Theatre in London, the play’s director, Adam Gibb, a final-year student, says he chose it because in the 58-year tradition of putting on Greek plays at King’s, the Helen had never been featured before. “It’s, as far as I can see, the most unusual play that we have from the fifth century, and it was so interesting a play to read, I just wanted to see how it would pan out,” he says. “It was kind of a venture in the dark.”

King’s College, part of the University of London, has put on a play in ancient Greek almost every year since 1953. During the 1980s, it even became a touring show; then-executive producer, Michael Silk, a prominent scholar of Greek tragedy and comparative literature, and one of the plays’ most passionate advocates, traveled with the production to the United States, where the players stopped off at colleges across the country—Bryn Mawr, Harvard, Rutgers, University of California at Berkeley, Vassar, Wellesley, and many others.

The challenges are substantial. Some of the actors may be in their first year of learning Greek while others may not know it at all. But students relish the opportunity to engage so deeply with the language. The ancient genre presents unique questions of dramatic interpretation too: how to choreograph dance, create the right music, and what to do with the chorus. “The role of the chorus has been the biggest thing that I’ve actually learnt about, being director,” says Gibb, whose final-year thesis focuses on the figure of Helen in Greek literature. “The thing that I’ve enjoyed most is seeing every little stage as it develops; watching the cast coming from a position of being pretty apprehensive and not knowing, to today when I was at rehearsal, and watching the chorus all acting as one unit and coming together—being completely awe-inspired.”

A hard-working member of staff at King’s College holds the final responsibility as executive producer (this year it is Karim Arafat, a classical archaeologist). This feature dates to a 1976 production of Medea, which went so badly wrong that it had to stop mid-run. (Evidence exists in a hysterical report by the archaeologist Geoffrey Waywell, who was greatly entertained by the actors’ desperate attempts to recall their lines). In 2007, as an associate professor at King’s College London, I held the role of executive producer. That year Sophocles’ Trachiniae was the play of choice, and we decided to create a postmodern rendition, leaving out surtitles and instead blending ancient Greek with contemporary English poetry. It was a daunting task, especially for someone whose knowledge of drama was purely textual up until that point (my involvement with the theater consisted of a minor part in the Sound of Music in high school). More than once, tears were shed (by students) but on the night of performance there was an immense sense of team work and pride. It was not an experience to forget. Afterward I set up an archive of performances at King’s, and met with alumni from the 1950s on to talk about their memories—now elderly, all recalled their Greek play days fondly.

The notion of staging a play in the original Greek has a long-running hold on other British institutions as well. At Oxford and Cambridge, a production takes place every three years, traditions that date back to the 19th century. At that time, theater itself was a risqué practice. “Before 1880 it was actually very difficult to stage any kind of play,” says Fiona Macintosh, a lecturer in the reception of Greek and Roman Literature at Oxford. “There was always potential for a scandal surrounding performance, for a whole load of reasons—many people were concerned, by the 1890s, with the trial of Oscar Wilde. It inevitably involved cross-dressing because at that point all the undergraduates were male.”

The renowned classical scholar, Benjamin Jowett, was instrumental in changing the status quo. “The Oxford one came first and was the first serious revival—it was the Agamemnon,” Macintosh explains. “That then inaugurated a tradition, and I think in competition with Oxford, Cambridge two years later in 1882 had its first production in Greek and that was Sophocles’ Ajax.”

Greek plays soon took off elsewhere, as far away as Australia and the United States. “There were plenty of women’s colleges, there were plenty of attempts to stage Greek tragedy in Greek,” Macintosh says of American productions. “Institutionally perhaps there were not the resources to set up or inaugurate a real tradition.”

In the United Kingdom, the early enthusiasm for ancient drama connected with broader cultural trends. The fashionable set would take the train from London to Oxford and Cambridge. “This was a time when everybody was wanting to perform things Greek. It was very à la mode,” Macintosh says. “It was also the time when Liberties store in London opened so you could go to Liberties and buy your Greek style dress, your chiton, and dress up like a Greek. It’s the time of dress reform generally, health reform. So looking back to the Greeks was not just a narrow, philological, or aesthetic desire; it actually became a whole lifestyle.”

Today interest in Greek plays is surprisingly strong, both within and outside the academy. Macintosh is director of the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama at Oxford, which aims to document all performances from antiquity to the present day, and the field has seen an upsurge in scholarly interest and research.

And according to Macintosh, in professional theater Greek drama is more popular than ever before—in translation and adaptation, if not always in the original. “It’s very interesting that Greek tragedy in particular seems now to be international property,” she says. “I think it often enables people to say things because of its inevitable distanced otherness.” Thus Euripides’ Trojan Women has become an anti-war play; Sophocles’ Creon stands in for George W. Bush.

Greek drama intrigues audiences because of its alien form. “You don’t go to the theater nowadays to look at something that’s remarkably like your own life,” Macintosh suggests. “You go to look at something that’s larger than your own life.”

The King’s College production of Helen will be shown February 9-11. Ticket and schedule information is here.

Frieda Klotz is an Irish-born critic and journalist in New York. She taught Greek literature and philosophy at the University of London (King’s College) and is co-writing a book on ancient philosophy for Oxford University Press.

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