Greek Drama in the First Six Decades of the Twentieth Century: Tradition, Identity, Migration

By Wrigley, Amanda | Comparative Drama, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Greek Drama in the First Six Decades of the Twentieth Century: Tradition, Identity, Migration


Wrigley, Amanda, Comparative Drama


This collection of essays from new and established scholars explores the translation, performance, and reception of ancient Greek drama in the period between and around the two world wars--so, broadly speaking, from the beginning of the twentieth century to the 1950s. Taken together, the essays demonstrate that the first six decades of the twentieth century present a significant and fascinating period for the study of modern engagements with Greek drama, one that, although hitherto somewhat overlooked, repays close study.

The essays have a particular focus on how acts of translation, performance, and reception of Greek drama represent and encourage reflections on international dialogues in this period. As will be seen, the authors have interpreted international dialogues in a variety of ways, including commentary on war and global politics, the creative exchange of ideas and promotion of ideologies, trends in performance, and internationally touring theater productions. Common themes arising from these discussions include the often interlinked concepts of tradition, identity, and migration.

The idea of tradition manifests itself in the following essays in various ways, from the trend of staging Greek plays outdoors, in daytime, and before massive audiences, following ancient performance conventions, to the conviction that Greek plays constitute a fundamental part of specifically the Western cultural canon. Engaging with Greek plays from this latter perspective is often inextricably bound up with issues of identity: the agents involved in establishing or calling upon a tradition are often perceived to be not only identifying with something for a particular purpose but also, through this act of identification, clearly distinguishing themselves against some others. International theater festivals are, in this regard, observed as a potent opportunity for the performance of national identity. The assertion of identity--whether of the individual, the community, or the nation--in engagements with canonical works often makes purposeful and powerful use of language via translation and adaptation, and Greek comedy in particular offers opportunities for exploring current debates on identity and nationalism through the use of dialect and language.

In the following discussions, Greek plays are also seen to migrate to new literary cultures and sociocultural arenas through not only linguistic translation or adaptation but also the reinterpretation of ancient Greek social behaviors and religious values to suit contemporary audiences. Migration of plots to modern-day settings also serves as urgent political commentary following international military crises. Touring productions may be perceived as acts of migration--of performance trends and of theater itself to hitherto excluded socioeconomic demographics. Indeed, so can the translation of Greek texts by classical scholars and translators, in the sense that this is the first act that makes these works accessible to readers who do not read Greek.

Some plays have resonated particularly strongly with modern theater practitioners and audiences: Euripides' Trojan Women, for example, served as an archetypal antiwar play for the twentieth century, with productions inviting identification with the victims of war and a recognition of common humanity over and above national or other demarcations. Yet political identities, too, are easily grafted onto ideas from Greek plays: for example, the same Greek tragedy, in this volume, is seen to offer useful material to both antifascists and anticommunists; and theater groups are observed to have turned to Greek plays to express their political ideologies and social concerns.

The contributions to this special issue emphasize the fluidity of culture, the political potency of cultural works, and the vital importance of language both as a tool of communication and as a means of reinforcing a sense of identity in order to achieve political and cultural presence.

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