Touring the Ivies with Iphigenia, 1915

By Slater, Niall W. | Comparative Drama, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Touring the Ivies with Iphigenia, 1915


Slater, Niall W., Comparative Drama


When the British theater director and playwright Harley Granville Barker (1877-1946) and his wife, the actress Lillah McCarthy (1875-1960), sailed for America to open a season in New York in 1915, they had no specific plans to offer American audiences Euripides. Barker was coming at the invitation of the New York Stage Society. (1) War conditions were already making production of serious drama in London difficult, and the trip would help build goodwill for Britain in officially neutral America. (2) The planned repertory included Shaw and Shakespeare, with both of whom Barker and McCarthy were very much associated in the public mind. Barker had also directed landmark performances of Gilbert Murray's translations of Euripides, beginning with Hippolytus in London in 1904. Trojan Women, Medea, and Iphigenia in Tauris with McCarthy in the title role followed, the last in 1912. Barker speculated to Murray before leaving England about producing Trojan Women in America, but only in February 1915 did he wire Murray with a concrete proposal. (3) The resulting tour brought two of Euripides' tragedies to audiences from Boston to Philadelphia in what may be considered the first major outdoor productions of Greek drama ever done in America. (4)

As Barker told the story, the aetiology of this tour was a visit to Yale during which he was shown the seventy-thousand-seat Yale Bowl. (5) The sight inspired him with the possibility of producing Greek tragedy outdoors by daylight, in spaces and conditions similar to that of the ancient theaters. (6) In an interview with a Yale journalist, he also mentions a visit that he and McCarthy made to the ancient theater of Syracuse as another inspiration. (7) In the end, he organized a tour of the Northeast with just two of Murray's translations: the Trojan Women and the Iphigenia in Tauris. Supported by university fund-raising committees, he toured to Yale, Harvard, Princeton, the City College of New York, and the University of Pennsylvania, primarily utilizing university stadia for productions with a running time of about two hours each. (8)

The choice of plays offers an intriguing pairing. In light of the war in Europe, the selection of Trojan Women seemed obvious then as now. The reaction of the Philadelphia Inquirer's correspondent is representative:

   There is something timely in the great open-air performance of "The
   Trojan Women" before an American audience of many thousand persons
   at a moment when the eyes of the world are centred on Europe, when
   the sympathies of neutral nations are concentrated in alleviating
   the sufferings of war. "The Trojan Women" has been said to be the
   greatest war play ever written, since it contains a message for
   peace and plea for consideration for women and children in times of
   international strife. (9)

Another reviewer aimed for an even more pointed historical analysis, comparing the original Athenian audience, witnessing the play in the aftermath of the Melian massacre, to that in New York watching

   a-thrill with recent memories of Louvain and Malines, of Rheims and
   Ypres,--and of the Lusitania. This fact afforded a double meaning
   to the lines, which was analogous to that other double meaning
   which must have swept through the minds of the twenty thousand
   citizens of Athens who first listened to this tragic drama two
   thousand three hundred and thirty years before. (10)

Barker himself said that Lillah McCarthy, playing Hecuba, looked "like the Queen of the Belgians." (11) The sufferings of the Belgians were much in the public mind: the Philadelphia Public Ledger's review of the Trojan Women suggested the play was "so modern in its intent that it might be called 'The Belgian Women.'" (12) The play's reception might fairly be called reverent.

Reviews of its companion piece, the Iphigenia in Tauris, varied much more widely. The catalyst for discussion was usually the production design, although some reviewers were more critical of McCarthy's performance as Iphigenia than they were of her Hecuba. …

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