African-American Classicist William Sanders Scarborough and the 1921 Film of the Oresteia at Cambridge University

By Ronnick, Michele Valerie | Comparative Drama, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

African-American Classicist William Sanders Scarborough and the 1921 Film of the Oresteia at Cambridge University


Ronnick, Michele Valerie, Comparative Drama


The former slave William Sanders Scarborough (1852-1926) is the first professional classicist of African descent in the United States. He lived in an era of pervasive racism, when most believed that a black person had little or no intellectual capacity. His career as a philologist was therefore path-breaking. It encompassed the publication of a college text, First Lessons in Greek (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1881), active participation over a period of forty-four years in the American Philological Association, and a career teaching classical languages at Wilberforce University in Ohio. (1) His scholarly interests ranged beyond the classical and included the study of other languages such as Spanish and German as well as early comparative approaches to the interpretation of drama. (2) In 1898 and again in 1901, he presented two papers on Euripides at the annual meetings of the American Philological Association in which he compared Euripides' characterization of Iphigenia with that of Jean Racine and J. W. von Goethe. (3) His wife, Sarah Cordelia Bierce Scarborough (1851-1933), who was of Caucasian descent, was fluent in French and helped Scarborough translate Racine's Iphigenie (1674), which "proved to be such an interesting study [to him] that in a later paper [he] extended [his] research to include Goethe's representation of the same heroine." (4) Portions of this paper were published as articles in Education. (5) In 1884, he became the first black person to join the Modern Language Association, and he stands today as the father of philological work in any language, ancient or modern, by a person of African descent in the United States. (6)

Scarborough visited England and parts of Europe three times, in 1901, 1911, and again in 1921. On his last trip, he attended the meeting of the Classical Association held on 2-6 August 1921 at Cambridge University. In addition to describing scholars he met and various activities that took place during the meeting, he says in his autobiography that he saw "a special performance of the Oresteia film ... arranged as a closing feature at the Cinema Theatre." (7)

About the film classicist and early film scholar, Pantelis Michelakis tells us, "The Oresteia was produced in Cambridge" to "record a theatre production of the trilogy by students of the University of Cambridge," and it, along with another film of a production of Prometheus, "did not simply preserve two theatre performances of Greek tragedy, but also made them accessible to wider audiences." But, as Michelakis cautions, "our sources of evidence for this body of films are limited and problematic. To start with, almost all of these films are now lost. In many cases we are lucky to have stills, posters or other promotional material produced by the companies themselves that made the films. Shreds of evidence can also be derived from reviewers and censors." (8)

Thus Scarborough's brief mention of this production provides a new shred of evidence. It is a tantalizing footnote to the early history of Greek tragedy on film. Aside from notices found in the local newspapers, his is the only eyewitness report about the film that we have from a private person, and a rather unusual person at that. (9)

Wayne State University

NOTES

(1) William Sanders Scarborough, The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship, ed. Michele Valerie Ronnick, forward by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. …

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