- Ancient Voices in Contemporary Theatrical Forms: The Case of The Bacchae by Kneehigh Theatre and Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl
In one of his seminal essays, Roland Barthes defines myth as “a mode of signification, a form.”1 In our highly desacralized postmodern societies and amidst the fragmented timeframes of our multiconnected existence, this signifying form continues to provide the utopian promise of a unified meaning, whereby the mysteries of the world around us might be (re)interpreted. Myths have permeated all kinds of discourses since their inception. Whereas religion, philosophy, and art have been their traditional realms, modern theories of sociology and psychology have adopted such discourses in order to explain certain mechanisms that govern or condition societies and their individuals. In the Western world, it is Greek mythology that has proved almost a universal guidebook for those disciplines in their respective examination of human nature. As the psychologist Dan P. McAdams contends, the protagonists of the Greek pantheon “personify basic human needs and propensities that are still exemplified and played out today in personal myths and human lives.”2 The everlasting and multitemporal frame that is offered by Greek mythology has also attracted contemporary artists and writers, who have discovered in some of the foundation narratives of their tradition both a source of humanistic questioning and a site of formal experimentation. If, in her study of modern drama, Angela Belli affirmed that “myth makes art possible,”3 it can also be stated that classical myths sustain postmodern forms of artistic representation.
Of all the arts, the theatre is the one that can be most closely related to the fluctuating temporality of the myth. With the trace of Dionysian cults at its origins, contemporary Western theatre maintains its ties with the past through its frequent resort to classical mythology, while at the same time absorbing new stage systems and reformulating its codes. In today’s European and American theatres, it is possible to find experimental companies and playwrights who return to Greek myths [End Page 65] as the main source material for their avant-garde dramaturgies. Even though this phenomenon is hardly a new one, as demonstrated by the neoclassical trend that provided, in Angela Belli’s words, “some of the most exciting moments in [mid-] twentieth-century drama,”4 its perpetuated occurrence in the theatres of the new millennium is worth pondering.
Analyzing re-creations of ancient myths in contemporary plays enables the observation of the cultural (dis)continuities that define our time, and more specifically, of the societies that are represented in those texts. The dialogical relationship between classical and postmodern culture can be detected through the reformulation of the plays’ symbols as well as through their focus on certain mythic stories which nurture their main subject matter. As Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood explains, in the same way that the original Greek tragedies “were cultural artifacts embedded in the society that generated them . . .” and were understood “through the deployments of perceptual filters shared by . . . their contemporary audiences,”5 present-day theatricalizations of classical myths articulate polysemic meanings that speak directly to their viewers, while revealing the formal, thematic and, ultimately, philosophical concerns of contemporary authors in the postmodern world.
This essay will explore the dramaturgical strategies of two plays that were inspired by Greek dramaturgy, and which were published in the first decade of this century, namely, Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice6 and Kneehigh Theatre’s The Bacchae.7 The authors of both texts can be considered relevant names for contemporary English-language drama. The fact that Ruhl and Kneehigh resorted to mythic stories in two of their best-known plays enables a comparative study of the interaction between ancient narrative forms and contemporary codes in present-day Western theatre. Besides the semiotic consideration of the plays’ formal devices, the comparison between the two texts also throws light on the re-construction of allegedly universal themes in postmodern reworkings of myths. All in all, this article will look at the presence of the past in two plays that represent some of the new voices of English-language theatre on both sides of the Atlantic.