publisher colophon

How do you encourage students to engage effectively with classical Greek and Roman drama and its reception in the modern world in an online distance learning setting? That was the challenge facing the authors of this article while they collaborated on a section of a new Open University Masters’ course devoted to classical reception. The guiding pedagogical principle that underpins our study material is a multi-vocal approach that foregrounds the wealth of different perspectives, theories and methodologies inherent in the study of classical reception. Choosing performance reception as a paradigm for the whole field, we sought to bridge the gap between unseen lecturers and distance learners, creating a dynamic virtual classroom and equipping students with the skills to carry out further research in this thriving field of classical studies.

  All the world’s a stage,And all the men and women merely players:They have their exits and their entrances . . .  Shakespeare, As You Like It

(Act II, Scene VII) [End Page 707]

Teaching performance reception in an online environment presents us with a unique set of challenges but also with some exciting opportunities. 1 It can help us re-evaluate how we discuss with our students the phenomenon of the revival of ancient Greek and Roman dramas in the modern world. For the purposes of our block on classical reception (an elective section of The Open University’s Postgraduate Foundation Module in Classical Studies, see appendix 1)2 we deliberately adopted a wider definition of “performance,” which included the reception of classical tragedy on both stage and screen. Naturally we differentiated between the two media and styles of acting. Drawing also on Performance Studies theory, we further sought to demonstrate the importance of the performance paradigm for understanding both ancient and modern culture and our own role as spectators.

Significantly, our students will not have the opportunity to interact with us in the online pedagogical environment. The primary focus of their study is the teaching material that we co-authored establishing from the very beginning the importance of team teaching in classical reception. In our block, Anastasia introduces classical reception studies and then investigates Euripides’ Troades and two examples of its reception from stage and screen. Paula picks up the discussion and focuses on Seneca’s The Trojan Women and the reception of ancient Rome on film. To compensate somewhat for the lack of a conventional classroom, we deliberately adopted a conversational tone to help us bridge the gap between our distance learner(s) and us as block authors.

In addition, in an Open University setting, a team of dedicated tutors (Associate Lecturers) supports our material authored for the course and the selection of audio-visual resources that we tailor to its use. For this module this takes the form of both synchronous and asynchronous teaching: Adobe Connect tutorials are supported by email and phone contact with the students. A monitor is also assigned to each course for the sole purpose of keeping an eye on its dedicated forum, disseminating relevant information, and prompting the students to engage. As the block’s authors we also tried at every turn to encourage student [End Page 708] interaction. In our study material we direct our students to the online forums, but also urge them to join in additional conversations through social media such as Facebook and Twitter. In practical terms this meant that we strove to anticipate any potential problems that might arise as we were writing the teaching material. Open University modules have a life span of roughly eight to ten years during which only limited revisions and additions are allowed.

Authoring material for online presentation also requires a very different writing style, one that is easy to read, follow, and digest on a computer screen. We deliberately break up our discussion by inserting a lot of subheadings, so students do not have to read long passages of prose on their computer screens. Instead they are asked to read short chunks and can click the forward button when they are ready. The module relies heavily on a question-and-answer format in which students are asked to ponder a series of questions/themes connected with carefully chosen readings and other resources (audio-visual material, links to relevant webpages and other specifically tailored assets). After completing their assigned tasks students can then click to reveal a hidden discussion that suggests more issues to think about and explore (a “further reading” list is also provided at the end of each section).

Our pedagogical strategy is based on asking students to read, listen, and watch material by themselves in order to form their own initial impressions, before guiding them through the block’s set texts, readings, and audio-visual resources. We use the Socratic method of posing questions rather than asking them to accept our interpretation of the material. The multiplicity of perspectives and “voices” available to students via their reading material, audio-visual resources and online forms of communication construct what we hope is a satisfying interactive experience that is both didactic and dialogic.

Our section on classical reception is but one building block of a Master’s program, so we wanted to challenge rather than spoon-feed the students. Our mantra is learning through doing and so the material is constructed around a series of activities and exercises culminating in a TMA (Tutor Marked Assignment), in which students are asked to apply the skills they have learned throughout the block. This takes the form of a thematically linked comparative text analysis and short essay with particular focus on performative issues (see appendix 2). We build up to this task by encouraging students to stop at regular intervals and reflect on what they have learned thus far. In the later sections, in particular, [End Page 709] we ask them to apply that knowledge and complete a series of exercises. In this way we hope to build up the students’ confidence and to arm them with the tools they need to complete their final assignment, which counts towards their overall grade for the MA.

Tight word limits mean that we had to carefully weigh the value of each word and limit the number of case studies we attempted. We did not wish simply to offer a history of a play’s reception in a particular period or nation, or to burden the students with too much information. Studies have demonstrated that this learning model is inherently flawed. Our pedagogical strategy for the block is based on three principles: “elaboration” (relating new knowledge to material students are already familiar with, explaining it in their own words and thinking about how it relates to their own life), “generation” (asking a question or posing a problem before giving students the answer) and “reflection” (reviewing what students have learned and asking questions designed to ensure that they have understood the concepts and ideas).3 The “Classical Reception” block is designed to give our students an in-depth engagement with clear examples and effective skills, thus equipping them with the tools necessary to conduct their own research on topics of interest in the field and in classical studies, more generally.

II. Why Euripides’ and Seneca’s Trojan Women?

We chose the story of the fall of Troy because of contemporary preoccupation with war and its devastating consequences, but also for more practical reasons. Euripides and Seneca offer us two distinctive dramatic perspectives on the tragic aftermath of the war at Troy. The comparison of these Greek and Roman dramas allows us to highlight the fact that reception begins in antiquity. It also enables us to draw the students’ attention to the fact that like everything else, plays go in and out of fashion. As Euripides’ Troades (415 b.c.e.) gained in popularity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Seneca’s play (first century c.e.) lost ground. The two examples of Euripides’ reception, Katie Mitchell’s Women of Troy (2007) and Michael Cacoyannis’ film The Trojan Women (1971) were selected because they testify to the popularity of [End Page 710] the anti-war interpretation of the ancient play with both theatre practitioners and filmmakers in the twenty and twenty-first centuries. On a practical level, these case studies were also chosen because the institutions involved, the National Theatre (London, UK) and the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation (Athens, Greece), allowed our students access to copyrighted material. After all, it is not possible to study any kind of performance without access to examples that one’s students can watch.

The choice of Seneca’s Trojan Women as a performance case study could at first be seen as counter intuitive. We were aware that students would encounter difficulties in finding a current staging of the tragedy that they could view or gain access to a past production in easily accessible theatre archives.4 However, there were some significant pluses to setting Seneca alongside Euripides, not least that students would be in familiar territory once they had read and reacted to Euripides’ treatment of the aftermath of the Trojan War and the fate of the Trojan women. Knowing the overall mythical narrative is empowering, and it places the students in a similar position to that of ancient audience members who were familiar with the myths that served as the basis for many of the plots of Greek tragedy. Our students can thus actively compare the different versions of the story of the fall of Troy that they encounter in the block and evaluate them on that basis.5 As ever with pedagogic strategies this positive also had a negative waiting in the wings. Would there be a surfeit of suffering to contend with? Especially, bearing in mind that predominantly individual and independent engagement with harrowing material (the challenge of the distance learner) can make for a grim experience confirming the dark view of tragedy as ending in misery and death.6 We hope that the lively manner in which the material is discussed compensates for the grim subject matter. [End Page 711]

There were other compelling reasons for bringing Seneca’s Roman tragedy into the equation. We were keen to demonstrate how ancient dramatists were receivers as well as transmitters of major myths and legends. Euripides was refashioning material on the Trojan War from epic and lyric traditions, but Seneca was further down the line in the chain of receptions. His play is aesthetically informed by Euripides’ dramas on the theme of Troy, but is also a creative response to Vergilian mises-en-scène in the Aeneid and Ovid’s characterizations of Hecuba and Polyxena in the Metamorphoses.7 Focusing, in a brief introduction, on what might have influenced Seneca in his approach to the material and his poetic enterprise introduces the notion of authorial intentionality, 8 which is examined in more detail in the sections that follow. Our students also confront academic assumptions about the impact Seneca’s drama might have had upon a contemporary readership or audience. We prompt students to read and reread The Trojan Women, so that they adopt their own critical position on the literary texture and performative possibilities of the play.

As with Euripides’ Troades, we urge students to engage with the play and note down their reactions before finding out about the subsequent cultural trajectory of Seneca’s drama or speculating upon his reasons for writing tragedy. We remind our students that the online tutor group forums provide an optional medium for a collective exchange of impressions, which our Associate Lecturers guide sensitively and skillfully so that everyone keeps to appropriate standards of netiquette and enjoys a stimulating discussion. The online synchronous seminars (Adobe Connect) are scheduled around assignment time to ensure the students [End Page 712] have digested and understood the material they are being assessed on. In the new MA module there is no formal arrangement for face-to-face tuition as there was in the course’s previous incarnation (2000–2014). It is our experience that tutor led seminars engender a more flexible and enriching debate, and that students benefit from face-to-face discussion in terms of motivation and intellectual development.9

III. Euripides’ Text, Which Text?

In order to demonstrate to students that there is no single, authentic, and unchanging “text” of any classical drama we went behind the curtain to reveal the long process by which a modern director arrives at a working performance text or script.10 Katie Mitchell revisited Euripides’ Troades for her Women of Troy (2007) produced for the National Theatre (this was in fact the second time she had directed the play).11 Mitchell’s starting point for her production was Don Taylor’s 1990 translation, designed to emphasize the performative possibilities of the drama for the modern stage. In the interview Katie Mitchell granted to Anastasia, the director described how choosing a translation is an important first step, but she freely admitted that she discarded or heavily modified much of Taylor’s text to suit the needs of her production. This process continued, in collaboration with the actors. They fine-tuned the performance text right up until the premiere and even after the press week.12 [End Page 713]

Thanks to the generosity of The National Theatre our students can compare three versions of the plays’ climactic scene: their set text (Arnson Svarlien 2012), Taylor’s translation, and Mitchell’s marked-up script from which she worked in rehearsals. This heavily annotated text with words and entire lines crossed out or added and with changes recorded in the margins lays bare the creative process that culminated in the performance text for the production. Classical texts are not set in stone but are constantly evolving and being transformed as they are translated and adapted for modern performance. The purpose of this exercise was to demonstrate how even the smallest changes in the text help to shape a performer’s portrayal. Such changes can in turn affect the spectators’ reception of the drama.

Students are asked to engage with a variety of material, including two reviews, which offered contrasting opinions on the merits of Mitchell’s production, so that they could appreciate the wide range of possible individual responses to a theatrical production. Opinion about Euripides’ Troades appears to have been divided in fifth-century Athens f(it was awarded second prize at the dramatic festival of 415 b.c.e.) and critical and scholarly opinion about the play has waxed and waned. Students are also encouraged to conduct their own online searches for relevant material. This offers them the opportunity to practice searching for information for their own research project should they wish to pursue a dissertation in a classical reception topic.

IV. Engaging with Seneca’s Text and Context

After reading the play, and before a second close engagement with the text, students are encouraged to reflect on the political and cultural context of Seneca’s Trojan Women. We refer them to the OCD entry on Seneca, but also offer them a more personal and provocative BBC audio lecture. The variety of material highlights the uncertainty and scholarly debate surrounding the still-unresolved question of whether Seneca’s plays were actually performed in the classical period. One school of thought holds that the plays were designed for recitation, a theory that arose in the specific conditions of nineteenth-century scholarship; another that they were performed as small-scale, private house entertainments. A third theory puts forward the idea that Seneca’s plays were ideally suited to the choreographic accompaniment of serious pantomime. [End Page 714]

This debate complicates the performance reception on the Roman version of The Trojan Women. Unlike Euripides who was writing for the dramatic festivals of Athens, we cannot be sure about Seneca’s target audience or if he had a didactic or social purpose in penning his tragedies. Yet again, we had to guard against students, who work mainly on their own, feeling a sense of aporia when confronted with an insecure and patchy knowledge base. “What we know, or what we think we know” is a strong theme throughout the module, but at the same time we did not want to undermine confidence in well-supported investigations conducted painstakingly by past and present scholars.

To offset this danger, we asked students to read and listen to historical summaries about the man and his era, so that they could further develop their skills in identifying relevant information in a wealth of background material. We suggest that they reflect on the following themes: What was Seneca’s relationship with power and success in a violent and volatile political world? Was his Stoic philosophy an effective coping mechanism? Does it really inform all his works, including the tragedies? We want our students to consider Seneca’s personal and social psychology, and to gain some informed impressions from his own writings as well as from the judgment of near contemporaries and the interpretations of classical scholars.

Students were then asked to focus on the early scenes of the Senecan play and compare and contrast these scenes with Euripides’ tragedy, making judgments about characterization and emotional impact. They then re-read Seneca alongside extracts from Vergil’s epic narrative on the fall of Troy. The main emphasis was on Seneca as a receiver and re-fashioner of the myth. In the teaching material we adopted an inclusive approach. It is all too easy to provide a response in the “discussion” that is well beyond the reach of the students, so conclusions based on a more in-depth knowledge of the play and the scholarly output surrounding it (for example, a linguistic and literary commentary) are clearly demarcated from the exercise itself. Our readers were particularly helpful in this respect demonstrating once more the value of team teaching and collaboration.

Choosing to state explicitly learning outcomes can be a two-edged sword, as it may not be immediately obvious to an anxious student that they have acquired the aptitude or skill required for the intellectual activity. It is of paramount importance to have a clear idea of what facility you are asking students to develop. The student may wonder why they are being asked to address a task (for instance comparing translations [End Page 715] of a passage) and question whether they have the tools to complete it successfully. To make the translation exercise more stimulating and multi-purpose, we hit upon the idea of recording Andromache’s speech about the dream of Hector. The authors read the Latin text and an English translation by Wilson (2010). The discussion following this exercise focused on translation choices and listener preferences. In this way they can “meet” the Block authors, experience some of the sound effects of the original language and think about the literary and dramatic texture of the passage.

V. Performance, Which Performance?

When discussing performance in the classroom (even a virtual one) it is vitally important to offer students access to examples that can really engage them. Attempting to accomplish this in an online environment presented us with a series of practical challenges that led us to radically reevaluate our approach. Copyright laws made certain choices unattainable. Even if a performance is recorded for posterity, being granted permission to reproduce it in its entirety for a distance-learning course that students have to pay for is a much harder proposition. In terms of films, to mention the blatantly obvious example, Hollywood studio movies were far beyond the reach of our modest budget. Luckily, Greek tragedy, unlike Roman history, has never appealed to mainstream filmmakers. It is independent directors who have produced some really exciting versions of Greek drama for the silver screen as well as for television.13

Thanks to the generosity of the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation our students have access to the Greek-Cypriot director’s The Trojan Women (1971). The film is a landmark in the modern performance tradition of interpreting Euripides’ play as an anti-war rallying cry.14 Having access to the film allows for repeated viewings and offers students the opportunity to benefit from working closely with set scenes that they can return to again and again. Students begin their work in this section [End Page 716] by watching the film in its entirety in order to formulate their own responses. They then re-evaluate these as they study the film in greater depth and within its early 1970s context. The tools that a classicist needs in order to investigate a cinematic reception of classical antiquity are introduced with reference to Cacoyannis’ prologue, which replaces Euripides’ epiphany (1–97), and Hecuba’s first soliloquy (98–152). The beginning of the film sets the scene by revealing that the cause of the war was nothing more than human greed. Its emphasis on the suffering of the Trojan women shapes the audience’s response to what follows. As well as comparing these scenes to their set text students have to think about performance issues such as acting style, costumes, landscape (the movie was filmed outdoors in Spain in the ruins of a castle), soundtrack and their impact on how the drama is interpreted in performance in the medium of cinema.

The impact of analyzing a film that deliberately seeks to elicit an emotional response from its audiences and to enlist their sympathies for the Trojans allows us to return to the perennial question of how far we can reconstruct the ancient audience’s response to the first performance of the play. In the accompanying questions and discussion section students have to consider the differences between the film and the ancient drama with particular reference to the key role played by its audiences. Did fifth-century Athenians really see war in the same negative way that we do today? After all, their polis was engaged in nearly constant warfare in this period. Would ancient audience members have sympathized with the plight of Hecuba, Cassandra, Andromache and the chorus of Trojan women in the play, and if so to what degree? We have to remind ourselves as well as our students that the Trojans were viewed as the traditional enemies of the Greek city-states and in the aftermath of the Persian Wars the East became increasingly demonized in Greek thought.15 This leads into a discussion of the importance of context when investigating the reasons why changes are introduced. The movie was shot in the early seventies, so students are guided towards an awareness of the contemporary framework: world events (the anti-war movement, and the Vietnam War), modern Greek history (the Greek dictatorship of [End Page 717] 1967–74) and the director’s background and activities in this period.16 A series of questions leads students to interrogate Cacoyannis’ claim of fidelity to Euripides’ drama. The concept of authenticity is thus destabilized in this step-by-step process, which guides our students towards adopting a more critical stance.

The work that the students undertake in the sections focusing on Mitchell’s production and Cacoyannis’ film hopefully leads them to rethink their assumptions about Euripides’ drama and the popular interpretation of it as “the most shattering and complete condemnation of the atrocities of war in any language” (Taylor 1990: x). We want our students to consciously stop and think about the very process of reception, and the fact that by reading this material they themselves become part of this ongoing process. The final exercise at the end of the material for both case studies asks students to return to Lorna Hardwick’s vocabulary for classical reception (Hardwick 2003: 9–100), a key reading in the introduction, and to reflect on which of her terms they would pick to describe Mitchell’s Women of Troy and Cacoyannis’ The Trojan Women. They are reassured that they can choose more than one, but they are instructed to justify their choice(s) in the online forum. The pedagogical goal is to demonstrate how hard it is to draw these distinctions, as for example between a translation, a version or an adaptation.

VI. Seneca in Performance

Although students are made aware of the history of Senecan reception and that his tragedies have fallen out of fashion, tight word limits and wariness about workloads for students studying part-time (in the main) meant that a judicious selection of themes and reception periods was de rigueur. After the play is introduced students are asked to consider receptions of Seneca’s play in the modern world.17 Paula made a conscious choice not [End Page 718] to trace the ebb and flow of the popularity of Seneca’s play through the centuries as it makes more sense for students to concentrate on the reception of Seneca in the recent time frame established in their study of the afterlife of the Athenian tragedy. Paula, therefore, confined her unit on the reception of Seneca to relatively recent productions, which benefitted from the written reflections of the actors and directors involved.

There is nothing, however, for students to see apart from some scenes of a very free and quite visceral staging of Seneca’s Trojan Women (a recording of a live performance in 2013, still available at the time of writing on YouTube). However, we decided that they could gain a great deal from reading about the exciting challenges practitioners faced in staging the tragedy for a modern audience. The selected readings for this section are extracts from Gyllian Raby’s reflections in Seneca in Performance in which Raby explains her staging choices and why she directed her version with poignant resonances of present-day conflicts.18 This creates a good parallel with the interview in which Katie Mitchell talks about her decisions as the director of Women of Troy. Students also read Katharina Volk’s chapter in the same volume (Volk 2000: 197–208), in which she reflected upon her shifting perception of the characterization of Andromache, the part she played in a performance of The Trojan Women performed in Latin. The aim here is to offer students a performer’s perspective.

VII. Visualizing Seneca’s Rome

Our aim throughout was to communicate to our students that the reception of the classical world can be performative and visual in a number of nuanced ways. The messenger’s speech in the finale of Seneca’s tragedy, graphically describing the deaths of Polyxena and Astyanax, young Trojan royals “sacrificed” by the Greeks, allows us to link the spectacle of suffering and the imagery of the amphitheater to the cinematic portrayal of ancient Rome as a place of violence and voyeurism. [End Page 719]

Two podcast interviews with Jon Solomon and Maria Wyke,19 pioneers in the area of the classical world on screen, injected a lively and provocative note into the Senecan equation. A key issue to emerge was the way in which Rome’s imperial past (spectacles of suffering–the Game Show) is providing a framework for present day cinematic fantasies about dystopian futures.20 These conversations revisit key concepts and issues: What is classical reception? What is its academic range? What motivated classicists to explore the appearance of Greco-Roman history, myth, and literature in mass culture? These interviews and the accompanying material in the concluding units on Trojan Women covered the “fatal charades” or mythical re-enactments in the arena. The students have access to a summary of Seneca’s observations on displays of courage at the Roman Games (dying a good death). This highlights the theatrical nature of political realities and power struggles in the Roman capital, where indeed all the world must have seemed like a stage and the art of dissembling was necessary for survival at the top (and when on the way down!) from the imperial court.

The selection of Seneca’s Trojan Women as a core text (in Ahl’s 1986 translation) allows us to tease out performance issues with a play that might at first glance appear limited for a study of current classical reception paradigms. To accomplish this we were compelled to be creative and make a montage of associations. We regret that the virtual medium offers far fewer opportunities for students to experiment with being or becoming practitioners.21 Nevertheless, we are confident that our distance learners, with the expert guidance and support of their tutors, and with the benefit of the online group dynamic, will start thinking critically about staging Seneca in and for a modern world.

VIII. Conclusion

Performance is a collaborative process and authoring this teaching material was a joint effort that enabled us to offer our students a wider range of case studies as well as different perspectives. Including an interview [End Page 720] with a theatre practitioner, a cinematic reception of a Greek tragedy, and discussions with three colleagues specializing in reception is for us not only a deliberate choice, but also the right one. After all classical reception valorizes the role of the reader/spectator in our ongoing dialogue with ancient Greece and Rome, so a course that seeks to engage with this topic should offer students a variety of voices, approaches, and perspectives thus demonstrating the importance of debate and of the individual’s contribution to our dialogue with the classical past.

Anastasia Bakogianni
Massey University, New Zealand
Paula James
The Open University

Appendix 1

Postgraduate Foundation Module in Classical Studies

Block 4: “Classical Reception” Outline

Unit 1 Introduction to classical reception (2 weeks)

Unit 2 Euripides’ Troades (1 week)

Unit 3 Greek tragedy on the modern stage (half a week)

Unit 4 Greek tragedy on film (1 week)

Unit 5 Seneca’s Trojan Women (1 week)

Unit 6 The two-way reception of Seneca: interpreting the text and performing the play (1 week)

Unit 7 Looking back and moving forward (half a week)

TMA preparation

Appendix 2

Block 4 Assignment

This assignment is in two parts (part 1 = 40 per cent; part 2 = 60 per cent). You should answer both parts of the assignment.

Part 1: Ancient Sources Question

This part of the TMA relates to two passages from the main texts (extracts 1 and 2). Extract one is lines 957–79 of the set translation of Euripides’ Trojan Women by Diane Arnson Svarlien. Extract two is lines 908–26 from Act IV in the set text of Seneca’s The Trojan Women by Frederick Ahl.

Answer the following question in no more than 1,000 words.
Compare and contrast Helen’s speeches from Euripides and Seneca. Has Seneca made Helen more persuasive or sympathetic?

Guidance Notes

Part 1: Ancient Sources Question
We suggest you re-read Scodel’s introduction in your Euripides’ set text (referenced in Unit 2.6) in which the Greek tragedian’s other surviving plays on the theme of Troy’s defeat are brought into the equation. In Unit 5.2 we acknowledge that Seneca would have been working with more than one dramatic and indeed epic source on the women of Troy, the figure of Helen included. You could take a moment to think about where you might look for other “Helens” if you were doing an in-depth case study of influences on Seneca’s characterization of the Spartan queen. However, the issue of such influences in the context of a “chain of receptions” within antiquity does not in any way compromise your answer to this question as Helen’s speech in Seneca does correspond to her self-justification in Euripides’ Troades and looks like a creative remodeling of the scene in the Greek tragedy.

In answering this part of the TMA, we suggest that you look closely at the language used in these translations. How does it affect how Helen is represented? What differences can you detect between the passages, and how far do you think Seneca is modeling his Helen on the portrayal in Euripides? Remember this is an opportunity for you to comment upon the representation of Helen in Euripides and Seneca and to make a judgment about the effectiveness of the two characterizations.

For instance, does Seneca’s Helen try to better her arguments as if she has read and reflected on her previous attempts at an excuse in Euripides!? Alternatively you may find the Helen of the Roman play glib and mannered or even a stale imitation of the character in the Greek Troades. There are several ways of teasing out even complicating the way in which “the two-way dynamics of the act of reception” (Paul 2008: 307) might be working in these extracts.

Enjoy this chance of combining your personal response to scenes from the plays with an application of the close reading skills you have developed from engaging with the text of the plays in the Block exercises.

Part 2: Essay Question
Write no more than 1500 words on the possible challenges faced by practitioners (this term covers producers, directors, actors) in bringing the female figures in either Euripides’ or Seneca’s play to life in a modern staging or screening. You may confine your discussion to a single character and you may count the chorus as a female character with one voice.

Guidance notes

This essay question is designed to focus you on the choices practitioners have made about the characterization of captive women (including Helen, the subject of your sources assignment) at Troy. In Block 4 you have encountered several different performances of the two dramas and engaged with the strategies directors, filmmakers and actors have devised to portray the poignant plight of the tragic Trojans for diverse target audiences.

You may also be able to draw upon your own experience of viewing a version of Euripides’ tragedy or you may have pursued and critiqued scenes (provided in the YouTube link) from a recent very free translation and staging of Seneca’s Trojan Women.

Whatever examples you refer to in highlighting the challenges of performing and receiving an ancient play and relating to its characters, the important point is that you have reflectively engaged with the tensions underlying the dramatization of ancient plays in post-classical contexts and asked some of the questions raised in Block 4.

For instance, you might feel that the personal tragedies and dilemmas of individual figures in the plays are in danger of being less relevant and more alienating but maybe more “authentic” in productions that stick close to the original Euripides with a literal translation, and with staging and costume design from the original Greek theatre. How would Seneca’s female characters come across in an audio performance and would that help us to see whether his plays work well for voices only?

And what about the fate of the Trojan women in productions that make them mouthpieces for current concerns about war, displacement and violence to women with free translations and modern sets? Are these versions so far removed from the cultural and historical context of the classical playwrights that knowledge of Euripides or Seneca is redundant for the target audience and the suffering of the women of Troy effectively silenced rather than made immortal?

Remember that you should see yourselves as an individual receiver of the text on page and stage or screen but be able to demonstrate that you have engaged with issues of performance reception critically reviewed in the units.

Works Cited

Ahl, F., tr., 1986. Seneca: Trojan Women. Ithaca, NY.
Arnson Svarlien, D., tr., 2012. Euripides: Andromache, Hecuba, Trojan Women, intro, and notes R. Scodel. Indianapolis.
Bakogianni, A. 2015. “The Anti-War Spectacle: Denouncing War in Michael Cacoyannis’ Euripidean Trilogy.” In A. Bakogianni and V. M. Hope, eds., War as Spectacle: Ancient and Modern Perspectives on the Display of Armed Conflict. London. 291–311.
Bakogianni, A. 2017. “Hollywood Meets Art-House Cinema: Michael Cacoyannis’ ‘Hybrid’ Euripidean Trilogy.” In A. J. Pomeroy, ed., Blackwell Companion to Ancient Greece and Rome on Screen. Malden, MA. 167–85.
Blessington, F., tr., 2015. “Introduction.” Trojan Women, Helen, Hecuba: Three Plays about Women and the Trojan War. Madison. 2–9
Bodard, G. and M. Romanello, eds., 2016. Digital Classics Outside the Echo-Chamber: Teaching, Knowledge Exchange and Public Engagement. London.
Bridges, E., E. Hall and P. J. Rhodes, eds., 2007. Cultural Responses to the Persian Wars: Antiquity to the Third Millennium. Oxford.
Brown, P. C., H. L. Roediger III, and M. A. McDaniel 2014. Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Leaning. Cambridge, MA.
Cole, E. 2015. “The Method behind the Madness: Katie Mitchell, Stanislavski, and the Classics,” CRJ 7.3: 400–21.
Dutton, D. 2005. “Authenticity in Art.” Entry in J. Levinson, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Oxford. 258–74.
Gamel, M. K. 2010. “Revising ‘Authenticity’ in Staging Ancient Mediterranean Drama.” In E. Hall and S. Harrop, eds., Theorising Performance: Greek Drama, Cultural History and Critical Practice. London. 153–70.
Gamel, M. K. 2013. “Can ‘Democratic’ Modern Stagings of Ancient Drama be ‘Authentic’.” In L. Hardwick and S. Harrison, eds., Classics in the Modern World: A ‘Democratic Turn’? Oxford. 183–95.
Gellar-Goad, T. H. M. 2014. “Gender, Performance, Pedagogy.” In A. Jeppesen-Wigelsworth and L. Gloyn, eds., Cloelia NS.4: 45–53.
Goff, B. 2009. Euripides: Trojan Women. London.
Goldhill, S. 2007. “Tragedy and Politics: What’s Hecuba to Him?” In How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today. Chicago. 119–52.
Hardwick, L. 2003. “From the Classical Tradition to Reception Studies.” In Reception Studies, Greece & Rome, New Surveys in the Classics no. 33. Oxford. 1–11.
Hermanson, A. 2014. The Horror Plays of the English Restoration. Farnham.
Livingston, P. 2005. Art and Intention: A Philosophical Study. Oxford.
McConnell, J. 2015. “Epic Parodies: Martial Extravaganzas on the Nineteenth-Century Stage.” In A. Bakogianni and V. M. Hope, eds., War as Spectacle: Ancient and Modern Perspectives on the Display of Armed Conflict. London. 257–70.
Michelakis, P. 2013. Greek Tragedy on Screen. Oxford.
Mills, S. 2010. “Affirming Athenian Action: Euripides’s Portrayal of Military Activity and the Limits of Tragic Instruction.” In D. M. Pritchard, ed., War, Democracy and Culture in Classical Athens. Cambridge. 163–83.
Paul, J. 2008. “Working with Film: Theories and Methodologies.” In L. Hardwick and C. Stray, eds., A Companion to Classical Receptions. Malden, MA and Oxford. 303–14.
Raby, G. 2000. “Seneca’s Trojan Women: Identity and Survival in the Aftermath of War.” In G. W. M. Harrison, ed., Seneca in Performance. London. 173–96.
Slaney, H. 2016. The Senecan Aesthetic: A Performance History. Oxford.
Taplin, O. 1978, repr. 2002. Greek Tragedy in Action. Abingdon.
Taylor, D., tr., 1990. Euripides. The War Plays: Iphigenia at Aulis, The Women of Troy, Helen. London.
Trinacty, C. V. 2014. Senecan Tragedy and the Reception of Augustan Poetry. Oxford and New York.
Volk, K. 2000. “Putting Andromache on Stage: A Performer’s Perspective.” In G. W. M. Harrison, ed., Seneca in Performance. London. 197–208.
Wilson, E., tr., 2010. Six Tragedies of Seneca, with intro and notes. Oxford and New York.

Anastasia would like to personally thank Katie Mitchell, the National Theatre in London, and the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation (Athens, Greece) for granting our students access to material that enriches their learning experience. Paula and Anastasia would also like to thank our colleagues Joanna Paul, Jon Solomon, and Maria Wyke who agreed to lend their expertise and voices to the three podcasts exploring the reception of Seneca and, more generally, classical antiquity in film. Access to this material is restricted to students taking the course, so it cannot be discussed in detail here. We are also indebted to our external and internal assessors for the module, Konstantinos Vlassopoulos (University of Crete) and Ardle MacMahon (The Open University). Many thanks are due to our two independent readers, Amanda Potter (Honorary Associate, The Open University) and Liz Webb (PhD candidate, The Open University), as well as to Gonda Van Steen (King’s College London) for her invaluable feedback on an earlier draft. Last, but by no means least, we are very grateful to Barney Savage and Matthew Holley, our dedicated audio-visual team at The Open University, for making us look and sound good.


1. A study not available to us at the time of writing: Bodard and Romanello 2016.

2. Our block formed one section of part one of the MA in Classical Studies. For more information about the course see: (accessed 8/30/2016). The reception block is designed as an eight-week course of study, like the other elective sections of the module.

3. For more information on these three principles see Brown, Roediger and McDaniel 2014: 207–10.

4. Our search for accessible material focused on UK-based theatre archives, but we cannot expect our students to commit themselves to visiting such archives in person, so we had to limit ourselves to case studies where it was possible to gain permission to reproduce material online. A production of Seneca’s The Trojan Women (Nameless Theatre, London 2013) did become available on YouTube in the later stages of the module’s preparation but was not cleared for use by The Open University, which generally refrains from using ephemeral material that might not be available over the life span of its modules.

5. On ancient dramas as part of a “continuum” of dramatic versions of mythical stories see Gamel 2010: 158.

6. In the early planning stages, we did consider including a discussion of a comic version of the fall of Troy for light relief, but tight word limits made this unviable. We considered Fragment of a Greek Tragedy by A. E. Houseman (1883, rev. 1901, accessed 4/21/2015) and Stephen Leacock’s Oroastus: A Greek Tragedy (1923). Including this type of material could be both a way of lightening the mood, and a way of drawing attention to the fact that in ancient Greek theatre tragedy was followed by a satyr play. This pattern was repeated in the history of the plays’ reception with comic re-workings overtaking the tragic in popularity during certain periods. For example, as far as we could discover Euripides’ Troades was not performed in the nineteenth century, but there were a number of British burlesques on the subject of the war at Troy and its aftermath, such as Robert Brough’s The Siege of Troy. For more information on nineteenth-century comic versions of the war at Troy, see McConnell 2015: 257–70.

7. For an in-depth analysis of the debt Seneca owes to Augustan poets see Trinacty 2014.

8. We found Livingston’s Art and Intention: A Philosophical Study (2005) particularly helpful on intentionality.

9. New technologies such as Zoom and Skype for Business are continuing to help reduce the gap between face-to-face and distance tutorials allowing for a more interactive experience. I am grateful to my Massey colleague Michael Belgrave (History) for allowing me to sit in on his distance MA tutorials, demonstrating the capabilities of Zoom. A crucial factor in the effectiveness of both Zoom and Skype for Business is that they allow for video conferencing.

10. On the problematic concept of “authenticity” as applied to modern performances of classical dramas see M. K. Gamel’s discussion of the “typology of authenticities” (2013: 195) and her 2010 piece. Gamel broadens the narrow definition of authenticity offered by Denis Dutton in his “Authenticity in Art” (2005: 258–74) in ways that are particularly germane for modern productions of ancient drama.

11. For an effective analysis of the importance of engaging with Greek tragedy through performance, utilizing Mitchell’s production as an example, see Cole 2015: 400–21. See also Goldhill’s chapter “Tragedy and Politics: What’s Hecuba to Him?” (2007: 119–52), which served as one of our readings for this section of the module. More generally on Greek tragedy and performance see Taplin (1978, repr. 2002).

12. On the importance of collaboration among practitioners see Gamel 2013: 191–92.

13. On the accessibility of films modeled on Greek tragedy see Michelakis 2013: 36–40. On the appeal of Greek tragedy for auteurs and Hollywood’s lack of interest, see Bakogianni 2017: 167–85.

14. On the popularity of the anti-war interpretation of the play, see Goff 2009: 78– 135. For recent challenges which demonstrate that this view is anachronistic, see Mills (2010: 163–83) and Blessington (2015: 4–6).

15. On Troy as the “enemy” see Mills 2010: 177. More generally on the impact of the Persian Wars on Greek thought and responses to the East, see the first two sections of Bridges, Hall and Rhodes 2007.

16. For an analysis of the impact of the contemporary context on Cacoyannis’ anti-war interpretation of the drama and how this was translated on screen, see Bakogianni 2015: 291–311. I deliberately avoided assigning this chapter as a reading to avoid unduly influencing the students’ understanding of the film.

17. In earlier drafts of the teaching material, Paula had introduced the topic of the “horror” and “blood and torture villain” tragedies of the English Restoration (during the reign of Charles II in the 1670s), which were modeled on Senecan dramas. The seventeenth century playwrights used theatre as a metaphor and means to parody the public punishments of the time and to comment upon the triumph of injustice at a corrupt court. During her work on the module Paula benefited from reading drafts of Anne Hermanson’s book (2014), then in progress, on 1670 Restoration drama. Anne generously shared her thoughts on “Horror and Spectacle” in a group of plays written during the reign of Charles II. She argues that violence on stage reflects dislocation and unease in contemporary society.

18. Raby 2000: 173–96. Helen Slaney’s book (2016) was not available for us to consult during the writing of this module but should be included in any bibliography on the subject of Seneca in performance.

19. At the time of writing these are only available to Open University students taking this module.

20. The Hunger Games tetralogy (2012–15) and the Divergent tetralogy (2014–17) are but two well-known examples of this trend.

21. Cf. Gellar-Goad (2014: 45–53) on his hands-on approach to teaching drama and his contribution to this special issue.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.