- Something for EverybodyApproaching Greek Tragedy in the Twenty-First Century
The early twenty-first century has seen a broad range of interest in the adaptation of ancient Athenian tragedy around the world. This is an extension of the development of Greek tragedy in the twentieth century as a vehicle for ideological and aesthetic explorations—from Richard Strauss's expressionistic opera Elektra and Bertolt Brecht's epic Antigone in Europe, to Eugene O'Neill's Freudian Mourning Becomes Electra and the Performance Group's psychosexual Dionysus in '69 in the United States, to the various postcolonial approaches like Nigerian Wole Soyinka's The Bacchae of Euripides. The only thing that most of these adaptations has in common is that Athenian tragedy and Greek mythology are the primary source materials.
These two books together serve as a reminder of the basic question of contemporary adaptations of fifth-century BCE Athens: Why do artists continue to be drawn to this material? The rationale can be categorized in two basic approaches. The first, which I will call the "universal," posits that the ancient Greeks tapped into something so intrinsically human that their works continue to mean something for us today. The second, the "contextual," uses the Greek material as a way to say something about contemporary culture. The contextual approach usually uses the Greeks as an object of ideological and/or structural critique, perhaps in terms of the postcolonial, postmodern, or postdramatic. Do the ancient Greeks remain a source of similarity or universality, or do they instead remind us of difference, context, and cultural and ideological specificity? [End Page 120]
The greatest strength of George Rodosthenous's volume is that it offers a fragmented sampling of contemporary adaptations of Greek tragedy that's as disparate, varied, and conflicting as the continued interest in it. His introduction focuses on auteur director visions of contemporary productions, but most still use the tragic material for its "universal" psychological, mythological, and emotional connections. For example, the first chapter, by Marianne McDonald, does not fulfill the promise of its title, "American Directorial Visions," as it focuses primarily on productions she has been involved with along with some descriptions of Athol Fugard's practice as a director. Helene Foley's Reimagining Greek Tragedy on the American Stage (2012) provides a comprehensive foundational history that should open up the field to further analysis, but this chapter neglects the most important contemporary American directors of Greek tragedy: Peter Sellars gets a brief mention, but missing entirely are JoAnne Akalaitis, Anne Bogart, Lee Breuer, The Hypocrites, John Jesurun, Tina Landau, Jay Scheib, Robert Woodruff, and The Wooster Group, to name a few who might have been included. The anecdotal quality of the analysis here is intentional for McDonald, but the focus on the universal quality and the emotional resonance of the works as their primary value does not provide much context or historical framing of the productions.
There are highlights in other chapters, but many of the treatments are of well-discussed adaptations. Refreshingly, Rodosthenous makes clear in his introductory chapter that while arguments about authenticity and fidelity to the source will be embedded in the discussions of the productions because they are important to the directorial visions being discussed, there is no attempt at an overarching statement about this. Many chapters focus on productions by contemporary Greek directors like Theodores Terzopoulos and Rodosthenous, which reveal important specific pressures of the cultural context of modern Greece. Avra Sidiropoulou, in her discussion of Terzopoulos's work on Aeschylus, highlights how the mixing of cultural traditions is a point of political contention, in part because of the pressures of maintaining a clear lineage of Greek tradition and practice not just because of the demands of philology or history, but of national identity. This theme is also explored by Magdalena Zira in her discussion of the Cyprus Theatre Organization's production of The Suppliants, in 1978, in the shadow of a military coup. This production received international acclaim...