Article Title



Lorna Hardwick


All the contributions to this special issue offer particular insights into the often slippery and contentious relationship between ancient and modern drama. More than this, collectively they provide an insight into key questions that researchers are currently grappling with as they seek to maximize the cross-disciplinary impact of their work. These questions cover two main areas. The first is concerned with the investigative methods needed for researching the intersections between modern performance and ancient drama. These have to be methods that recognize the unique qualities of performance and relate it to its associated histories in theater and culture, to the professional profiles of those who create the production, and to the imaginative and experiential profiles of those who make up the audiences.

The second set of questions is much broader but arises from the first. How best can case studies of particular performances be used, individually and in groups and categories, to contribute to the study of larger questions, whether these relate to the performance history of a particular play or genre such as "tragedy," the career of a particular writer or practitioner, or the potential of drama for reflecting and shaping wider elements of cultural conflict and change?

Some of these scholarly and interpretative demands are present in most kinds of comparative study of drama. However, some of them present themselves particularly acutely in respect of the relationship between drama in antiquity and that on the modern stage. Two challenges are particularly important. Firstly, there are problems about the availability of evidence, including the basics of preservation, collection, and communication as well as critical evaluation. This difficulty applies both to evidence from antiquity and to that from the modern stage. For example, it is not just that the play texts that survive from Greece and Rome are only a small fraction of those that were performed, nor that their survival is predicated on a combination of selection according to the values of later scholars and the accidents of preservation of manuscripts. There is also the even more intractable problem that evidence about the approaches and careers of theater practitioners is sparse and that evidence concerning spectators is even more difficult to identify and interpret. (There are of course invaluable collections and studies, such as Eric Csapo and William J. Slater, The Context of Ancient Drama [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985] and Pat Easterling and Edith Hall, eds., Greek and Roman Actors: Aspects of an Ancient Profession [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002], but there inevitably remain many frustrating gaps.)

So far as evidence from the modern stage is concerned, much of it is ephemeral and what can be documented and made available too often by necessity concentrates attention on major established theater companies, "celebrity" actors and directors, and reviews by theater critics that are more attuned to communicating a particular viewpoint that capturing the interrelatedness of the different strands in a production. Even the welcome preservation of visual evidence about modern productions (video, film, still images) lacks counterparts in the ancient world and therefore has limited value for the comparative analysis of the total theater experience. Furthermore, the difficulty in locating and preserving evidence about ad hoc companies and about student and community drama shuts off an importance line of investigation into the individually and socially transformative impact of participation in performance and its associated activities (vital in ancient Athens but underresearched in terms of modern comparisons).

The second set of problems is closely related to this. Much of the scholarship on ancient plays is primarily literary. Quite simply, the texts are what we have, and it is noteworthy that even the influential and illuminating contemporary wave of sensitivity to ancient performance issues was originally grounded in analysis of the texts (for example, Oliver Taplin's pioneering work, starting with The Stagecraft of Aeschylus: The Dramatic Use of Exits and Entrances in Greek Tragedy [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977]). This approach has subsequently developed to include performative analysis and study of the body, sound, dance, and movement as integral aspects of performance. Nevertheless, literary analysis of drama texts remains a significant driver of research and now includes examination of the lexical and cultural processes involved in translation. When the aim is to consider a play on the stage as well as on the page, translation analysis also has to involve the nonverbal semiotics of staging and the capacity of aural and somatic communication to work with and beyond words (discussed, for example, in "Theatre and Translation," Theatre Journal Special Issue, October 2007). The time has surely arrived for examination of how these supra-verbal elements convey and refigure the ancient material in modern contexts. Is there a "grammar" of movement and an aesthetics of sound that can communicate to those who do not know the ancient language or its contexts or even the theatrical traditions that have "carried" and transmitted the plays over time? Research on these aspects will surely require a stronger recognition of the value of "practice as research" as well as a critical approach to the claims of universalism that might underlie the moves away from "logocentric" theater. This collection demonstrates some of the ways in which theater research and practice present a challenge to logocentric methods of approaching the transmission of classical drama texts. A further push in this direction may in the future result from the increasing interest (both in scholarship and in theater) in how modern performance sometimes peels away text to make more prominent the myths that the ancient playwrights were themselves reimagining and recontextualizing.

The primacy of the ancient texts as the providers of raw material for modern practitioners also brings into focus the particular paradox that classicists have to recognize. This is the notorious "double bind." Classicists welcome the way in which the ancient plays still "live" and work as theatrical pieces. New generations of theatergoers are exited by them. Their experience is not one of antiquarian interest but is engaged with the arts and culture of the theatrical present (and sometimes with its politics as well). Yet how are classicists, and others, to develop ways of exploring the relationship between ancient and modern in ways that do not privilege the ancient text as the yardstick of meaning and value? One of the urgent needs of contemporary research and teaching in the "reception" of classical texts is to develop more acute ways of paying close attention to the text and its transmission, ways that do not fall back on simplistic notions of "fidelity" to the ancient words as a benchmark for aesthetic and social value. Performance studies have a particular contribution to make here because they provide a nexus for looking at what the ancient text does with practitioners' work as well as what the modern practitioners do with the text. Much has been made of the way in which accretions latch on to an ancient text in the course of its histories of transmission and appropriation. However, the ancient text—and especially its performative dynamics—can also operate as a kind of Trojan horse, insinuating elements into modern consciousness and artistic repertoires.

This collection has provided some distinctive examples of how contemporary scholarship is engaging with these challenges. The inclusion of Research Notes in this collection is an important innovation and provides some rich examples of ways in which modern performances of classical plays can be documented and of how these can be used as one more piece of evidence in larger maps. The Research Notes also point to debate about the methods and evaluative criteria that can be applied to the new material (in historians' terms, the new primary sources) that needs to be assembled, categorized, and analyzed in order to explore the new performances that are created and to re-examine previous ones. They suggest the value of a modern theater prosopography to parallel that used by ancient historians. They also point to the potential of analysis of "theater experience" (to parallel perhaps that of the analysis of reading experience, for example in the Reading Experience Database, 1450–1945 currently being developed at the Open University as a major research project that collects examples, from fiction and from real life, of what individual readers encountered and how they responded to it). The interrelationship between poetry and drama, prominent in the work of such writers as Wilson Harris, Derek Walcott, and Ted Hughes, is now beginning to be more fully investigated, and explorations of how and why classical material has been a key driver of this trend are likely to provide insights into the oeuvres of individual writers and also into how theater poetry resonates across genres and cultures.

This special issue has also provided eloquent examples of how ancient drama texts have been the subject of struggles for "ownership," both in terms of scholarly interpretation and in terms of the contexts of their use and adaptation. They have become icons of struggle, used both to legitimize and to subvert. How the same play, and sometimes even the same production, can be thought to carry different meanings in different contexts of performance reveals not only the rich ambivalences and ambiguities of the plays themselves but also the distinctive role of the spectators in actualizing meaning. Much recent emphasis has been on the ways in which the plays provide fields for modern adaptation in contexts of struggle and liberation (in Eastern Europe, in South Africa, in Ireland), but now there are signs of an increasingly sharp focus on the thematic and metaphorical impact of the ancient plays' treatment of environmental themes (water, fire, earth) and of generational conflict. Ancient drama is part of many traditions and unique to none. It provides a shared field for participation and interaction and yields the raw material for comparisons that go beyond simple distinctions between "self" and "other" and allow a sense of commonalities and differences. So, the pointers to the future that this thought-provoking collection provides include: an appreciation of the ways in which rigorous categorization and analysis of contributions and associated aspects can contribute to the "big-picture"; the development of a refined philology that is attentive to words and their associations and to how they are communicated verbally and nonverbally in terms of the total theatricality of the performance; and an appreciation of the comparative dynamic patterns of both ancient and modern drama, including the forms, theater conventions, the density of hermeneutic possibilities, the acuity of the spectators' experience, and the urgency of their response.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.