Skip to main content
Northwestern University

Theatre After Athens

Western society has often used the literature and philosophy of ancient Athenian democracy as a lens through which to view the modern world. Ancient Greek drama in particular has been adapted in every age by democracies and totalitarian states alike, often to bolster political causes. In early 20th century America, New York suffragettes staged Aristophanes' plays to raise consciousness about voting rights. More recently, two New York actresses organized more than a thousand readings of Aristophanes' Lysistrata to protest the war in Iraq. Even in the ancient world, this use of Greek drama outside Greece was widespread. In Rome, for example, Seneca rewrote Greek tragedies to focus attention on the horrors of Nero's reign.

But what happens when plays written at one time and place are recycled in another setting altogether and received by new audiences with their own concerns? And why has Greek drama proved to be so resilient?

To shed light on the subject, the Northwestern classics department has hosted a unique two-year series of conferences. Called "Theater After Athens," the program has explored and contrasted how Athenian drama was received in Europe, North Africa, and the Near East up until the Middle Ages, and in the United States since 1776. It has brought together literary scholars, linguists, archeologists, historians, philosophers, political scientists and papyrologists from as far away as Oxford University in England and the University of Oviedo in Spain, and as near as the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame. Gather such a group and expect the interdisciplinary sparks to fly, exploring new methods of seeing an ancient world and developing insights about its relevance to our own.

Theatre After Athens, which began in fall '08, was made possible by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, through its Sawyer Seminars program, which encourages comparative research on the historical and cultural sources of contemporary problems. Kathryn Bosher, an assistant professor of classics, was the lead author of the application for the highly-sought grant, and then continued as the project's principal organizer. Alongside the visiting scholars and theatre practitioners, Northwestern students from several schools joined in the conversations.

While many conferences focus on a single play of the classical world—Medea or Antigone, for example—the scope of Northwestern's Sawyer Seminars was different.

"We were looking at contexts or periods where there was a lot of engagement with Greek drama, but there wasn't one play or one dominant work that could be used to hang everything else on," says Bosher. "This brought us in closer contact with colleagues in other disciplines. It also allowed us to examine periods we otherwise couldn't have examined. For that reason, some of these events seem to have been the first held on a particular topic."

A case in point was the first conference, on Greek drama in ancient Sicily. Scholars with diverse interests came together to think about what happened as Sicilians started to produce plays, some written in Athens and others in Sicily. A high point was a talk by Stefano Vassallo, an archeologist at the Soprintendenza Beni Culturali e Ambientali de Palermo. In 2007, Vassallo excavated an early hellenistic theatre at Montagna dei Cavalli, south of Palermo. The theatre had been rumored to exist but had never been seen by anyone in the modern world.

"This was the first time Vassallo had spoken about his find in this way," says Bosher, her excitement still apparent. Through his photographs, the audience was able to see the theatre for the first—and last—time, as least for now. Due to lack of funds, the theatre has subsequently been covered with dirt to preserve it for the future.

"What was remarkable about this theatre was that it was destroyed early—the whole city was destroyed—so it wasn't converted into a Roman theatre as so many theatres were. So we could see a Greek theatre fixed in a moment of time," Bosher tells us.

A fellow speaker, Clemente Marconi of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, an expert in the archeology of Sicily, was able to frame the discovery of the theatre within the larger scope of Greek monumental buildings. He argued that temples were once the great monuments built to show civic pride, but as time went on, theatres took their place. Travelers would see theatres atop a hill and think, "Ah, that must be a wealthy city with such a large theatre and cultural life."

The 2008-09 talks, which covered issues related to the early reception of Athenian theatre in the Mediterranean, also pondered problems as far-ranging as "Orchestrated Violence: The Role of Music in the Roman Amphitheatre," "Were Women among the Theatre Audience in Ancient Athens? And Does it Matter?" and "Tragic Pity and Happiness Between Plato and Aristotle."

Exploring Greek drama in 19th century America, the theme of 2009-10, brought out some interesting questions, says Bosher, by bringing the methodologies of one field to bear upon another. "It turns out that theatre historians, for example, look at evidence quite differently from classicists."

Scholars who work with the often skimpy evidence from antiquity are happy to have concrete sources from more modern times and tend to heavily rely on them. To create a picture of 19th century drama, they sift through archives and find evidence in programs and newspapers. But modern theatre historians are quick to point out the difficulties in this. For instance, theatre reviewers have all sorts of unknown motives in critiquing a play, so their writings are tricky pieces of evidence at best.

"Good things came out of that discussion," says Bosher. "Standard books on the topic maintain there was essentially almost no professional Greek drama in America in the 19th century, except for a production of Antigone in 1845 in New York, which was a terrible failure and only ran for two weeks. But at the conference, we were able to overturn this idea. Fiona Macintosh of the University of Oxford gave a paper on that production, and made a strong argument that it wasn't as unpopular as it seemed. It just comes across in a peculiar way from the reviewer. At the same time, we had new evidence from Robert Davis of the City University of New York, who was able to show that two famous actresses brought Medea around to tour the states in the 1850s in productions that most people don't know about. This and other evidence show that the assumptions we've held—that Greek drama really only took hold in the United States in the early 20th century—are just not right. There was so much more. So that was exciting."

Also fascinating for the scholars were the different questions that arise when one has to produce a play, rather than merely read or write about it. In the conference entitled "Greek Drama in African American Theatre," practitioners such as Peter Meineck spoke of choices they made in interpretation. Meineck, who directed a hip hop version of Seven Against Thebes said he chose to present The Seven as fundamentally a masculine play about a country at war. For him, it was about men who had to go out and fight, and audience members were men watching men perform on stage. So Meineck tried to recapture this feeling.

But there is a second set of interpretations about the classic Greek tragedy, which includes an all-female chorus. As Edith Hall, the Kreeger Wolf Visiting Professor from the University of London, pointed out at the talk, for women the trauma of war is that their husbands and children are killed and they are often raped and terrified.

"When you don't have to actually put on the play, you can deal with as many interpretations as you can find," says Bosher. "But when you have to put it on, it becomes something quite different. You have to make decisions, as Meineck did."

The last conference concluded with "Classicizing Chicago" in May (see footnote). These seminars were devoted to Chicago's engagement with antiquity from its founding in the 19th century to the present day and encompassed a wide range of fields—not just theatre but also politics, history, music, architecture, and education. Margaret Malamud, author of Rome in America, delivered the keynote address and classical aspects of Chicago architecture were examined by experts from the University of Notre Dame, Northwestern, and Temple University. Chicago opera theatre's productions on antiquity were considered, as well as the Latin Olympics in Chicago schools, and the development of teaching ancient philosophy at Northwestern.

Says classics chair Sara Monoson of the unprecedented gatherings that comprised Theatre After Athens, "The Sawyer Seminars prompted all sorts of new discoveries—of new evidence and of new interests—as well as facilitated new relationships among a remarkable number of colleagues from different parts of Weinberg College and from the wider University." The reception of Greek drama after Athens is no longer a subject unexplored, and one suspects that the fascinating conversations have just begun.

* Even though the conferences have concluded, Theatre After Athens will live on, in a website devoted to Classicizing Chicago. Also funded by the Sawyer grant, the one-of-a-kind database will include an online archive, essays, and photographs detailing Chicago's continuing engagement with antiquity. The Classicizing Chicago website is being developed jointly by the Classics department and the Northwestern University Library. Anyone interested in contributing material should contact the archive's directors: Sara Monoson, Kathryn Bosher, or Dale Winling.

Back to top