Current and Future Developments in the Performance Reception of Ancient Drama

by Fiona Macintosh
Senior Research Fellow
Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama
Oxford University

I have been asked by the editors to offer some thoughts towards a discussion about current and future developments in the performance reception of ancient drama. Since I joined the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama at the University of Oxford in January 2000, I have been involved in various publications, which have highlighted the need for further research in particular areas.

When I set about writing the diachronic introductory overview of the reception of Euripides' Medea for the first Archive volume, Medea in Performance: 1500-2000 (Legenda, 2000), it became increasingly evident that the start date of the volume was not only arbitrary, it was also highly restrictive. It was not simply that the term 'Renaissance' had recently come under increasing scrutiny from wide quarters — ignoring as it does the uninterrupted tradition of 'classical learning' that was sustained in Byzantium and the Arabic and Syriac scholarly traditions, especially Bagdad. It was also because there was a growing awareness of the rich performance tradition of Medea in antiquity from almost immediately following the première of Euripides' tragedy until beyond St Augustine, not only in the tragic theatre but in comedy, mime, dance and sung recital, which cried out to be told within any such diachronic overview. The pioneering volume, edited by Pat Easterling and Edith Hall, Greek and Roman Actors: Aspects of an Ancient Profession (Cambridge 2002), shows how vibrant a tradition this was, and there is a clear need for those involved in performance reception in the modern world to be able to draw upon the researches of those few specialists who are able to piece together that complex early history from disparate Christian and pagan sources, including visual records, literary testimonia, papyri, graffiti and other inscriptions.

Over many years, I have found that it is the genuinely interdiscplinary and international nature of performance reception that makes it so exciting. Working with Edith Hall on Greek Tragedy and the British Theatre 1660-1914 (OUP January 2005), we were always more than aware of the agonistic (and often parasitical) relationship between the London and (mostly) Parisien stages, and between the British re-workings and the continental operatic versions of the classical plays. And if the early (well-documented) performance history of opera is inextricably linked to Greek tragedy, I have recently through writing this book become aware of the extent to which modern appropriations of the chorus cannot be considered independently of a serious understanding of the developments in dance in the modernist period. Indeed, a rigorous and systematic study of operatic and balletic treatments of the ancient plays needs to be undertaken to enable us to appreciate the sheer breadth of influence exerted by Greek drama throughout the entire modern period. Non-verbal reception in music and movement has not had any refined and thorough-going treatment, and we need to be aware that ancient information about the theatre (not just the dramatic texts themselves) - for example in anecdotes preserved in Plutarch or Philostratus, and treatises on dance by Lucian and Choricius - has exerted a continual influence on the Western founding fathers and practitioners of new genres of musical theatre.

Finally, as Lorna Hardwick's illuminating monograph on Reception Studies (OUP 2003) shows, there is much need for a rigorous examination of the methodology behind performance reception in particular. Much useful 'theory' has been developed in association with Reception Studies in general, but it has tended to put the reader at the heart of the process of reception, concentrating on texts that are primarily consumed by the reader, rather than on those designed for and enjoyed in the much more accessible and often less elitist context of public entertainment. Performance reception is a privileged site for thinking about the interrelations between theatre history, theory and practice. It reaffirms the importance, and indeed the centrality, of the performance arts in cultural debates about the relevance of the classical past for the present. However, since so much work in performance reception has been conducted in areas where subject specialists (for a whole host of reasons, which are worth investigating) have rarely ventured before, there has perhaps been much that has been overly empirical and raw. Now, perhaps, all of us need to start asking serious questions about what exactly we are doing when we revisit a performance to assess its significance at a particular time for a particular audience, and we need to ask what there is that is unique about the newly emergent discipline: performance reception of antiquity.

Fiona Macintosh