By Lorna Hardwick
Reception of Classical Texts Research project
Department of Classical Studies
The Open University
This short discussion aims to identify some of the main issues that arise for arts research that makes significant use of electronic technology in the design and implementation of projects and in publication and dissemination of the results. I shall suggest that the full integration of electronic technology into research projects raises important issues for theoretical frameworks, methodologies and concepts and mechanisms for collaboration. It involves key and potentially controversial decisions about what researchers do and about when and how research may be considered to have produced outcomes worth publishing.
Background and aims of the research
Inevitably my discussion starts from what I know best, which is the project I am currently working on, with colleagues, on the modern Reception of Classical Texts and specifically at the moment on the Reception of the Texts and Images of Ancient Greece in drama and poetry from the last part of the twentieth century to the present. This project started in 1994 with a biro and a card index. Its subsequent development therefore gives some potentially useful insights into the ways in which the use of ICT assisted the project to meet its aims and also influenced research methods and organisation.
Our aim in developing the research was to inform judgements about the nature and impact of the upsurge in productions of Greek drama which had become increasingly evident from the second World War onwards and had intensified from the 1970s. It seemed to us that at least this was a significant development worth investigating in terms of production styles, translations, adaptations and acting scripts and their relationship to the source texts and to changing conceptions of 'the classical'. It seemed paradoxical that classical drama was becoming more popular in theatre at the same time that classical languages and referents were progressively being marginalised within general cultural frameworks.
More ambitiously, we also thought that this re-energising and refiguration of Greek drama might be related to broader shifts in culture and thought, as had happened in the case of French neo-classical drama in the seventeenth century and with German classicism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the case of present-day trends there seemed to be connections with ideological shifts, especially those related to gender, to political dissent and resistance in eastern Europe, Ireland and Africa and to the fragmentation of consciousness reflected in various aspects of post-modernism.
In order to frame and research hypotheses concerned with the relationship between productions of drama and these areas of possible cultural change, it was necessary to collect and analyse the growing body of evidence. This is not as easy as it sounds in respect of drama. Not only is there the obvious consideration that any performance is a unique and transient event, there was also the serious practical difficulty that only the largest theatre companies (usually those supported by public finance) are able to establish and maintain archives. This limitation was potentially a serious impediment to rigorous research in the area of our project. It is necessary to document a very wide variety of productions in order to assess aesthetic trends and influences, to compare the impact of the use of different types of performance space, to compare different approaches to choreography and use of the chorus and to begin to assess the relationship between performers and audiences. In the case of the Greek plays it is also necessary to research the translation, including its relationship to the acting script as well as to the source text and to consider a range of performance situations so that the research is not skewed towards commercial theatre or towards 'high' culture (or for that matter the avant garde). Furthermore, the decisive role of directors, designers and 'star' actors (at all levels of theatre) means that the staging of the plays has to be contextualised within the theatre environment as a whole including the relationship between the subjectivities of those who create the performance and the traditions within which they locate their work. The interface between diachronic and synchronic is crucial.
Because we were dealing with very recent productions, we felt we might be in a good position to capture information about performances before it was irretrievably lost. So we made a special effort to document performances by smaller companies that did not have storage space, let alone archives, and which might disperse immediately after the run or tour. This raised practical issues and also conceptual and methodological problems. The main aim of our activity is to make judgements about cultural changes. Yet we are arguably too close in time to these changes to be in a position to make informed judgements. Equally, without collection and evaluation of evidence no judgements will be possible in the future. To escape from this conundrum we imagined ourselves in the position of cultural historians fifty years hence and attempted to judge what sources they would need as they looked back on this remarkable phenomenon in which Greek plays had sometimes been active agents of social and political change (in South Africa for example) and in both censored and seemingly liberal societies had been fields for contest, engagement and the working out of issues of identity, justice and suffering.
We decided, therefore, that alongside researching texts, translations and performance by using conventional methods, we would collect and categorise information that could be organised into a database that would serve as a research resource for ourselves and others. The database would be searchable from a number of points of significance such as title of ancient and modern play, year of performance, author, director. A prototype data base was developed by Carol Gillespie and went live in 1998 with the specific aim of attracting critical comment (and contributions) from users. The database and other material has to be prepared to the standards required by the Arts and Humanities Data Service in order to ensure its continued availability after the completion of the work of the project. Because of the concern of the research with all aspects of performance creation, we decided that in addition to the obvious categories of titles, authors, translators, adaptors, designers, choreographers and theatre companies, we would include information on set design, costume, music, stage properties and playing space as well as reviews, newspaper and TV features, details of published texts and critical works, company archives and other relevant material. Of course, such data is not a neutral collection of 'facts'. The categories themselves reflected a view of what was involved in creating performance. Just as important was the need to indicate how the primary sources used for input into the data base might be evaluated. The theatrical review, for example, is an important source of information as well as being a critique. The relationship between the information and the critique is often problematic. The reviewer's selection of certain aspects for comment and the phrasing of the comment are closely linked and each reviewer has his/her readership in mind. Therefore it was decided to develop a series of short critical essays, subjecting to critical scrutiny the primary sources used in the preparation of the data base and in the research as a whole. These essays are published in text form on the web site in conjunction with the searchable database and users are free to print off material as they wish.
In addition to critical analyses of the methodology underlying the database and on the theatrical review as a source, a series is currently being developed on the interview with theatre practitioners and its status as a research tool. Alison Burke's analysis of journalistic interviews and the academic interview are now online. All these critical essays, including those produced by members of the research project, are subject to peer review before publication. Further work is being developed to promote critique of sources of evidence. Carol Gillespie is currently preparing a photo-gallery and this, too, will be accompanied by a critical essay. Here, of course, inclusion of material is limited by rights considerations. This is one of the potential disadvantages of web publication and also affects availability of some unpublished translations and video extracts.
The decision to publish a pilot version of the database while it was being developed, to invite additions to entries and to add critical essays on sources and methodology raised two important questions about the nature of the research and its publication and dissemination. The first is: at what stage is a research resource sufficiently ready to warrant publication? This is of course a matter of judgement. This depends partly on whether the research is seen as self-contained, the 'property' of the researchers, or whether it is seen as part of a more open-ended process. We were influenced by the fact that we wanted the research resources as well as the outcomes to be of real use. That implies willingness to test and adjust in the light of critical comments and also willingness to allow the resources to be used by others with different research agendas.
There are also issues concerning collaboration. The project team itself includes academic researchers and ICT specialists. Theatre practitioners are an important source of advice. Some additional data is contributed by database users and other research contacts. Much of the research is interdisciplinary, ranging from classical philology in relation to translation through theatre practice to experimenting with theoretical models. So research hypotheses have to be especially clearly formulated so that each colleague can see where his or her work fits in and a balance has to be arrived at between data gathering, interpretation, studies in the history and range of performances of particular plays and the making and testing of judgements about cultural changes and larger shifts. Particular areas demand concentrated attention. A good example is our special interest in 'post-colonial' translations, adaptations and performances of Greek drama, I use the scare quotes advisedly since the concept is contentious and under constant revision. Practice appears to be outrunning theory. (See further L. Hardwick 'Remodelling Receptions: Greek Drama as Diaspora in Performance' in (edd) C. Martindale and R. Thomas, Classics and the Uses of Reception, Oxford (forthcoming, 2006).
Academic seminars and conferences are both an essential element in the research and part of the dissemination of our work and that of others. We have combined conventional and electronic environments with a major international research conference every three years, the most recent being Classics in Post-Colonial Worlds, held in Birmingham in May 2004 (selected proceedings forthcoming OUP, 2007 - abstracts available). We also arrange smaller colloquia from time to time and these have included a forum on the classical work of Tony Harrison. Electronic communication really comes into its own in keeping discussion and collaboration going between conferences. We run an international electronic seminar from February to May each year and this is now in its eighth year. The topic in 2004 was Comedy and in 2005 Translation. The seminar is organised in a simple format via email as we wanted to avoid the pitfalls of incompatible software which might be state of the art for some but inaccessible for others. The electronic seminar has enabled discussion between colleagues in Britain, other EU states, Eastern European countries, Africa, Russia, Turkey, Australasia, Canada and USA. Graduate students and school teachers are extremely welcome: for details contact Carol Gillespie at the Department of Classics, Open University. Each year the seminar has three or four short papers on an agreed topic, followed by discussion and further comment by the authors of the papers. The format is very informal but, following requests, work is now being done to archive the papers and comments so that others can see how the choice of topics and the discussion points have developed over the years.
The web site is also used for the publication of refereed proceedings of conferences and colloquia:
Conference 2004 Classics in Post-Colonial Worlds (Abstracts only - publication forthcoming).
The Open Colloquium 2002 The Role of Greek Drama and Poetry in Crossing and Redefining Cultural Boundaries
The Open Colloquium 1999 Tony Harrison's Poetry, Drama and Film: The Classical Dimension
The January Conference 1999 Theatre: Ancient and Modern
The January Conference 1996 The Reception of Classical Texts and Images
This is in addition to making hard copies available to individuals and to specialist and copyright libraries. The advantages of electronic publication are that it can generally be achieved in a shorter time than print publications; waiting three or four years for the proceedings of a conference to be available is tedious, holds back new research in a rapidly developing field and may be disadvantageous to UK academics because of the periodic Research Assessment Exercises. Even more importantly, since international dissemination is a major aim of the project, electronic publication ensures that new research is as immediately available in Oxford as in Capetown or Moscow, Cairo or Prague (and vice versa). In addition, the project is considering expansion in its publication of specialist bibliographies. No decision has yet been made on whether these should be prepared in searchable database form or as plain text (your views will be welcome).
As well as linking individual researchers, electronic communications have potential to link groups and projects (for example our colleagues in the European Network for the Research and Documentation of Greek Drama and in the Oxford Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama). The Open University Reception of Classical Texts project now hosts the website for the new Classical Reception Studies Network.
Research, publication and dissemination developed electronically can:
- capture and preserve essential research data and information
- enable continuous improvement and updating of research resources
- promote national and international access and collaboration
- enable continuity of discussion between conventional meetings
- ensure timely publication
- improve critical evaluation of conventionally-published research by making available the whole body of evidence used
This also provokes re-examination of assumptions about:
- methods and theoretical underpinning of collection and preservation of data
- the relationship between theory and practice in classical reception studies
- criteria and timing for regarding research resources as 'publishable' or 'complete'
- the role of the wider community (academic, theatre practitioners, the general public) in contributing to research, evaluating its development and using it for their own purpose
Director, Reception of Classical Texts Research Project
Lorna Hardwick is Chair of Classical Studies at the Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.