Communities and Contexts in the Theory and Practice of Roman Drama

APGRD / London Postgraduate Symposium (24-25 June 2019)

by Zoë Jennings

The Annual Joint Postgraduate Symposium on Ancient Drama takes place over two days and is organised by the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama (APGRD), University of Oxford, and the University of London (currently by the Drama Department at Royal Holloway, University of London). It focuses on the reception of Greek and Roman performance traditions, exploring the afterlife of these ancient dramatic texts through re-workings by both writers and practitioners across all genres and periods. Organised annually since 2000, this joint two-day postgraduate symposium has now acquired an established reputation as one of the best platforms for postgraduate students to make their work known to, and network with, senior scholars on Greek and Roman drama, fellow researchers, and theatre practitioners. It is an interdisciplinary event involving researchers and practitioners from a range of fields including classics, English, theatre and performance studies, comparative literature, and various modern languages and literatures. Over the years, the speakers, respondents, and participants of the symposium have come from Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia, South America, and Asia, and have contributed a remarkably rich variety of approaches and truly exciting discussions. In many cases, the symposia have become the breeding ground for academic and artistic collaborations afterwards.

The 19th meeting of the APGRD / London Postgraduate Symposium (24–25 June 2019) was on Communities and Contexts in the Theory and Practice of Greek and Roman Drama. The theme prompted discussions of old and new interpretations of Greek and Roman drama with a focus on their socio-political role in the formulation, negotiation, and even rejection of communal identities on scales spanning the local, regional, and national. Speakers from a number of countries attended and contributed to the symposium with their papers, questions, and comments. This year’s guest respondent was Dr Hallie Marshall, Assistant Professor of Theatre Studies at the University of British Columbia. On the evening of the first day of the Symposium in Oxford there was also a performance of By Jove Theatre Company’s Here She Comes, inspired by Euripides’ Bacchae and written by SJ Brady with music by Vivienne Youel. The organisers of this year’s Symposium were: Marcus Bell (KCL), David Bullen (RHUL), Giovanna Di Martino (Oxford), Zoë Jennings (Oxford), Alison Middleton (Oxford), and Peter Swallow (KCL).

The next Symposium will be held in 2021, on the theme of ‘Performing the Archive’. There is no charge for the Symposium, and an informal supper is served on the first evening. It is hoped, as in previous years, that there will be some travel bursaries available again next year. For further information, please email Zoë Jennings (

Symposium Report

Day 1 – Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies, Oxford

Following a brief introduction from Dr Justine McConnell (KCL), the first day of the conference began with a panel on ‘Laughing Together’ (Chair: Dr McConnell) that took us straight to the heart of our theme (‘Communities and Contexts’). Peter Swallow’s (KCL) first paper on ‘Sexual Violence and Aristophanic Humour’, which employed incongruity theory to frame scenes using jokes about sexual violence in Ecclesiazusae, Birds and Thesmophoriazusae, saw community at the root of the shifting power and gender dynamics that play out in such scenes. Swallow argued that the moral values of a community define humour’s transgressive licence, and that these moral values can only be transgressed so far. His paper thus took an unusual and original stance on Aristophanes’ comedic use of sexual violence, which is not often viewed as cautious joke-telling. In discussion, our ever-changing and contested definitions of humour came to the fore, sparking consideration of the problematics of comedy’s reception (e.g., how jokes can be taken or received ‘out of context’; failures of humour caused by timing a joke badly; and the importance of knowing your audience). Swallow’s reminder of how Trump-style ‘locker-room talk’ has started to become so acceptable, especially as a result of the anonymity associated with social media, served as a topical example of the way context and community are shaping humour now as in fifth-century BCE Athens.

Charitini Tsikoura’s (University of Paris Nanterre) paper, ‘A Chorus of Clowns: Splendid Productions’ Antigone’, also looked at the way incongruous humour and humorous incongruity can provide fertile ground for rethinking the political resonances of a play like the Antigone. Splendid Productions set their Antigone in a party scene, with games, balloon-fights and party snacks as well as clowns acting as quasi-satirical hosts who commented, interrupted and held crucial moments up for scrutiny and contradiction. Conversations about what makes jokes funny, and what makes jokes (especially satire) change in different situations, are often central to many informal contexts. It is testament to the compelling points raised in these opening papers that delegates started debating these searching questions so rigorously, at such an early stage in the conference, and even over lunch.

Delegates were also invited to hear some more informal presentations over the lunch hour. Claire Frampton (Ashmolean Museum) first took us through two recent productions of Greek plays with ethnic minority casts: Khameleon Production’s 2018 Medea, which was the first play hosted at Oxford to be performed by an exclusively non-white cast, and Mandala Theatre Company’s 2018 Antigone, which relocated Sophocles’ play to a modern-day gang-culture context. Frampton’s case-studies kept us to our theme, highlighting the power inherent in reclaiming/recontextualising texts that are mistakenly perceived as solely belonging to a ‘white’ literary tradition. After our discussions of humour’s strikingly consistent contextual dynamics, now as in the fifth century BCE, these examples served as a welcome reminder that ‘classical reception’ (here too passive a formulation) is also often characterised by radical re-casting, with ancient texts and stories pulled in different directions across the centuries to suit the frequently opposing agendas of different communities.

The second lunch-time presentation was given by a group of visiting undergraduates from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (Nichole Brady, Ellie Churchill, Ellen Kratzer, Vanessa Larsen and Lexi Robertson), who spoke enthusiastically about their plans for an e-book on Sophocles’ Antigone and its reception history, which is a project that will eventually be hosted by Didaskalia. Led by their professor, Dr Mike Lippman, the five students outlined the primary research they were conducting that week in the archives of the APGRD. This provoked consideration of how researchers might best systematise the genealogy of one of the most ideologically divisive of the ancient plays. The students are participating in the APGRD’s interactive/multimedia e-book project, which has already produced Medea, a performance history (2016) and Agamemnon, a performance history (due 2020). Dr Claire Kenward, co-curator of the e-books and APGRD Archivist/Researcher, gave a presentation of both e-books, showing how they provide interactive access to theatrical ephemera and audio-visual material in the APGRD collections.

Classical plays can ‘change hands’ swiftly; crucially for the next panel, they are also capable of undergoing unpredictable or unintended transformations at the point of delivery to an audience. The panel, entitled ‘Crossing Communities’ (Chair: Giovanna Di Martino), highlighted this notion with two papers on modern Greek adaptations of ancient drama. Triantafyllos Bostantzis (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki) began with the case-study of the ‘Delphic Festivals: Jesus Christ as the Neo-Romantic Thirteenth God of Olympus’, which suggested that while Eva and Angelos Sikelianos (who opened their first Delphic Festival in 1927 with a staging of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound) were attempting to ‘recover’ the ancient spirit of the plays and recreate an ancient ‘community consciousness’, they ultimately failed because of the bourgeois nature of the event and its elite society audience. Eri Georgakaki (National and Kapodistrian University of Athens) took this consideration of the centrality of audience further in her paper on ‘The Generic Fluidity of Euripides’ Cyclops during his Reception on the Athenian Stage and in the Press in the Late Nineteenth Century’. Taking as her case-study a remarkable flashpoint in the reception of the Cyclops (the only complete extant satyr play), which was performed in Greece ten times between 1868 and 1893, Georgakaki suggested a method to uncover the reason for its relative popularity at that point: reconstructing audiences’ responses from archival newspaper reviews. Such an approach reminded us of the difficulty of reconstituting the staging of productions in previous centuries, which is especially frustrating when faced with rare examples of the Cyclops on stage. But it also alerted us to the fact that, with little other evidence to distract us, scrutinising audience responses can open our eyes not just to the collective values of such communities, but also to what ancient dramas (particularly satyr plays, about which so little is known) might have meant to their first audiences in the fifth century BCE.

The theme of what performances of ancient plays ‘mean’ to their audiences was sustained into the third panel, ‘Greek Theatre in a Local Voice’ (Chair: David Bullen). Connie Bloomfield (KCL) presented observations made during her recent fieldwork in South America in her paper on ‘Graeco-Roman drama in rural Brazil: orality, popular poetry, and performing identities’, which posited the negotiation of local/communal identity as one of the key functions not just of performance, but also of performing classical allusions. She shone new light on Northeast Brazilian cantoria (improvised oral performances held in public spaces), demonstrating how the cantadores/poets are still using classical mythology distributed during European colonisation as a locus for playing out the area’s social and racial tensions. One of the most successful elements of Bloomfield’s paper was its use of these Brazilian oral traditions to demonstrate holes in the theoretical justifications of classical reception research. We often take for granted that a modern poet has read and fully assimilated the text of a classic before putting their own spin on it. The cantadores, like most non-classicists across the globe, absorb classical mythology without reading ‘the classics’ (with some even unaware of a story’s classical background), prompting us all to reflect on where the value of classical reception really lies. Do we overestimate the capacity for receptions to ‘shed light’ on the ancient originals?

Leonor Hernández Oñate (Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Iztapalapa) followed with her paper on ‘Tragic Patterns and Performance in Lope de Vega’s Mythological Drama’, taking us further into the theme of how the local context of a performance affects its content. Leonor established Lope de Vega’s Adonis y Venus, El vellocino de oro and Laberinto de Creta as examples of teatro de corral, popular theatre that enacted societal values during the Spanish Golden Age. The court context of these plays, which were commissioned by royalty, was shown to be instrumental in lending them a lavish and distinctly tragic grandeur, despite deriving much of their source material from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Vasileios Balaskas (National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and University of Malaga) took the case-study of ‘Local Involvement in Modern Greek Revival of Ancient Theatres: Epidaurus and Delphi in the Interwar Period’ to offer a slightly different angle, illustrating how local Greek communities (e.g., inhabitants of the modern town of Ligourio, where Epidaurus’ ancient theatre is located) became involved in the production of the Festivals as a way of claiming ‘authentic’ ownership of their regional antiquities and of the ancient plays performed within them. Amongst the many points of reflection that were opened up in this varied panel, perhaps the most important was its reminder that performance is fully contingent on its specific locale and, crucially, on the communities that constitute its spectatorship. It was also particularly interesting, in discussion, to consider the ways in which the connections brought about by globalisation, including the prevalence of televisual entertainment and building of virtual communities online, may be having adverse effects on live performance as a method for negotiating local/regional identity. Alternatively, as Connie Bloomfield argued, it may simply lead to a change in platform: several of her Brazilian interviewees had conducted ‘live’ poetry competitions through digital connections made on Twitter and YouTube. It is still difficult to judge the impact new online communities are having on performance across the globe, but social media may facilitate rather than hinder performance’s role in community building on new local and global levels.

Performance – By Jove Theatre’s Here She Comes, written and performed by SJ Brady

The day culminated in the much-anticipated performance of By Jove Theatre Company’s Here She Comes, billed as a fifty-minute epic performance-poem based on Euripides’ Bacchae. The piece, while primarily oral, began with a dramatic scene in which a soloist, Agave, poured a libation of red wine into a pile of soil at the centre of the stage. The scene, and the soil which remained in place throughout, gave the performance an archaic and ritualistic frame. But, having couched the audience in the familiar Euripidean territory of Dionysian ritual, SJ Brady’s quasi-rapped performance poetry and Vivienne Youel’s live backing music swept such expectations out from under our feet. The tension between the old and the new was maintained throughout Brady’s performance, which constantly mingled the high tone of Greek tragedy with contemporary colloquialisms and tripping hip-hop-style rhymes. The resulting dialectic showed a clear resemblance to Kate Tempest’s Brand New Ancients (2013), a performance poem that recasts ancient Homeric characters as modern ‘everyday heroes’. The character of Agave is, Brady proposes, exactly such a hero, as the opening stanzas made abundantly clear. As her libationary wine is translated to blood which drips down her arms, Agave is clearly layered over an image of Lady Macbeth. Brady’s poetry here, however, is anything but Shakespearean. She has blood on her hands, but this Agave has no room for remorse, delivering her backstory through blunt, Anglo-Saxon monosyllables with occasional linguistic twists that serve only to sharpen her tongue further. She is presented as a mother harbouring an intense rage against the oppressions and trauma of motherhood, whose treatment at the hands of men, especially her surly teenage son Pentheus, has left her murderous and craving escape from domesticity. Brady makes a point of liberating the textual Agave from Euripides’ play, where she remains a passive literary object rather than active storyteller, and lends her more than ample space to speak with ardour and eloquence; she also appears to extend Agave’s literary status, translating her from tragedy to epic by sketching a narrative structure of journey and return between domestic and external realms. The piece resists a traditional Odyssean resolution, however, with Agave never quite returning home from the forest but never finding a community to which she belongs. One particularly sly moment comes close: handing out wine in chipped teacups amongst the audience, Brady’s Agave seems to be making a silent attempt at creating a community, playing at ‘being mother’ for her audience. But she remains ultimately alone on the stage, and the final image of Agave at the shore, after she has been disowned by her father and abandoned by Dionysus, is one of extreme marginalization and exile. After a day of reflecting on performance’s properties of cohesion and community-building, Here She Comes left us all reeling with a sense that theatre can also act as a space of alienation, where a performer is never ‘one of us’ but always ‘other’. The performance thus acted as a fitting pivot-point for the symposium, and we developed such thinking further into the next day.

Day 2 – Department of Drama, Royal Holloway, University of London

The first panel of Day 2, ‘Communities on the Edge’ (Chair: Peter Swallow), was a perfect start for re-thinking our conclusions from Day 1. Like Brady’s performance, this panel challenged us to probe the spaces where communities and performance are at odds, where ‘the communal’ has ceased to function, or where individuals defined by absence rather than belonging are the protagonists. Dimitris Kentrotis-Zinelis (Leiden University) gave the first paper, ‘Ostracized for her Tinker’s Blood: Medea as an Irish Traveller in Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats…’, a discussion of Carr’s use of Irish Traveller identities to underscore the Medea-figure’s outsider status. Carr’s Hester is a member of an itinerant population in the Irish Midlands who resist and, Kentrotis-Zinelis suggested, transgress the traditional limits of communal organisation, thus becoming de facto excluded from the fabric of Irish society. Kentrotis-Zinelis argued for a view of Hester as a subversive female ‘proprietor’ of the external realm of the Irish bogland, who defies the restriction of women to inner/private/domestic spheres by roaming over its barren open spaces. This interpretation resonated well with By Jove’s presentation of Agave in Day 1’s performance of Here She Comes, while inviting a reconsideration of the notion of ‘home’ in Greek drama and the shifts in power when tragic women and mothers embed themselves in spaces outside their natural homes.

The following two papers took a more ideological perspective on edges in classical performance, focusing on twentieth-century productions with strongly political overtones. Each paper demonstrated the flexibility of tragedy as a tool for either disrupting or balancing contemporary power dynamics, mobilised, as it were, either by the revolutionary ‘periphery’ or by the authoritative ‘centre’ of power. Giovanni Testori’s Edipus (1977), written amid a decade of civil unrest in Italy, is an illuminating example of the former, as Francesca Tuccari (University of Trento) explained in her paper, ‘Testori’s Edipus: Greek tragedy and modern context’. She demonstrated how Testori targets the contemporary socio-political order by refracting Italian tensions between the Communist and Christian Democratic parties through generational conflicts between the totalitarian Laio and anarchic Edipus. Edipus, who commits conscious incest against his father Laio, is a radical amplification of Sophocles’ Oedipus and the socio-political distortion against which he is a warning. This example led us to reflect on how ancient tragedy, especially but not exclusively the Medea and Oedipus Rex, is often concerned with radical individuals on the margins or those entering from the margins to disrupt authority in power centres. Mariam Kaladze (Iv. Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University), meanwhile, offered some surprising counter-examples from Soviet Georgia in her paper on ‘The Reception of Chorus in Georgian Interpretations of Ancient Tragedy (Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex)’. She examined the power dynamic between ruler and people distilled by choruses in productions by Archil Chkhartishvili (1948), Dimitri Aleksidze (1956), and G. Lortkipanidze (1978), whose ideological twists on Sophocles’ chorus figured them as the Soviet proletariat and Oedipus as their parental ‘protector’. By enabling a comparison of these sharply divergent Italian and Soviet versions of Sophocles’ play, the two papers demonstrated in action tragedy’s political appeal as a genre of extremes, adjustable equally to the revolutionary as to the repressive.

Tragedy, politics, and the theme of extremity led us full circle to a re-consideration of the role played by geography and borders in classical drama with which the panel began. Nebojša Todorović (Yale) steered the discussion with his paper on ‘Border-line Communities and Traumatic Cartographies: Re-performing Greek Tragedy During the Yugoslav Wars’. In the context of trauma studies and postcolonial theories of representation of the invisible, Todorović compared two unpublished adaptations of ancient Greek tragedy performed in a ‘borderland’ space: Nikos Koundouros’ A Cry for Peace, an adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone performed in 1994 at the border between Greece and Macedonia (then still part of the Yugoslav state), and Goran Stefanovski’s Bacchanalia, a 1996 coproduction between Macedonia and Denmark in which Euripides’ banishment from Athens to Macedonia echoes the playwright’s experience of displacement from Macedonia to England. The ‘border-line’ positioning of the plays offered a compelling case study for thinking about Todorović’s conceptualisation of the ‘traumatic cartographies’ of Greek tragedy, not least through his illuminating consideration of the ‘fourth wall’ as, in his words, the ‘imago of the deterritorialized, imaginary, and unlocatable line between the Balkans and Western Europe which, similar to a Lacanian mirror, collapses and rearticulates the identity of each community’. In the post-panel discussion, cartography and maps were highlighted as particularly useful metaphors for thinking not just about tragic trauma, always firmly situated in and associated with a place (e.g., Thebes, Troy), but also about the permeable and contestable ‘borderline’ of the fourth wall between performers and audiences.

The final panel, entitled ‘Performance Practice and Research’ (Chair: Alison Middleton), was designed to provide a platform for practitioners’ voices in dialogue with the symposium’s theoretical perspectives. Marcus Bell (KCL) bookended his paper – ‘Queer Contexts and Communal Hauntings: Re-enacting Neil Greenberg’s Not-About-AIDS-Dance (1994) through Euripides’ Bacchae’ – with two live demonstrations, enabling us to view his rendition of a section of the dance with new eyes. Bell demonstrated that Not-About-AIDS-Dance (originally for five dancers) integrates one stasimon from the Bacchae, arguing that the chorus’ communal desire to dance in the pannukhiois khorois (‘night-long dances’, lines 862–75) moves through the first phrase of the dance, which Greenberg choreographed after his brother died from HIV/AIDS. Using José Muñoz’s utopian theory of queer futurity, Bell focused on the articulation of the communal danced ‘future’ of the maenad chorus, expressed through a doe simile, which they use to describe the kind of dancing they envisage if they reach the dances: ‘like a fawn that plays... exulting in her freedom from men’. Such a sense of the ‘contingent futurity’ of a minority community, ‘a future which may never come’ (speaker’s phrasing), is also at play in Greenberg’s piece, which used dancers’ bodies to mobilise the pain of real bodies afflicted by HIV/AIDS, forcing the audience to recognise both the pain and the community of those who experience it. Bell argued that Greenberg’s dance thus offered an opportunity for a sense of communal hope in the face of loss.

Some of the most fascinating parts of Bell’s paper came from its practical insights into the dancer’s embodied experience and process. He made a particularly interesting point, embraced in Greenberg’s own methodology, concerning the body’s unconscious, instinctual reaction to what more traditional choreographers might think of as missing a step: rather than keeping so closely to the choreography that a slight variation becomes a slip, Bell explained that he instead treated such a moment in his demonstration as an opportunity for his body to take the dance on a detour – somewhere new, individual, and free – unlocking for himself the piece’s potentialities or ‘futurity’. His elegant and instinctive solo rendition of Greenberg’s piece, putting the maenad chorus into dialogue with his own somatic freedom, opened our eyes to the body as itself a locus not just for enacting ‘classical reception’ but for independent creativity. While highlighting the interpretative validity of such a truly physical response to a work of art, Bell’s analyses also opened up a new line of theoretical thinking for our symposium theme: that performance has an often unspoken utopian function as a platform for negotiating our communal futures and communal hopes.

The second and final element of the panel consisted of a practitioners’ discussion between Stephe Harrop, a professional storyteller and academic at Liverpool Hope University, and David Bullen, Co-Artistic Director of By Jove Theatre Company and Executive Producer of the KCL Greek Play. They took as their broad theme the distinction between the two overlapping contexts of ‘text’ and ‘story’, probing their potential for the contemporary performer working in response to ancient tragedy, and thinking about the re-positioning of written text as one component of the creative artist’s engagement. A particularly memorable example was the frequency with which Harrop, Bullen, and their collaborators apparently find themselves interpolating details or resolutions of a known ‘story’ (but not found in the ‘text’ of a tragedy) into their new scripts/performances. They noted, too, that the experience of watching performances itself often plays a key role in creating and reinforcing a ‘story’ over what is actually in the text. Performance has the perhaps unique capacity to build a set of ‘accretions’ around an ancient play, progressively transforming our sense of its content and meaning. Bringing us full circle from Day 1, throughout which we examined the myriad ways in which communities and contexts change performance, Harrop and Bullen showed us that such a dynamic is by no means unidirectional. Performance is also constantly re-shaping our sense of the textual canon by unleashing and renewing the potential of its stories, re-moulding communal myths in dialogue with our ever-changing community identities.

The conference closed with a short wine reception and Dr Hallie Marshall’s (UBC) response. Her comments sought to tie the papers together under the themes of: 1) the parameters and mechanisms of reception, 2) questions of time and space, and 3) audience and community. She observed that the coherence of the papers fostered the development of larger discussion within each panel, but also allowed links to be made across the entirety of the conference. Her response drew connections between papers presented in different sessions and explored how the larger framework of the conference and its theme facilitated a much broader and deeper conversation about classical reception than any one paper could generate on its own. She also praised Prof. Fiona Macintosh, Director of the APGRD, and the organizers (present and past) for the sense of community that the conference has generated over the years, providing a space in which students are able to present their research (often in a second language) in an academic environment that is supportive and encouraging, while also establishing professional and personal relationships that have proved enduring. It is a conference that represents best practices when it comes to supporting the next generation of scholars and models what an academic community should be.