by Prof. Judith Herrin
Dept. of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies
King's College London
London WC2R 2LS


The Tantalus Day Conference, organised by the Centre for Hellenic Studies, King's College London, on 18 May 2001 proved an exciting new venture for all enthusiasts of Greek drama. Dedicated to John Barton's series of plays, Tantalus, this was part of the RSC/Barbican 'Tantalus Festival', and was supported by the Hellenic Foundation for Culture. The conference brought together academics from both Classics and Theatre Studies, with insiders from the cast and the author of Tantalus himself, John Barton.

Initially, the Tantalus day at the Stamford Street lecture theatre was proposed by Michael Kustow, as a counterpart to the controversial conference, which launched the series of plays at Denver, Colorado. As the producer of the series, Michael wanted to find a venue for a similar debate in the UK. After consulting Paul Cartledge, a speaker at the Denver event, I decided to host the event under the aegis of the Centre of Hellenic Studies. Despite a difficult timing, in that the plays had already been staged in numerous venues up and down the country, and were sold out at the Barbican, many who came to the event had seen at least a part of the performance. Even those who had failed to get tickets seemed delighted to attend the conference.

In the morning, the classical stage was eloquently set with complementary accounts of epic, tragedy and performance in ancient Greece. Michael Silk (KCL) opened with a wide-ranging analysis of epic from ancient to modern times; Professor Pat Easterling (Cambridge) made an impression introduction to the problems of tragedy, and Ismene Lada-Richards (KCL) stressed the significance of rhapsodes and the musical element of tragic performance.

The afternoon sessions turned to the Tantalus cycle itself. Jane Montgomery (Cambridge) gave a spirited account of the problems of staging a chorus on the modern stage, and drew some illuminating insights from interviews with the Tantalus chorus. Oliver Taplin (Oxford) compared and contrasted John Barton's modern realisation with the conventions of the ancient genre, and Paul Cartledge bridged the centuries from the point of view of the historian, comparing the strong political roots of ancient tragedy with the corresponding situation today.

In the final session, Graham Ley gave an introduction to the Tantalus cycle, stressing the importance of Late Antique and Byzantine commentaries on the Homer epics for the survival of important fragments. This led naturally into the climax of the event, an informal discussion between Michael Kustow and John Barton, in which all the previous speakers took their seats on one side of the 'stage', with the audience drawn closely together on the other, and all were invited to ask questions and share views. This gave participants the chance to raise issues such as the use of masks and the immediacy of Greek drama today. After a lively debate the entire company retired to drink toasts to Dionysos, the god of theatre as well as the vine, in an excellent vintage kindly provided by the Hellenic Foundation for Culture.

Prof. Judith Herrin
King's College London

Judith Herrin is Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King's College London, and Director of the Centre for Hellenic Studies.