We have often been told that ‘Shakespeare is our contemporary’, but in Western theatre over recent years the sheer number of revivals – and re-imaginings – of the great plays of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus rather suggests that it is the ancient Greeks who are our contemporaries.
The classicist Edith Hall asserts that there have been more Greek tragedies performed in the last half-century than at any time since Athens in the 5th century BC. Ancient Greek plays have become as much part of the repertoire as the dramas of Racine, Schiller or Sheridan. In fact, rather more so. In the last three years, there have been more major revivals of the Oresteia (at the Almeida, the Globe, the Citizens in Glasgow and at Home in Manchester) than of Restoration comedy, once such a major staple of the British stage.
Many of the greatest contemporary directors have been drawn to them from Peter Sellars, Robert Wilson and Yukio Ninagawa to Deborah Warner and Katie Mitchell. Warner’s 2000 revival of Medea with Fiona Shaw offered a very different interpretation to the wicked, witchy child slayer of performance history, instead suggesting a woman in thrall to romantic love. Mitchell’s brilliant Iphigenia in Aulis (2004) and The Trojan Women (2007) came in the wake of the invasion of Iraq and foregrounded the stories of women caught up in men’s wars.
It’s not just in the theatre that Greek myths have taken hold. There has been a return to these stories in award-winning novels from Kamila Shamsie’s Antigone-inspired Home Fires to Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, set during the siege of Troy but, unlike Homer, is told from a female perspective.
Barker has suggested that the pull of the Greeks might come from our need “to go back to the beginning of civilisation because we instinctively feel that European civilisation might be coming to an end”. That seems particularly pertinent at a time when democracy feels under siege. Perhaps the urge to go back to the dramas that were such an integral part of ancient Greece’s cradle of democracy – in order to vote men had to go to the theatre – is a strong one in the face of the rising threat of populism.
What Greek tragedies do is make us debate. Why does Medea behave as she does? Is Antigone right or wrong? Is it right to sacrifice your daughter Iphigenia for the greater good of the state on its way to war? Do you give refuge to a group of women fleeing forced marriage, even if it will lead to war, as is asked by Aeschylus’ Suppliants?
Or maybe it is simply that these stories of violence, revenge and making the right or wrong decision provide an inexhaustible source of stories that are deeply embedded in our psyche.
Like Shakespeare, the plays are malleable and therefore open to many different interpretations. The themes, of course, are eternal: the man who is wilfully blind to what is in front of him in Oedipus Rex; the young woman and the ruler who both think they are right in Antigone; the woman whose feelings of helplessness make her take terrible revenge on her ex-husband in Medea. Euripides may only have won third prize for the latter in the tragedy competition of 431 BCE, but it so captured the imagination that seven other writers completed their own versions during subsequent years. Recent versions of the latter by Simon Stone for Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (formerly Toneelgroep) and by Rachel Cusk, directed by Rupert Goold at the Almeida, point to the play’s ability to shape-shift, in both instances giving it a strong female perspective.
Antigone, another play with a female heroine (although in ancient Greek times the plays were performed by men, wearing masks, to an audience made up exclusively of men) has become another play for all time. Recent versions include Anne Carson’s 2015 translation directed by Ivo van Hove and starring Juliette Binoche, and Polly Findlay’s 2012 National Theatre revival that set the play in a police state. Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes (2004) – one of the numerous revisions of Greek tragedies that emerged out of the Troubles in Ireland – and Jean Anouilh’s wartime version that played in occupied Paris, are other examples of how the play can be easily made to reflect current times and political situations. In great revivals, the plays are surprisingly relatable.
Playwrights have always turned to Greek stories for inspiration. The tug of ancient Greece is clear in the dramas of Eugene O’Neill. Arthur Miller was, of course, the great mid-20th-century inheritor of the Greek mantel in plays such as Death of a Salesman (1949) and All My Sons (1947), in which the protagonists were not flawed kings but the flawed common man.
“It is curious, although edifying”, wrote Miller in his 1949 essay ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’, “that the plays we most revere are the tragedies. In them, and in them alone, lies the belief – optimistic, if you will – in the perfectibility of man.”
But Miller is not alone. Both Fugard’s The Island (1973) and Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats (1998) are reworkings of the Antigone story. Simon Stephens’ plays often feel as if the spirit of Greek tragedy hovers over them, most notably in Harper Regan (2008). In 1996 Sarah Kane wrote a variation on Seneca’s Phaedra called Phaedra’s Love, notable for its grim comedy and the way it did what no Greek playwright would ever do and put the violence very much centre stage. Jez Butterworth’s recent London and New York hit, The Ferryman, has a strong connection with the Greeks and not just because of its title.
But I reckon that there are also aesthetic reasons for the popularity of Greek tragedy, which have a natural pared-back sparseness that chimes with modern tastes. As late as 1996 the National Theatre was still producing Oedipus in masks, but 12 years later, when Ralph Fiennes played the role in a thriller-like revival, it was all sharp suits and brutal streamlined simplicity. The idea that Greek tragedy should be staged in a way that has its roots in the staging of ancient Greece has steadily declined, with the result that the plays have been liberated from their past performance history and speak more directly to us.
As Jonathan Miller observed in the Yale Theatre Review in 1968, while directing Robert Lowell’s Prometheus, “classics are simply residues, maps left over from earlier cultures.” But the extraordinary thing is that when treated with imagination and boldness they are remarkably resilient and can still show us the way.