The Cambridge Greek Play

One every three years, the Classics Faculty of the University of Cambridge puts on ‘The Greek Play‘ – a work by one of the four great Athenian playwrights whose dramas have come down to us: the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and the comedian Aristophanes. This year, it was Aeschylus’ Agamemnon – the first play in the trilogy known as the Oresteia. I went to see it on Wednesday, and I thought it was a brilliant staging of a difficult play: the coup de théatre of the silent Cassandra suddenly singing of her own death in a beautiful, classically trained voice (in contrast to the chanting-to-music of the Chorus up to that point) was stunning, as was the gruesome display (in defiance of ancient Greek theatrical convention) of the two mutilated bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra. The surtitles (written by Professor Edith Hall) were a great help, but I was quite chuffed to find that – thanks more to the excellent diction of all the actors than to my failing memory – I could actually remember/understand quite a lot of the Greek. (I decided that it would be a bit pretentious to take the Hermann edition and a small torch…)

The programme for the play contains a very interesting article by Professor Simon Goldhill, in which he reminds us that the great European minds – Napoleon, Hegel, Goethe, Wagner – who admired the Agamemnon as the most sublime work of literature would never have seen it staged: they knew it only on the page, to be read to oneself or out loud, not as a theatrical performance. The Cambridge Greek Play tradition (which began with Sophocles’ Ajax in 1882) was thus partly responsible for a revival of performances of the Greek tragedians (whether in the original language or in the vernacular) which has reinforced the recognition that these ancient works speak of universal themes ­– love, war, treachery, betrayal, revenge – and has led to their being performed quite regularly on stage around the world. Interestingly, one of the two producers in 1882 was John Willis Clark, the antiquarian polymath, several of whose writings we have reissued, and whose bookplate is to be found on many of the books we borrow from the University Library for scanning. What we did not know before (though his edition of the life and letters of Adam Sedgwick should have been a clue) was that his day job was as Superintendent of the Museum of Zoology – this was well before the days of the Two Cultures!

Also interestingly, a year before the Cambridge Ajax, Harvard had staged a Greek play – Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus (again, the first play of a trilogy). It was seen by about 6,000 people, tickets changed hands for hugely inflated prices on the black market, and it was a great success, arousing almost universal enthusiasm and awakening interest in the possibility of staging more of these monuments of European civilisation. Henry Norman, a British student at Harvard, wrote a book about the experience which was published in 1882. Did this perhaps influence the Cambridge pioneers and thus begin a tradition that thrives today? Put 2013 in your diary now!


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