From 5th century BCE plays to their contemporary adaptions

Olga_TaxidouOlga Taxidou is Professor of Drama and Performance Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She has published extensively on modernist drama, theories of tragedy and has also written adaptations of classical Greek plays, some of which have been performed. At the University, she is the College of Humanities and Social Sciences Festivals Coordinator, bringing together the scholarly work of academics with the creative work of artists. She helped to establish and has acted as judge for the James Tait Black Drama Award. For the past couple of years she has been a Visiting Professor at New York University and she is on the Board of Directors of the Athens and Epidaurus Festival.


The Citizens Theatre in Glasgow has announced a major production of the only extant trilogy that we have from the canon of Greek classical drama—The Oresteia by Aeschylus. First performed in the 5th century BCE, this adaptation is written by Zinnie Harris (the season runs 15 April14 May, 2016).

Arguably the first group of plays that deals with the ‘battle of the sexes’ and its structural and constitutive relationship to the discourses and practices of war, the trilogy has had many productions in the post WWII period that re-imagine and re-cast its political concerns in terms of the politics of gender. Agamemnon’s triumphant return from the Trojan War (read in many ways as the ‘original sin’ of European history), is somewhat spoiled by the less than hospitable welcome of his wife Clytemnestra, who proceeds to kill him in probably the first scene in European drama that uses the bathroom as a site of slaughter.

Of course, she has reason to be angry.

Agamemnon had previously slaughtered their daughter Iphigeneia in a ‘pro patria’ sacrifice so the winds could blow favourably for the Greek boats to set sail (the dutiful daughter was told she would be attending her wedding).

Rather than continue with the intricacies of plot and action, I’d like to highlight some of the themes that are reverberated throughout this trilogy and perhaps underscore what makes it attractive for contemporary female playwrights and audiences.

Many contemporary adaptations approach this trilogy as a way of addressing our current state of constant war.

Indeed, this group of plays along with many others, is one that is also taught on many legal and philosophy courses as it charts a somewhat bumpy progression from vengeance to justice, from blood feuds to legislation, from darkness into light, from barbarism into civilisation, and quite predictably from a monstrous, murderous (and highly imagined) matriarchy to an equally imagined bloodless and lawful patriarchy.

However, as this is a piece of great literature and drama, these terms never remain binary, they are constantly switched about and traversed throughout the trilogy. The violence of Clytemnestra mirrors the violence of war, the vengefulness of the Furies turns into the kindness of the Eumenides, but is never truly expunged as it resides in the foundations of the houses. The house of the mother (and Harris’s version is titled ‘The Restless House’), never smoothly morphs into the law of the father.

These classical Greek plays are heaving with dangerous women, and in many ways provide us with probably one of the oldest imaginative/creative arenas at least in the European tradition, where the concept of the dangerous woman is given shape and form, metaphorised, stylised, enacted. Women who kill their husbands, their children, who sleep with them, who break the law and defy conventions of marriage; the spectre of these dangerous and monstrous women haunts these plays, and possibly the classicism that they have helped to construct in both its historical dimension and in its revived humanist, renaissance guise. For it is a somewhat incongruous, almost oxymoronic and counterintuitive fact that these plays are obsessed with dangerous women.

Counterintuitive, because the absence of women in the public domain of Athenian democracy is more than made up for by their conspicuous presence on the stage. Fascinating that in this foundational moment of democracy during which women are absent, they make a spectacular appearance in that great school of Athenian democracy, the theatre. Clytemnestra, Electra, Antigone, Jocasta, Medea, Helen, Hecuba, Iphigeneia, Agave.

Most of us have a received notion of these female characters whether we have read/seen the plays or not. Their reception in multiple re-writes across genres, media, disciplines and across historical periods is part of the fibre of what we understand as being female and indeed dangerously so. Perhaps these plays allowed the Greeks to think through the exclusions of their democracy in ways that were both safe (allowing men to identify with the women, always acted by men, on stage) and transgressive (perhaps questioning these exclusions).

In psychoanalytical terms we may call this kind of obsession as ‘the thing you love to hate’. And indeed, much more than expressing an unmediated form of misogyny, these plays question and enact the structure of misogyny itself. From the romance and beauty expressed by Helen (compared to hell in the chorus of The Agamemnon, as she supposedly triggered the Trojan War), to the horror unleashed by Medea or Clytemnestra, this love/hate relationship is explored in these plays. From the first metaphorical use of the female body, in the figure of Helen (the ‘face that launched a thousand ships’, as Marlowe would later write), to stand in for both empire/expansionism and the idea of the motherland, to the use of Antigone’s virginal, motherless body as the vessel that enacts the transgression of the law.

These dangerous women are called upon in Greek tragedy to enact the limits, but also the possibilities, of democracy itself.

And, of course, thinkers of modernity particularly from German Idealism and Romanticism onwards, have resorted to these figures to think through some of their most fundamental concepts about what it means to be human and a citizen of a democracy (Engels, Hegel and Freud). More recently, feminist thinkers have in turn engaged equally critically and in a revisionist manner with this now ‘classical’ tradition of modernity (Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous and Judith Butler amongst others).

It has always struck me as particularly intriguing that this conspicuous visibility of dangerous women should appear in a disciplineClassicsthat is traditionally associated with class, gender privilege and exclusion. However, and going back to the centrality of democracy for the flourishing of this model of theatre, modernity has brought with it a radicalisation of the Classics.

It is beyond the scope of this brief, impressionistic piece to delve deeply into this issue. However, as more women entered the academy as students and teachers, more attention has been paid to the function of these dangerous women. Certainly the contribution of women classicists cannot be overestimatedfrom the formidable Jane Harrison at the start of the 20th century to the equally formidable and inspiring Mary Beard (who has written one of the early biographies of Jane Harrison). Equally significant is the emphasis placed on reception studies and the performative turn in cultural studies more generally.

This brings us back to the current adaptation by Zinnie Harris at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre.

It is a fact that more and more women playwrights are adapting Greek plays. The classical modernist takes on these plays (by Hofmannsthal, Anouilh, Brecht et. al.) are sometimes referenced, but contemporary playwrights also draw on aspects of contemporary theatricality, adding insights both formal and thematic, more often than not also informed by a feminist sensibility. Zinnie Harris, for example, has already written a war trilogy, so we are curious to see what her previous experience will bring to The Oresteia.

Ellen McLoughlin in the US is also preparing an adaptation of The Oresteia, having already worked on another war play, Ajax in Iraq. Timberlake Wertenbaker in the UK has also recently written an Ajax play, Our Ajax.

In some ways, what these contemporary versions underline is perhaps the fact that these plays are immensely adaptable. And, this adaptability (translatability, as Walter Benjamin would say), is something pliable, vulnerable even, but endlessly creative, at at the core of their being. It may be this quality that renders them classical (and not some solid, static, eternal quality).

In my more speculative moments, I like to think that this quality may have something to do with the fascination that the plays have with dangerous women.