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Reimagining Greek Tragedy on the American Stage

Reimagining Greek Tragedy on the American Stage

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by Helene P. Foley

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This book explores the emergence of Greek tragedy on the American stage from the nineteenth century to the present. Despite the gap separating the world of classical Greece from our own, Greek tragedy has provided a fertile source for some of the most innovative American theater. Helene P. Foley shows how plays like Oedipus Rex and Medea have resonated deeply with


This book explores the emergence of Greek tragedy on the American stage from the nineteenth century to the present. Despite the gap separating the world of classical Greece from our own, Greek tragedy has provided a fertile source for some of the most innovative American theater. Helene P. Foley shows how plays like Oedipus Rex and Medea have resonated deeply with contemporary concerns and controversies—over war, slavery, race, the status of women, religion, identity, and immigration. Although Greek tragedy was often initially embraced for its melodramatic possibilities, by the twentieth century it became a vehicle not only for major developments in the history of American theater and dance, but also for exploring critical tensions in American cultural and political life. Drawing on a wide range of sources—archival, video, interviews, and reviews—Reimagining Greek Tragedy on the American Stage provides the most comprehensive treatment of the subject available.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Obligatory reading for anyone interested in Greek tragedy, reception studies, the history of the theater, or US cultural history. . . . Essential."--Choice
Choice - P. Nieto
“Obligatory reading for anyone interested in Greek tragedy, reception studies, the history of the theater, or US cultural history. . . . Essential.”
The Times Literary Supplement - Oliver P. Foley
"[A] monumental mosaic of a book."

Product Details

University of California Press
Publication date:
Sather Classical Lectures Series , #70
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

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Reimagining Greek Tragedy on the American Stage

By Helene P. Foley


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95365-9


Greek Tragedy Finds an American Audience

By the end of the nineteenth century, American commercial theater was becoming increasingly entrenched in stereotypical modes of production and a limited repertoire that was largely generated in New York before moving on established circuits to other parts of the country. Although twentieth-century scholarship on early American theater has defended a number of nineteenth-century plays and playwrights, Edgar Allan Poe, commenting as early as 1845 on one of the better new American plays, Mrs. Mowatt's Fashion, reflected a stream of later critical opinion when he remarked: "It is a good play—compared with most American drama it is a very good play"; in the United States "the intellect of an audience can never safely be fatigued by complexity." In any case, two developments began to liberate artists interested in performing a larger range of serious poetic drama from dependence on the theater syndicates that dominated the late nineteenth-century theater world and to invite new audiences to attend Greek tragedy: the growing success of Greek tragedy on college campuses from the 1880s to the 1930s and the establishment of new venues for performance that permitted theatrical experimentation in stagecraft with strong links to Greek theater in the minds of major theorists and practitioners. outdoor performances across the country, including those in sports stadia and in new amphitheaters often built on college campuses, here complemented the founding of small, innovative regional theaters.

Part 1 of this chapter first considers why nineteenth-century native efforts at presenting Greek tragedy on the professional stage, and especially translations of the original plays, met with an uninspiring reception. It then looks at how a growing number of university productions, along with small touring Anglo-American and American professional groups who primarily performed on college campuses and at other local venues, paved the way for remarkably successful productions in the second decade of the twentieth century. In 1915, the prominent visiting British director H. Granville Barker took advantage of this trend by staging Euripides' Iphigeneia in Tauris and Trojan Women in eastern college stadia.

Part 2 focuses on four U.S. artists/theater groups that began to put a stronger American imprint on the reception of Greek tragedy, and to win audiences for the original plays in translation that were not merely respectful yet skeptical—often the standard critical reaction—but positively enthusiastic. As leader of the American branch of the International Theosophical Society, Katherine Tingley built the earliest important outdoor amphitheater in the country in San Diego, where she staged performances of Aeschylus's Eumenides in 1899–1927 in order to establish a new spiritual and cultural agenda for American theater. In 1910–15 the noted actress-director-producer Margaret Anglin produced innovative Greek tragedies in the outdoor Hearst Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California, before she won a place for the Greek classics on the larger professional stage of major American cities in 1918–27. In 1912, Maurice Browne and his wife, Ellen Van Volkenburg, founded the Chicago Little Theatre, which aimed to establish the place of serious poetic drama including Greek tragedy on the U.S. stage. Their touring performance of Euripides' Trojan Women in 1915 was timed to coincide with Barker's and to advocate peace. Barker, Anglin, and Browne/Van Volkenburg attracted enormous audiences that have not been equaled since. These directors increasingly turned away from efforts at "historical authenticity" in the production of Greek tragedy popular on college campuses and in some early professional performances in favor of making the plays resonate with contemporary audiences. All were particularly attracted to creating "total theater" works that imaginatively united words, music, and dance. Although thematic issues were of interest to them, their most important contribution was to communicate the Greek originals through fresh modes of performance and aesthetic vision. Finally, the Provincetown Players, founded by the enthusiastic Hellenist George Cram Cook, paved the way for Eugene o'neill's famous remakings of Greek tragedy, the 1924 Desire under the Elms and the 1931 Mourning Becomes Electra. Cook brought his passion for Greece to Provincetown and new york from the Midwest, where he had experienced the Chicago Little Theatre's early efforts at Greek tragedy. By fostering ambitious new plays by American playwrights, the Players ultimately made the creation of new, American versions of Greek tragedy inviting.


Nineteenth-Century Commercial Efforts

Part 2 of this chapter explores one of the two most fertile periods for American productions of Greek tragedy in the United States. The context out of which these important early twentieth-century productions arose is critical to understanding and evaluating them. In contrast to university performances of the original plays, which developed in the United States after the 1880s, nineteenth-century professional productions of Greek tragedy that visited or derived from Europe typically adapted or transformed the originals. The earliest American professional performance known to me was a pantomime, Medea and Jason, performed in 1798, 1880, 1801, and 1805; the 1801 performance featured a spectacular Euripidean ascent by Medea with her children (alive or dead?) at its close. Medea and Jason was followed by multiple, often compelling new Medeas staged by both European and American artists in a number of major cities, which will be addressed in chapter 5. In 1836–77 radically new versions of Euripides' Ion also proliferated; at least seventeen probably represented the new British version by Thomas noon Talfourd. Talfourd's adaptation, which drew on a number of Greek tragedies, apparently appealed to U.S. audiences because of its republican sentiments, which were also central to other plays (including "heroic melodramas") on the American stage in this period. In Talfourd's new version, Ion, a foundling fostered by the priest of Apollo at Argos, discovers that the plague-ridden city's oppressive king, Adrastus, is his father. Adrastus is assassinated, and Ion, following Apollo's command to establish a republic, commits suicide to assure the success of his new constitution, which transfers sovereignty from the monarchy to the Argives themselves. one enthusiastic admirer, Cornelius C. Felton, the Eliot Professor of Greek at Harvard, was oddly reminded, not of Euripides' very different original, but of an unnamed long-lost work of Sophocles.

We know very little about most other early, often European-derived, commercial performances of plays related to Greek tragedy, however. An 1850 new york burlesque of Francis Talfourd's Alcestis, or the Original Strong-Minded Woman at Burton's olympic Theater and Brougham's Theatre, an 1858 new york version of Electra at the Academy of Drama, an 1876 Helen in Egypt staged at Philadelphia's Chestnut Street Theatre in 1876, an 1887 version of Electra at the Arch Street opera House in Philadelphia, and a production of Goethe's Iphigenie auf Taurus at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia in 1867 and 1869, and in new york in 1867, starring the noted Czech actress Francesca Janauschek, remain mere titles.

By contrast, Franklin H. Sargent's better-documented three native performances of Sophocles' Electra in March 1889 at new york's Lyceum in collaboration with the famous producer David Belasco and H. C. De Mille served as a vehicle for students from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the first acting school in the United States (see chapter 3). Sargent's graduating American Academy students also performed three scenes from Oedipus Tyrannus and odes from Antigone on February 21, 1893. His Aeschylus's Libation Bearers with the American Academy students in 1908 moved George odell to remark that "Sargeant's staging of Aeschylus was the most beautiful, the most moving play I have ever attended." Sargent also helped with the 1882 Harvard Oedipus discussed below, and supervised student productions at Smith and Vassar. The pioneer settlement house worker Jane Addams staged Sophocles' Electra with Greek immigrants at Hull House in Chicago in 1892, followed by a better-documented Ajax in 1904, discussed in chapter 3. Yet none of these pioneering American productions fall under the rubric of standard commercial performances.

Three native European-influenced attempts at performing Sophocles' Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannus on the professional stage in the nineteenth-century United States best illuminate why Greek tragedy failed for both theatrical and thematic reasons to continue attracting the support of American producers even though the plays themselves were gaining a broader readership and beginning to attract university audiences at the end of this same period. on April 7, 1845, George Vandenhoff, as producer, director, and chief actor for a performance financed by a new york investor, William E. Dinneford, attempted to copy for the opening of Palmo's opera House on new york's Chamber Street a fairly successful London production of Antigone in Covent Garden in the same year. The English original derived from a faithful translation by W. Bartholemew of the play done at Potsdam in 1841 with music by Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Although George's father, John Vandenhoff, and his sister Charlotte had succeeded in making the play upstage the music in London, the uneven new york production closed after a few weeks to largely bad reviews, with a consistent exception made for Mendelssohn's score. Odell pronounced the production "a colossal failure"; attendance dropped radically after the first performances. Edgar Allan Poe's review among several others lambasted the small stage; the design, with its "authentic" colonnaded palace facade, three doors, and flaming altar on a raised stage; its inadequate acting; and the unrehearsed chorus of forty, who poured over challenging musical scores sporting ridiculous gray wigs, beards, and, in some cases, glasses. To the delight of the audience, one "wag" hit the center of the black and white rings on a messenger's shield with a "quid plumb" of chewing tobacco. Some other reviews praised the appropriate classical-style costumes of the actors but agreed on the weakness of the acting (Vandenhoff excepted), which relied on classical poses. Worst of all in Poe's view, however, was the imperfection of Antigone's plot, which could not be expected to appeal to the tastes of modern audiences. The review in the Anglo-American (April 12, 1845, 595; see also New World, April 12, 1845, 233), like many reviews to come, found the themes of Greek tragedy, especially the inexorability of fate, incompatible with the contemporary ethos.

The play was promptly parodied to far greater success at the nearby Mitchell's olympic Theatre in an "entirely original and unquestionably novel version of the celebrated Lyrical Tragedy, adapted from the Greek to the American stage ... under the title of ANTIGONE." With the front of Palmo's opera House as a backdrop, the ever-popular "William Shakespeare" delivered a prologue followed by a chorus of "un-employed Artistes of the Italian Opera" who made quizzical comments on an action that travestied Vandenhoff's Creon and Miss Clarendon's Antigone (the unemployed Italian artistes apparently objected to the importation of English drama into the United States); a horn player deliberately upstaged his fellow musicians in the orchestra. Such parodies could enhance the popularity of a serious production but apparently did not in this case.

An earlier, little-documented Oedipus or the Riddle of the Sphinx, a native (but probably British-inspired) production starring the former British actor Tom Hamblin as oedipus was performed twice at new york's Bowery Theatre in october 1834 along with two farces, The Roman Nose and Beulah Spa, or Two of the B'Hoys. Peabody's Parlour Journal (November 1, 1834, 141) pronounced this "melo drama" "founded on an event of exciting interest, and though the plot (the usual case with such productions) is rather common place, the general effort is good. Mr. Hamblin presented the chief character oedipus, for which his commanding figure well adapted him. The dress he wore on the occasion was one of the most splendid we ever beheld, and throughout he planned his part with ease, judicion, and dignity. He was well supported by Mr. Ingersoll and Mrs. Flynn—we wish we could say as much for all others concerned." This effort also failed to find favor or make money. A retrospective piece in the New York Clipper (February 4, 1882, 758) pronounced such efforts "curiosities." The audience for the Bowery Theatre, a mix of working-class men, women, and wealthier patrons, interestingly suggests an unsuccessful attempt to popularize a classical tragedy with an audience anything but exclusively elite.

Finally, the relative failure of the Broadway version of the influential and successful 1881 Harvard Oedipus a half century later, in January 1882, ensured the near impossibility of staging native commercial productions of Greek tragedy for many years.

Although performances on college campuses began at least as early as 1838 with an all-male Philoctetes at St. Louis University in St. Louis, the Harvard Oedipus, performed indoors at the college's Sanders Theatre, was the first of many important late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century college performances in the United States. The production was lavish, and rehearsals extended for an entire college year. At least six thousand spectators attended the five nights of performance, including such luminaries as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and William Dean Howells, to say nothing of college presidents and professors from all over the country, magistrates, the editors of leading journals, and most of the instructors at Harvard. Ticket scalping was rampant, and the production was financially lucrative.

Oedipus was chosen for "being typical of so many elements of Greek thought," for "the significance of its plot to a modern mind, and the adaptability of its scenic details to modern and local conditions." In an approach that was later imitated in other university performances, as well as on the professional stage, the production put the chorus in an orchestra below the main stage that was connected to it by a flight of steps. The set represented a Greek palace with frieze and columns painted on canvas. The walls were gray marble, the central door imitation bronze. Small altars were set before two side doors, and larger ones in the center stage and in the orchestra. The original music, by Prof. J.K. Paine, used modern harmony and was later distributed by a Boston publisher. A chorus of seven tenors and eight basses from the Harvard Glee Club sang in unison (with the exception of one solo), accompanied by an orchestra of forty and a supplementary chorus of sixty. Great efforts were made to create brilliant costumes "authentic" to fifth-century Athens, since "historical accuracy to the period of the mythical figures was not possible" (fig. 4). The play received extensive laudatory reviews; the female students of Smith College paid it the homage of a parody the following year.


Excerpted from Reimagining Greek Tragedy on the American Stage by Helene P. Foley. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Helene P. Foley is Professor of Classics at Barnard College, Columbia University, and the 2008 Sather Professor at UC Berkeley. Her many books include Ritual Irony and Female Acts in Greek Tragedy .

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