When Fiona Shaw played Electra in 1982, the audience was moved to tears. Can we learn more from such a performance than we can from studying a play's text? Jennifer Wallace reports on an emerging fieldof academic inquiry
Greek tragedy is the new rock-and-roll. Or so it seems from a cursory survey of the current theatrical scene in London. The National Theatre is staging an epic version of Aeschylus's Oresteia by Ted Hughes (you can see it all in six and a half hours), in which events on stage are transformed instantaneously into "news" and projected onto a large cinema screen. Meanwhile, the Old Vic is using television and film stars, such as Tara Fitzgerald, to pull in the punters for their production of Antigone. And the Manchester Evening News has just given a trained classicist, June Montgomery, its best actress award for her stunning portrayal of Sophocles's Electra.
Why the sudden fashion for staging Greek tragedy? According to Edith Hall, lecturer in ancient Greek literature at Oxford University, there is a long history of performing Greek drama and it mirrors the "evolution of the modern consciousness". She points out that productions of Euripides's tragedy Medea, in which a mother murders her children to wreak revenge on her adulterous husband, were staged in the last century just as matrimonial and divorce laws were being drawn up. And it is known that before he wrote his seminal Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud saw the actor Jean Mounet-Sully playing Oedipus in 1881.
This telling connection between social history and productions of Greek tragedy has prompted Hall to research classical drama performances more systematically. Since 1996, along with fellow Oxford classicist Oliver Taplin, she has been accumulating an archive of performances of Greek and Roman drama. The archive is funded by a Leverhulme grant, which paid for a full-time archivist, David Gowen, and now it has just been awarded a five-year grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board. A second full-time researcher, Fiona Mackintosh, joins the team from Goldsmiths College this month.
The archive is collecting a database of the history of classical performance, which will be published in five years. It is also dedicated to the interpretation of its findings, so that various books devoted to the history of Greek drama are in the pipeline. Hall and Mackintosh will publish Greek Tragedy and the British Stage in two years' time, while other books are being prepared on ancient Greek actresses and on the history of Oedipus Tyrannus.
The third priority for the archive is to act as a focus for the study of the reception of antiquity in Britain. As the biggest growth area in classics, "reception studies" is attracting large numbers of graduate students who can research at the archive.
All things have small beginnings. The archive is housed in two rooms at the top of a Victorian house in St Giles, Oxford, although it will soon enjoy the kudos of the official title, The New Classics Centre.
When I visit, there are a few shelves of videos, some books and a couple of bottles of champagne from a previous conference. No great wealth of material is actually visible. But the computer database has information on about 2,500 productions dating back to the production of Edipo Tiranno in Vicenza in 1585, and it is thought there are another 8,000 productions out there to be catalogued. Further exploration reveals filing cabinets full of programmes, theatre reviews and cuttings, arranged play by play.
Theatre history is, by nature, ephemeral and elusive. A live production may be staged a few times, is watched but usually not recorded, and then it passes, never to be revived. Eyewitness accounts are subjective and unreliable evidence, but nevertheless valuable as the only record available. So some of the treasures that David Gowen pulls out for me to look at are the reviews and critical reaction to Fiona Shaw's powerful 1992 rendition of Sophocles's Electra, performed in Northern Ireland, at the height of the troubles.
"The intensity of Fiona Shaw's performance as Electra, her whole body transformed into an instrument for expressing terrible, primitive emotions of grief, hatred and the desire for revenge, has transfixed audiences in Britain and abroad," the reviewer Mary Holland writes. "But what happened between the company and those who came to see it in Londonderry went beyond a normal performance. The people sit very still and, afterwards, when they talk to you, they weep." In the archive's collection I also see the programme from the 1984 Polish productions of Antigone, performed in the dockyards of Gdansk and espousing the cause of Solidarity.
Just as theatre history relies on good eyewitness accounts, so the archive depends on the personal interests of the people who are running it. Hall, a theatrical-looking woman with long black hair and dramatic gestures, describes herself as a "stern Stalinist historian" who taught herself Russian as an undergraduate so that she could read what the Soviets thought of ancient drama and bypass the western ideological hold on the subject. Meanwhile, the shabbily charming Taplin, who wrote Greek Tragedy in Action in 1978, hung out with "luvvies" for many years. He advised Peter Hall on the 1980 Oresteia and is the academic consultant for Katie Mitchell's current Oresteia at the National. As a result he has many contacts in the theatre and friends send in old programmes that they have kept from theatre productions all over the world.
In many ways, what is going on in Oxford is part of a wider trend in the academic study of drama. Performance history is fashionable. The building of a replica of Shakespeare's Globe theatre in London has led not just to a new tourist attraction but also, as Jonathan Bate, professor of English at Liverpool University, has argued, to a renewed interest among scholars in questions of staging and performance. Traditional theatre architecture, with proscenium arch, results in realist theatre, he points out, but the different lighting and architecture of the Globe mean getting closer to the original method of representation. The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford has responded by appointing Peter Holland, an expert on contemporary performances of Shakespeare, as its new head.
Performance history is spreading to the world of classics. In the United States, Helene Foley of Barnard College, New York, is collecting information about American productions of Greek tragedy and campaigning for live theatre to be recorded, and thereby preserved for study, on video (theatre directors are resisting this). Similar activities are going on in classics departments across Europe, linked by the Network of Research and Documentation of Ancient Greek Drama, which holds regular symposia and is masterminded by Platon Mavromoustakos of the University of Athens.
One of the main rivals to the Oxford archive is the reception of classical texts research project, directed by Lorna Hardwick and based at the Open University. While the Oxford archive covers both Greek and Roman performance history dating right back to the late classical period and in all languages and countries, the Open University project looks just at the reception of Greek texts and images in late 20th-century drama and poetry in English.
Why does all this information about performances of Greek tragedy matter? Why should anyone be interested in the history of classical drama? Hall argues that studying the reception of ancient Greek texts tells you much, both about classical antiquity and about the later people who responded to it and altered the way we understand it today.
"People are just beginning to realise that we've got to cut away the accretions of meaning that 2,000 years have stuck on all these texts, and you can't do that without studying how they've been adapted, translated and performed and what they have meant in different periods and places," she says. "The Romantic idealisation of Greece is a prime example of one type of appropriation and there are still vestiges of that in my students' essays." Reviews of Mitchell's Oresteia - such as that of The Sunday Times's John Peter - which criticised the production and called for greater "elitism" and "elocution", are still unconsciously influenced by that Romantic idealisation.
Hardwick agrees. "I think the causes and implications of this are very significant in the broader cultural context," she says. "It's a time now, at the beginning of the millennium, of metamorphosis in the representation and reception of classical material. One might call it a new stage in a contested tradition."
Jennifer Wallace is director of English at Peterhouse, Cambridge. Her book, Shelley and Greece: Rethinking Romantic Hellenism, is published by Macmillan.