Thursday 8 August 2013

Sexing up the Cambridge Greek Play

F.H. Lucas as Clytemnestra (Granta souvenir)
In the 1892 novel The Junior Dean by Alan St Aubyn (the pseudonym of Frances Marshall), Cambridge students are described attending the hotly anticipated Greek Play – the institution which began with the 1882 Ajax, and which was to become triennial in the years which followed. The narrator explains:

‘the Newnhamites and the Girtonites had seized upon the most favourable position in the house, and maintained it…there had been great searchings of heart at Newnham for some weeks before the Greek play, and the Cambridge dressmakers had had a bad time of it.’

Clearly here the Greek Play prompts the same attention to dress and display as a social event, while the spectacle of young men performing on stage – some of them as male characters, others as female – is imagined as having erotic appeal for the women in the audience, students of Newnham and Girton Colleges, founded in 1871 and 1869 respectively.

Yet while it is women here who subject the performers to scrutiny (at the same time hoping to be scrutinised themselves), elsewhere in contemporary commentary on the Greek Play it is the homoerotic potential of staging Greek drama which is most frequently stressed. Much of this seems to have been related to the symposiastic relationship between teacher and student suggested by Greek models. Against this backdrop, gender confusion is as much a part of the Greek Play experience as the ‘historically accurate’ sets commissioned by the Greek Play Committee or the texts of the plays themselves. A reviewer of the 1900 Cambridge Greek Play (Aeschylus’s Agamemnon) for the Manchester Guardian (identified as J. B. Atkins by The Spectator) argues that:

‘no one has really been seized by the spirit of the Greek play…who does not see that it is right and natural to speak of every man who plays a woman’s part as “she”.’

He records the actor playing Agamemnon (Humphrey Hastings King) as being disgruntled to see ‘Clytemnestra’ (Francis Herman Lucas) smoking a pipe – spoiling the illusion of his femininity. And lists one of stage manager (and founder of the Greek Play) John Willis Clark’s responsibilities as training actors to have suitably graceful arms. Atkins’s newspaper article (like several others) also concentrates on the overlap between participation in the Greek Play and sporting prowess – recording that members of the play’s chorus spoke Ancient Greek on the hockey pitch to ensure victory. This emphasis on sport on one level reasserts the masculinity of the performers, but on another fetishes the performers’ bodies still further. In a memoir on the origins of the Greek Play (published in the 1898 Amateur Clubs & Actors by W.G. Elliott) Clark has no qualms in describing his casting process for the hero of the 1882 Ajax:

‘his [‘Jim Stephen’s] splendid physique pointed him out as almost an ideal Ajax.'

Cambridge Graphic illustration: 'An Argive
sailor going home'
The early years of the Greek Play in Cambridge are a fascinating and unique study, bringing together ancient Greek culture and that of the late nineteenth century, with the accompanying tensions about the distinctness of the two’s sexual practices, while dealing with the same suspicion of performance I have discussed with relation to female sexuality elsewhere. Sexual scandal had seen amateur dramatics banned for a period in Oxford in 1870, following the arrest of two students for, in the words of The Times ‘personating women at public resort for unlawful purposes’. Keeping women off the stage, here for the historical purity of the Greek Play, could be just as dangerous, just as sexually charged, as when they were allowed on it.

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