Sunday 17 April 2016

University Greek Plays, in America

A couple of weeks ago the Secret Victorianist attended a production of Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, staged by the students of Barnard College here in New York City. It was my second ‘Greek Play’, as I was also at Oxford’s most recent Greek Play in 2014—a production of Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers. And, during my Masters, I had also spent time investigating the homosocial and publishing culture around the 1900 Cambridge Greek Play—Aeschylus’s Agamemnon—(a subject I’ve blogged about before).

The Harvard Greek Play in 1906
My night at Barnard however made me wonder about the history of the Greek Play in America. Were American universities slower to join in the nineteenth-century renaissance of performances in Ancient Greek than their British counterparts? The programme told me Barnard’s Greek Play was an annual event, but only one dating back to 1977. I wanted to do some more digging to find out.

What I found was a fascinating journal article from the Classical Journal, published October 1910. D.D. Hains’s ‘Greek Plays in America’ is a topline summary of American institutions’ performances of classical plays in ancient languages, and translation, and shows the speed with which these universities took to the tradition being established in Britain.

Oxford’s first Greek Play was an Agamemnon given in 1880, which was later repeated in Eton, Harrow and London. Cambridge’s inaugural Greek Play, Ajax, came two years later in 1882.

But Harvard University in fact nearly pipped Oxbridge to the post. A production of Antigone was originally planned to celebrate the opening of the Sanders’ Theatre in 1876, but was ultimately abandoned. And so Harvard’s first Greek play, Oedipus Tyrannus, was actually performed in May 1881. The venture was an immediate success. The five performances drew audiences totaling 6,000 and a professional company took the production, in translation, to New York and Boston for an additional two weeks.

The University of Toronto's Antigone (1882)
I was also surprised to find that the second university Greek Play on the American continent was Canadian. Toronto University staged Antigone in 1882 and, again, in 1894.

The University of Pennsylvania can lay claim to the first Greek comedy, the Acharnians, in 1886, while Smith College was the first with a female cast, producing Sophocles’ Electra in 1889.

Haines estimates 101 performances based on Ancient Greek drama at 47 American institutions between 1881 and 1910, with around half as many in Latin from a slightly reduced pool of universities. His conclusion that ‘the increasing number of such performances augurs happily for the future of the classics in our schools and colleges’ might have been slightly optimistic, but the tradition does live on at schools like Barnard, even as the popularity of a classical education has waned.

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