School and University Productions of Ancient Plays

Clare Foster (Cambridge)

A play in Greek or Latin is never only a play. The ancient languages and cultures are badges of learning: marks of accomplishment, excellence, and selection. As such, the performances of Greek and Roman plays will always be bound up with the academies of the countries in which they occur.

In Britain, Elizabeth I shrewdly instituted a tradition that plays in Latin (whether recently rediscovered Plautus and Terence, or newly-composed) be performed for royal visits to Oxford and Cambridge (Shenk, 2003, 2008). (After her death this continued briefly without enthusiasm: James 1st tried to leave a Latin play in 1605 but was prevented by his attendants and fell asleep; Charles and the Elector Frederick both slept through a six-hour ‘comedy’ at Cambridge in 1613 (Carpenter, 1985:7)) She also ordered an annual Christmas Latin play at Westminster School, with a fine of ten shillings if the duty was shirked. This tradition has continued unbroken from 1564 to today, even escaping the Puritan ban on theatre. Except for brief competitive responses to the Westminster Play in the form of experiments with Greek tragedy in Greek at Stanmore School (two Sophocles plays in 1770) and Reading School for Boys (a triennial tradition of Greek plays in Greek from 1806-21, on which see Hall (1997) and Hall and Macintosh (2005: Chs. 8 and 9)) there was then what Glynne Wickham calls a ‘dark age’ for two centuries until the 1880s (Wickham, 1977:115). Then, an explosion of international interest in performing the authentic texts of ancient drama began in schools and universities, which is alleged to have launched (among other things) the present British academic tradition of performing Greek plays in Greek. 

All educational productions, as amateur productions, are interesting because they draw legitimacy and motivation from sources different from those of commercial productions. Whether socially, spiritually or theoretically inspired, such performances are always, at least, a form of participant or community theatre, and thus promise insights into the essence of theatre (why we make theatre, and what it is for). As Michael Dobson has recently argued, the conventional distinction between 'amateur' and 'professional' in theatre scholarship should be challenged: ‘The more one examines the categories of “professional” and “amateur” across theatrical history the more…precarious they appear to be, even without tracing modern Western drama back to its pre-professional roots in ancient Athens and Medieval Europe’ (Dobson, 2011:6).

But the performance of a Greek or Roman play in an educational context is especially interesting because it has a particularly vivid ‘double’ existential status as both a theatrical experience, and a dramatisation of values or ideas beyond the occasion itself. This is clear from the fact that the sudden rage or craze for Greek plays in the 1880s stirred the passionate interest of the artistic, literary and political celebrities of the day (e.g. the late Edward Burne-Jones, Frederick Leighton and Oscar Wilde were all alleged to have contributed in some way towards the 1880 Oxford Agamemnon; the 1881 Harvard Oedipus Tyrannus was graced by ‘men of letters’ such as Longfellow and Emerson). Prime Ministers and princes were often seated in the front row at Oxford and Cambridge Greek plays, and the 1882 Cambridge Ajax was hailed as a national event, with special trains laid on from Kings Cross. The interests of women, liberals, and progressives were central to these earliest 'revivals'. In fact one could claim the ‘first’ British Greek play in Greek was the all-female 1877 Newnham Electra, for which lines were learned, costumes made, and an audience invited to attend the production at the fledgling college. But the Principal, Anne Clough, anxious about propriety, cancelled at the last minute. Ancient Greek, as Chris Stray and Yopie Prins have shown, was then such a powerful symbol of the (exclusively male) educational elite that the girls of Newnham, and later Girton, Somerville and various womens’ colleges in the United States seized on Greek plays to ‘perform’ their own inclusion. It was the fusion, or tension, between these two different ‘ways of being’ – a theatrical experience that was also 'symbolic' on a wider stage - which gave these late nineteenth-century Greek plays their particular frisson.

Classical antiquity dominated the content of elite British education until the late nineteenth century, so perhaps the performance of identity - of gender, class, and nation – was (and, to some extent, still is) inevitable in such contexts. ‘Our’ values are being performed – an ‘us’ is being negotiated - whether we are a 'New Woman' in the audience in the 1880s proud to be able to follow the Greek, or a post-Christian humanist passionately invested in ideas of universality, or a conservative professor who values the threatened discipline of learning a difficult language. All are sitting next to each other. Controversy is inherent. And if such performances are institutionalized as a tradition, the controversy can include the values encoded by such processes of tradition-making itself. In sum, the performance of classical dramas in schools and universities defines a cultural space where intellectual, social and political tensions are publicly staged. They are thus deeply engaged with ‘our’ relationship not only to Classics, but also to ‘classics’.

Further reading

Primary sources

APGRD (copious, diverse information about school and university productions worldwide)

Cambridge Greek Play Archive (Manuscripts Room, Cambridge University Library: but also see Waldstein Press Cuttings in the Rare Books Room)

Kings College London Greek Play Archive (especially the first minutes book of the Classical Society, founded 1948, which covers the emergence of the King’s Greek Play 'tradition' 1952-5).

For first-person memoirs on the early Oxford Greek Plays and their role in the foundation of the OUDS: see Benson, Frank (1930), Courtney, W.L. (1925) and Mackinnon, Alan (1910). Also valuable is the nostalgic Elliott, W. G. (1898) Amateur Clubs and Actors (containing chapters on the Oxford and Cambridge ‘Greek Play’, as well as the traditions at Bradfield and Westminster School by their participants - copy in the APGRD library) 

Secondary Sources

Brown, Peter (2008) 'The Eunuch Castrated: Bowdlerization in the Text of the Westminster Latin Play' International Journal of the Classical Tradition 15: 16-28

Carpenter, Humphrey (1985) OUDS: A Centenary History of the Oxford University Dramatic Society 1885-1985, Oxford

Easterling, Pat (1999) 'The Early Years of the Cambridge Greek Play. 1882-1912’ in Chris Stray (ed) Classics in 19th and 20th Century Cambridge: Curriculum, Culture and Community’ Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, Supplement 24: 27-47, Cambridge

Hall, Edith (1997)  ‘Greek Plays in Georgian Reading’ Greece & Rome, Second Series, 44: 59-81

Hall, Edith and Fiona Macintosh (2005) Greek Tragedy and the British Theatre 1660-1914, Oxford (Chapters 9 and 10 for Reading School and Stanmore School Greek Plays respectively; Chapters 15 and 16 for the late Victorian craze for 'Greek plays' which began in British schools and universities) 

Macintosh, Fiona (2005) ‘Viewing Agamemnon in Nineteenth-Century Britain’ in F. Macintosh,  P. Michelakis, E. Hall and O. Taplin (eds) Agamemnon in performance: 458 BC to AD 2004, Oxford

Shenk, Linda (2008) ‘Gown Before Crown: Scholarly Abjection and Academic entertainment under Queen Elizabeth I’ in J. Walker and P. Streufert (eds) Early Modern Academic Drama, 19-44, Aldershot (also an earlier article by Shenk, (2003) 'Turning Learned Authority into Royal Supremacy' in C. Levin, J. Eldridge and D. Barrett-Graves (eds) Elizabeth 1st - Always her own Free Woman, Aldershot) 

Wrigley, Amanda (2011) Performing Greek Drama in Oxford and Beyond: from the Renaissance to the 1970s, Exeter

Stray, Christopher (1998) Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England, 1830-1960, Oxford

Wickham, Glynne (1977) ‘A revolution in Attitudes to the Dramatic Arts in British Universities 1880-1980’ Oxford Review of Education, Vol. III (For a view on this from 1918 in the USA, see Harold Cleasby (1918) 'Classical Plays in High School and College' The Classical Weekly (now filed under The Classical World) Vol. 11, No. 19, 146-148, March 11th.)

Winterer, Caroline (2001) ‘Victorian Antigone: Classicism and Women’s Education in America, 1840-1900’ American Quarterly 53:1, 77                              

________ (2002) The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life 1780-1910, Johns Hopkins   

Pluggé, Domis  (1938) The History of Greek play production in American colleges and universities from 1881 to 1936, New York.

For the importance of challenging the conventional distinction between amateur and professional, see Michael Dobson (2011) Shakespeare and Amateur Performance, Oxford, esp. 1-11.