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Whenever I hear that the Greeks are back (I mean the ancient ones: the modern ones are another story), I mutter to myself, “but when did they go away?” A substantial chunk of my misspent youth was devoted to reading plays by Sophocles, in the original and magnificent Greek, in a suburban house in Cambridge. I was also studying certain 20th-century versions, especially those by Ezra Pound and WB Yeats, and wanted to extend my PhD research area to the influence of Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex on Freud and the amazing reimagining of Sophocles by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal in the opera Elektra. All this was far too broad for a PhD topic; after a year I gave it up and followed my friends to the fleshpots of London.
Just now a Greek revival is being spearheaded by writers of a very different stripe, including the poet Simon Armitage, the playwright and librettist Frank McGuinness and the classically educated former stand-up comedian Natalie Haynes. In 2010 Haynes brought out the engaging and unstuffy An Ancient Guide to Modern Life. Her aim, she said, was to show how “you can live better, know more about the modern world if you spend a little time looking at the ancient world”. She recently published her first novel, The Amber Fury, which is about a bereaved teacher reading Greek plays, to devastating effect, with a group of troubled teenagers.
Simon Armitage’s new play The Last Days of Troy, based on the accounts in Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid, is currently at the Royal Exchange, Manchester before transferring to Shakespeare’s Globe in London next month. As a poet-dramatist drawn to the power of Greek stories to shed light on more modern events, he is following in the footsteps of Seamus Heaney, whose The Cure at Troy used Sophocles’ Philoctetes to illuminate the intransigence at the heart of the Irish Troubles. He is also walking in tandem with that other notable Irish writer Frank McGuinness, who has written the libretto for Thebans, Julian Anderson’s acclaimed new opera at the ENO. This (on which more later) condenses Sophocles’ three Theban plays into a terse 100 minutes encompassing the fate of Oedipus and his daughter Antigone.
The late 1970s and early 1980s were another time when the ancient Greeks, especially their tragedies, were making a comeback. The National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company both waded into Greek tragedy using different approaches, austerely classicising in Peter Hall’s memorable and mask-wearing Oresteia, much looser in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s sprawling The Greeks, a condensation of 10 plays mainly by Euripides into three trilogies by John Barton. In tune with the Zeitgeist, I directed a student play called Who Killed Cassandra? written by James Harpur and starring a youthful Stephen Fry, which brought the story of the Oresteia into a contemporary college setting.
The destructive sexual obsessions and gory horrors put on stage by the great fifth-century BC Athenian dramatists, with an unflinchingness never matched, seemed to me like the dark secrets at the heart of our civilisation. We might think it is based on sweet reason and scientific progress but underneath all that are mad passions that make a mockery of our pretence to rationality. The Greek tragedies, which had inspired Freud’s famous theory of the Oedipus complex, might pass temporarily out of view but they never really went away; you could apply another of Freud’s theories, the return of the repressed, to Greek tragedy itself.
I understand the lure of the Greeks but also think it holds dangers. Watching the RSC’s The Greeks long ago I was infuriated by the lack of respect shown to the dramatic integrity of the plays, and by the prevailing notion that the Greeks were primitive and unsophisticated types. The general idea was the ancient Greeks had provided us with “myth”, childlike and prescientific stories that modern writers could turn into drama.
The same idea popped up in a recent radio discussion of Thebans, when McGuinness was asked why he had been drawn to Greek “myth”. McGuinness, all credit to him, talked about the emotional impact Sophocles’ Electra had on him as a teenager, as literature, and stressed that the play – not the “myth”– Oedipus Rex by Sophocles had helped him finally mourn his dead father.
The fact is that McGuinness has compressed three very great plays, not three myths, to make his libretto. And therein lie difficulties. The subtlety of Antigone is diminished if you cut too much of the essential dialogue between her and Creon, who is not just a monster but also an upholder of civic order. And the ineffable mystery of Sophocles’ last play, Oedipus at Colonus, is only imperfectly communicated, despite the beauty of Julian Anderson’s score, if essential structural elements, especially the last messenger speech describing Oedipus’s passing, are removed. Those old Greeks were not primitive at all – they knew exactly what they were doing.