Moving the Greeks to London: Tony Harrison’s classical theatre of the 1980s

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Tony Harrison is a poet and dramatist who over a period of years developed a personal theatrical approach towards classical revival, whereby each new version was made specific to its new site and period of production. This paper will discuss the notion of transposition that was central to Tony Harrison’s theatre in the 1980’s whereby Greek plays were retranslated to deal with concerns he had with Britain.
Harrison stated that ‘the best way of creating a fresh text is to tie it to a specific production rather than aim, from the study, at a general, all-purpose repertory version. This undoubtedly gives a limited lifetime to the version, but this is no bad thing, as I believe that a “classic” needs to be retranslated continuously.’ He therefore moved Greek plays to specific modern times and places and increasingly sacrificed the notion of archaeological authenticity in favour of relevance to a modern audience. Aware that settings of ancient plays needed modernisation, he moved them to more recognisable locations such as Greenham Common and Cardboard City in London. Yet he was also concerned with the fact that the physical environment of each play, which had for the Greeks been crucial in their initial creation and performance, needed consideration also. Plays designed for open-air performance in a ‘theatre of mutual reciprocity’ had to be rewritten for modern English theatres. Tackling this problem, he made the plays modern and local just as the Greek playwrights had made their plays specific to their own moments and sites of performance. The National Theatre for The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, for example, lay in close proximity to the Cardboard City that featured in the play.
These radical classical productions were attractive and adventurous, and have received praise from a wide number of critics. However, this paper will demonstrate, by focusing on two key plays (The Common Chorus and The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus), how Harrison’s attempts to give a modern audience greater access to classical drama became more and more invaded by his need to express himself. As a result, rather than better expressing the words, ideas and spirit of the classical authors or accurately depicting the present, they ultimately fell between two stools and greatly distorted both. It was an approach that ultimately failed as a result of his struggle to remain faithful to what he felt the original author had to say and what he himself wished to say.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - Aug 2004
EventNation, Region, Belonging: 10th International Conference on the Literature of Region and Nation - Manchester Metropolitan University , Manchester, United Kingdom
Duration: 3 Aug 20046 Aug 2004

Academic conference

Academic conferenceNation, Region, Belonging
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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