The Bacchae

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

One of the greatest of all Greek tragedies – savage, comic and intensely lyrical – The Bacchae powerfully dramatises the conflict between the emotional and rational sides of the human psyche. The magnetic young Dionysus – icon, hedonist, god – returns home with his cult of female followers to exact his revenge, unleashing the full force of female sexuality on the city.

David Greig's version of The Bacchae premiered at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh, in August 2007 in a co-production between the Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre of Scotland.

audio Black Water: An American Opera

LA Theatre Works
Type: Audio

Based on National Book Award-winner Joyce Carol Oates’ novella about the Chappaquiddick scandal, this tragic and beautiful new opera enthralls as a handsome Senator uses power to enchant, seduce and carelessly destroy.

An L.A. Theatre Works full-cast performance featuring David Lee Brewer, Reid Bruton, Stephanie Buckley, Karen Burlingame, Kimberly Graham, Linda Kerns, Erin Langston, Patrick Mason, John Savarese and Rob Shacklett.

Composed by John Duffy, libretto by Joyce Carol Oates.

Featuring: David Lee Brewer, Reid Bruton, Stephanie Buckley, Karen Burlingame, Kimberly Graham, Linda Kerns, Erin Langston, Patrick Mason, John Savarese, Rob Shacklett


Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Bluebird is a sensitive and melancholy play, composed of brief conversations and lifelong sorrow.

Taxi driver Jimmy hears about other people’s lives, just for a few moments. In the time it takes to drive them where they want to go, Jimmy hears about walking the streets, lost daughters and changing the lightbulbs by the tube tracks. He is asked whether he believes in ghosts, in love, in the human spirit. And as he drives through the night, the play gets closer to the core of his silences, to the tragedy of his own life, and to where he goes when there’s no one in the back seat of his cab.

Bluebird was first performed in 1998 at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London.


Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Born is a tragic epic for the twenty-first century. In it Edward Bond examines violence and terror in a dehumanised world in the terse and broken language of extreme deprivation.

Peter and Donna and a baby have moved in to a new house. The removal men have broken a mug. Twenty years later, the street is being evacuated, people piled into trucks – Peter and Donna are ejected from the room, one suitcase each. They are afraid for their son Luke, but he puts on a uniform and joins the fighting, asking questions of an ailing and silent world.

Born was first staged at the Avignon Festival in 2006. It is the third play in Bond’s The Paris Pentad (originally called The Colline Tetralogy), preceded by The Crime of the Twenty-First Century and Coffee, and followed by People and Innocence.


Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Fernando de Rojas's Celestina, originally known as the Tragicomedy of Calisto and Melibea (Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea), is a work that is neither truly a play nor a novel, but something of both. First published in 1499, it comprises a series of dialogues that tell the story of a noble bachelor, Calisto, who uses the services of Celestina, the madam of a local brothel, to help him seduce Melibea, a beautiful young woman being kept in seclusion by her parents. Using all her wiles, and with the help of two greedy servants, Celestina goes about weaving her spells, with tragic results.

The original work is generally considered too lengthy to work satisfactorily on the stage: it would run to something like nine hours. But it has been performed in abbreviated versions written for the stage, and has come to be known after its famous central character, the procuress Celestina (in Spain, La Celestina).

This translation by John Clifford was published by Nick Hern Books in its Drama Classics series in 2004, and was first performed at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh, on 16 August 2004, as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. The production was directed by Calixto Bieito, with Kathryn Hunter in the role of Celestina.

Choephori (Play Two from The Oresteia)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Aeschylus’ The Oresteia is a trilogy of Greek tragedies concerning the murder of King Agamemnon of Argos, together with its aftermath. The name derives from the character Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, who sets out to avenge his father's murder. The three plays – Agamemnon, Choephori (Libation-Bearers) and Eumenides (The Furies) – were originally accompanied in performance by a satyr play, Proteus, now lost. The Oresteia, which won first prize at the Dionysia festival in 458 BC, is the only surviving example of an ancient Greek theatre trilogy.

This translation by Marianne McDonald and J. Michael Walton is based on the Oxford text (to which the line numbers refer). It follows a distinction in the original text between the lines spoken by the characters (which are mostly composed in iambics), and those spoken by the Chorus (which adopt a much freer lyric verse); here, the lyric passages belonging to the Chorus are identified by the use of initial capital letters for each new line. In addition, various expressions such as io, pheu, oimoi and others have been left transliterated from the original Greek, being (in the words of the translators) 'indications of grief rather than actual words'.

The first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, details the homecoming of Agamemnon, King of Argos, from the Trojan War. Waiting at home for him is his wife, Clytemnestra, who has been planning his murder, partly as revenge for the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia, and partly because in the ten years of Agamemnon's absence Clytemnestra has entered into an adulterous relationship with Aegisthus, Agamemnon's cousin and the sole survivor of a dispossessed branch of the family (Agamemnon's father, Atreus, killed and fed Aegisthus's brothers to Aegisthus's father, Thyestes, when he took power from him), who is determined to regain the throne he believes should rightfully belong to him.

The second play, Choephori, deals with the reunion of Agamemnon's children, Electra and Orestes, and their revenge. Orestes kills his mother Clytemnestra to avenge the death of his father.

In the final part, Eumenides, Orestes, Apollo, and the Erinyes go before Athena and eleven other judges chosen by her from the Athenian citizenry to decide whether Orestes' killing of Clytemnestra makes him guilty of the crime of murder.

Coffee: A Tragedy

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Coffee centres around the death of a child and asks disturbing questions about the history of the twentieth century, through an examination of what constitutes acceptable behaviour towards children in our time.

The play opens on a young man alone in a room, laying the table. A stranger enters as he leaves, and after a strange ballet, they journey to a dark forest together. There they meet the Woman and the Girl, accusatory and half crazed with hunger. When the men return to the daylight world, they don uniform and take up a position on a cliff-top with machine-guns, a Primus stove and a coffee pot. They are involved in an incident – to them it is hardly more than a gesture, but its alarming triviality captures the history of our century and presents the deepest of questions about ourselves.

Coffee was first staged in 2000 at Le Théâtre National de la Colline in Paris. It is the first play in Bond’s The Paris Pentad (originally called The Colline Tetralogy), followed by The Crime of the Twenty-First Century, Born, People and Innocence.

Coriolanus (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Coriolanus was first published in the First Folio of 1623; we have no recording of a first performance contemporary with Shakespeare. As a result, dating the play has proven to be a difficult task, with most modern critics placing the writing of the play in the second half of the 1610s.

Affording Coriolanus a genre is similarly tricky: it is ‘The Tragedy of Coriolanus’ in the First Folio, but it is deeply indebted to the sub-genre of ‘Roman plays’ that form a significant part of the Shakespearean oeuvre. As with Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare draws on Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans for both historical detail and literary tropes.

The exploration of the public voice and the body politic in Coriolanus is immediately displayed in the play’s opening, where Roman citizens are rising up against the mounting price of grain. (It has been argued that this is a contemporary reference to the Midland Revolt of 1607, where peasants in the Midlands of Britain rioted against the enclosure of common land.) Menenius, a wise old Roman generally respected by the people, recites a parable narrating the breakdown of the body when its individual parts are not in accord. For the body politic to function, the head (here, the General; in Shakespeare’s England, King James I) and the belly (the people) must support each other.

One of the play’s central explorations, that of the battle between public and private identity, and political and personal duty, is encapsulated in the figure of Coriolanus, much as it is in other Roman figures (e.g. Brutus in Julius Caesar and Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra). His identity is unfixed, and manipulated by the patricians and his ambitious mother, Volumnia.

Unlike other Shakespearean tragic heroes, Coriolanus only has one lengthy soliloquy, in which he laments the ‘dissension’ and ‘bitterest enmity’ to which ‘friends now fast sworn’ have turned. As his affinity shifts from Romans to Volscians, his own identity gets lost, until he cries at the end of Act IV that ‘only that name remains’ – the irony being that ‘Coriolanus’ is not the name he started off with at the beginning of the play (he was ‘Caius Martius’ until he was granted the toponym Coriolanus, after his defeat of the town of Corioles). He is murdered at the end of the play in a bloody attack perpetrated by conspirators, mirroring Caesar’s death in his eponymous Roman tragedy. The opacity of the play’s central figure has rendered theatrical and cinematic interpretations of Coriolanus manifold in the past century especially: Laurence Olivier (twice), Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Ian McKellan and Ralph Fiennes have all portrayed the general.

video Coriolanus (Donmar Warehouse / NT)

National Theatre
Type: Video

Age recommendation: 12+

This Donmar Warehouse production was recorded through National Theatre Live on 30th January, 2014

When an old adversary threatens Rome, the city calls once more on her hero and defender: Coriolanus. But he has enemies at home too. Famine threatens the city, the citizens’ hunger swells to an appetite for change, and on returning from the field Coriolanus must confront the march of realpolitik and the voice of an angry people.

Shakespeare’s searing tragedy of political manipulation and revenge, Coriolanus features an Evening Standard Award-winning performance from Tom Hiddleston in the title role, directed by the Donmar's former Artistic Director Josie Rourke.

First Citizen: Rochenda Sandall
Second Citizen: Mark Stanley
Third Citizen: Dwane Walcott
Menenius: Mark Gatiss
Caius Martius Coriolanus: Tom Hiddleston
Cominius: Peter de Jersey
Titus Lartius: Alfred Enoch
Brutus: Elliot Levey
Sicinia: Helen Schlesinger
Aufidius: Hadley Fraser
Volumnia: Deborah Findlay
Virgilia: Birgitte Hjort Sørensen
Valeria, Fourth Citizen: Jacqueline Boatswain
Young Martius: Joe Willis

Director: Josie Rourke
Designer: Lucy Osborne
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Sound Designer: Emma Laxton
Video Designer: Andrzej Goulding
Composer: Michael Bruce
Movement: Jonathan Watkins
Fight Director: Richard Ryan

video Coriolanus (RSC)

The Royal Shakespeare Company
Type: Video

Caius Martius Coriolanus is a fearless soldier but a reluctant leader. His ambitious mother attempts to carve him a path to political power, but he struggles to change his nature and do what is required to achieve greatness. In this new city state struggling to find its feet, where the gap between rich and poor is widening every day, Coriolanus must decide who he really is and where his allegiances lie.

For teacher resources, visit this page.

A tragedy is a serious play with an unhappy ending. The word is often said to mean ‘goatsong’ (Greek: tragos, goat; ode, song), although modern etymologists have disputed this. It was Aristotle who provided the classic definition of tragedy, stating (in his Poetics) that tragedy should move one “by pity and terror” at the fall of a great person: the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place.

The genre developed in ancient Greece, where tragedies were expected to follow a fairly strict form. Tragic protagonists were drawn only from deities, royalty, and the upper classes, and their inevitable suffering and downfall was brought about by a combination of fate and their own hubris. The three great authors of classical tragedy were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, all of whom wrote in the 5th century BC. The rules of classical tragedy were rediscovered at the Renaissance, as were many of the Greek and Roman texts. The gory tragedies of the Roman Seneca proved particularly influential on the playwrights of the time.

Typically, the tragedies of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras combined violent and sensational action with acute psychological insight and intense poetry. The great tragedies of Shakespeare are usually considered the pinnacle of world drama. In the 17th century the Frenchmen Corneille and Racine led a return to the stricter Greek forms of tragedy. Thereafter the tradition of serious tragic writing declined, being largely displaced by sentiment and melodrama.

It did not revive until the late 19th century, when such writers as Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov managed to combine the sombre themes and moral seriousness of tragedy with a realistic depiction of contemporary life. Perhaps the only modern writer to attempt the classic tragic form was the US dramatist Eugene O’Neill.

from Jonathan Law ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (London, 2011)