Plays

Lysistrata (trans. McLeish)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

What’s a woman to do when the men refuse to stop fighting a war? Withhold the only thing the men want more than war: sex. Seizing the advantage of their domestic power, Lysistrata leads her fellow Greek women in a country-wide sex-strike. The women stand strong against the strike-breaking activities of their husbands, but not all the strikers are quite so willing to give up the pleasures of the flesh . . .

One of Aristophanes’ most frequently adapted plays, Lystistrata retains its resonance and hilarity to this day. It continues to reflect the struggles of women in war, and has been evoked and made newly relevant by real-life sex-strikes in modern war zones. Bawdy, cutting, and inspiring, it is among the finest works of classical comedy.

Medea (trans. Power)

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Medea is a wife and a mother. For the sake of her husband, Jason, she's left her home and borne two sons in exile. But when he abandons his family for a new life, Medea faces banishment and separation from her children. Cornered, she begs for one day's grace. It's time enough. She exacts an appalling revenge and destroys everything she holds dear.

Medea is a wife and a mother. For the sake of her husband, Jason, she's left her home and borne two sons in exile. But when he abandons his family for a new life, Medea faces banishment and separation from her children. Cornered, she begs for one day's grace. It's time enough. She exacts an appalling revenge and destroys everything she holds dear.

Ben Power's version of Euripides' tragedy Medea premiered at the National Theatre, London, in July 2014.

audio Oedipus the King

LA Theatre Works
Type: Audio

One of the first and greatest of all Greek tragedies, Harry Lennix stars as Oedipus, the king who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother.

Includes a Q & A session with translator and director Nicholas Rudall. An L.A. Theatre Works full-cast performance featuring: Spencer Garrett as Shepard and Chorus Francis Guinan as Messenger and Chorus Gregory Itzin as Creon and Chorus Charles Kimbrough as Priest Of Zeus and Chorus Harry J. Lennix as Oedipus Rod Mclachlan as Second Messenger and Chorus Carolyn Seymour as Jocasta W. Morgan Sheppard as Tiresias Translated and directed by Nicholas Rudall. Recorded before a live audience at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

Featuring: Francis Guinan, Charles Kimbrough, Harry J. Lennix, Spencer Garrett, Rod McLachlan, Carolyn Seymour, W. Morgan Sheppard

Orestes

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

'Orestes is a vicious play, filled with vicious characters, interested almost exclusively in themselves. Helen is shallow, Menelaos a backslider, Pylades, who does no more than haunt the fringes of most versions of the story, took a full part in the murder of Klytemnestra and is prime mover in the plan to kill Helen. Elektra sets up the taking of Hermione as a hostage. The only redeeming character is Tyndareus arguing that, if Orestes and Elektra had a grievance against Aigisthos and Klytemnestra, they should have invoked a perfectly good legal system. The decision of Apollo ex machina that he will sort everything out is the clearest evidence that Euripides' use of the device is ironic'.

Thus does editor J. Michael Walton describe Orestes, one of Euripides' later plays. In a story of murder, passion and vengeance, Orestes, having murdered his mother, the unfaithful Klytemnestra, now vows a plot of revenge against his uncle Menelaos, who has refused to offer moral support for the vengeful matricide carried out by Orestes and his sister Elektra. With blood already on their hands, they plot to murder Helen, Menelaos' wife, and Hermione, his daughter, in a near-unstoppable cycle of vengeance and bloodshed.

The Orphan of Zhao  

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

In the aftermath of the massacre of a clan, an epic story of self-sacrifice and revenge unfolds as a young orphan discovers the shattering truth behind his childhood. Sometimes referred to as the Chinese Hamlet and tracing its origins to the fourth century BC, The Orphan of Zhao was the first Chinese play to be translated in the West.

James Fenton’s adaptation of The Orphan of Zhao premiered with the RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon in November 2012.

Our Ajax  

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Torn between army politics and the love of his soldiers on the front line, a legendary leader spirals out of control.

Inspired by Sophocles’ classical play, Our Ajax draws on interviews with contemporary servicemen and women to create a modern epic of heroism, love and homeland.

Our Ajax premiered at the Southwark Playhouse, London, in November 2014.

Peace

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Seeking peace after endless years of war, Trygaeus, a citizen of Athens, flies his giant dung-beetle to the heavens to argue with the gods. When he arrives, he discovers that the god of War has imprisoned the goddess of Peace, and he calls on his fellow Athenians to help set her free.

Peace includes some of Aristophanes’ most reflective, eloquent writing, while retaining his signature biting wit. Full of slapstick, physical humour, and honest discussion of the frustrations of war, it reflects the politics of the city at an uncertain time, as its citizens adjusted to a fragile peace after years of conflict.

Persians

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Taking the 480 BC destruction of the invading Persian forces as its starting point, Aeschylus's Persians shows the lamenting Persian Queen, mother of Xerxes, far away from the battlefield as she learns of the evisceration of the men of her kingdom. Bit by bit news reaches her of her son's defeat, how the Greeks won out against the Persians superior numbers, and how none of the survivors have hope of returning to their homeland; all but Xerxes, whose final fate is to witness the collapse of a kingdom his failure has destroyed.

In the introduction, translators Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael write that, although Aeschylus's play celebrates a Greek triumph, "it does so in an unprecedented way: the innovation lies in the negative space defined by the lamentations which fill the stage". The empathy so majestically felt and displayed by the Greek playwright for the losses of his 'enemies' is matched here by McLeish's superlative translation, capturing at once the extravagance of feeling of a defeated nation, and the spare verse in which these lamentations are cried.

Prometheus Bound

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Prometheus the Titan, cousin of Zeus, has given mankind fire. Further, he has thwarted Zeus's plan to obliterate the human race, and, in saving them, has taught them many arts, from writing to agriculture, architecture to medicine. His generosity to mankind, to whom he was sometimes known as creator, knows no bounds. But it is precisely this generosity which sees him punished.

In Aeschylus's play we see the characters of 'Might' and 'Force' chaining Prometheus to the Caucasus Mountains, using chains forged by the Olympian god Hephaestus. Despite the sympathy of Hephaestus (whose fire it was Prometheus stole for the humans), and the pain of bondage, Prometheus proudly holds on to his anger at Zeus.

Prometheus Bound sees many suppliants plead with Prometheus to cast aside this pride and beg forgiveness of his powerful cousin. Instead, Prometheus rages on, the searing fire of his words and chains burning as bright as the flames he stole.

Rhesos

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In the dark of night, intrigues and treachery flourish beneath the walls of the besieged Troy. A chorus of sentries stands guard while spies and heroes scheme to turn the tides of war in their favour. In Rhesos, Euripides portrays the reality of war, in which there is no place for honour.

Out of around a hundred plays by Euripides, Rhesos is one of nineteen that survive. Its place in the Euripides canon has been debated, with some scholars ascribing it to an unknown fourth-century dramatist.

Nonetheless, as editor J. Michael Walton writes, 'there is an inventiveness and a capacity for surprise in Rhesos that seems wholly in keeping with Euripides' dramatic and theatrical technique elsewhere. The establishing of the play as taking place at night is a conceit which was taken ip in the Chinese theatre and exploited comically by Peter Shaffer in his immaculate one-act play, Black Comedy. In Rhesos, all the confusion of sentry duty, the intrigue of spies and intruders, disguises and deceptions, are crammed into a single night when the fortunes of war turn against the Trojans by a mixture of devious behaviour and sheer bad luck. Events happen as they do because so many of the characters are figuratively, as well as literally, in the dark. It is a brilliant dramatic device and brilliantly exploited.'

Greek Drama: The theatre of ancient Greece, the fountainhead of the entire Western dramatic tradition. The earliest Greek drama is thought to have developed during the 6th century BC from imitative religious magic associated with the worship of Dionysus. The golden age of Athenian Drama (the 5th and 4th centuries BC) saw the emergence of the genres of Tragedy and Comedy and the production of the great works of Aeschylus (c. 525–456 BC), Sophocles (c. 496–406 BC), and Euripides (c. 484–406 BC). Aristophanes (c. 448–385 BC) was the greatest comic playwright. The most important development of the later 4th century was the emergence of the New Comedy of Menander. Although the Athenian tradition was in serious decline by about 300 BC, its influence had already spread to other parts of the Mediterranean world.

The first Greek plays were performed in a circular dancing area known as an orchestra. Later a raised stage was added behind this area while a tent (Skene) behind the stage functioned as both a stage set and a dressing room. Scenery became more elaborate and such devices as the ekkyklema and the mechane for the Deus Ex Machina were added during the 5th century.

The influence of Greek theatre persists in the manifold translations, adaptations, and updatings that have appeared since the Renaissance. It also appears in numerous major and minor conventions of the Western stage; the issuing of a ticket (metal token) for each seat, and the habit of applauding to denote approval, and whistling to express disapproval were all originally Greek customs.

Roman Drama: The theatre flourished in ancient Rome for about 800 years, during both the Republic and the Empire. It developed from village entertainments such as the Atellana, and from Greek Drama.

The earliest Roman drama probably evolved from jolly carnivals and bawdy fertility rites performed on religious occasions. Its development was influenced greatly by the traditions of Greek colonists living in southern Italy and Sicily. The first documented Roman playwright was Lucius Livius Andronicus (c. 280–204 BC), a freed Greek slave who translated Greek works into Latin. The first recorded production took place in 240 BC at the Roman Games (Ludi Romani). Unlike their Greek predecessors Roman playwrights, such as Ennius, Naevius, and Andronicus wrote and published non-dramatic poetry.

Few Roman tragedies survive; most of the plays seem to have been adaptations of Greek originals, although Lucius Accius is thought to have written some original works. The role of the Chorus diminished, until it functioned as little more than a source of interlude music during scene changes. At the same time rhetoric grew increasingly important, with plays containing long set speeches. It is not even certain that the nine gory tragedies of Seneca were written to be performed on stage.

Roman comedy derived from the Greek New Comedy, with such authors as Plautus and Terence basing many of their works directly on plays by Menander and others. Although the plays were often set in Greece they tended to satirize Roman society and featured stereotypical Roman characters. Bawdy and brutal mime and the performances of the pantomimus eventually superseded literary comedy.

Roman drama was generally performed on festival days, together with gladiatorial contests, circuses, and races; popular actors could be very highly paid, one of the most successful being Roscius. Theatre buildings were originally wooden, and took their design from Greek theatres. The first stone theatre was built in Rome in 55 BC. Roman theatres became considerably more elaborate than the original Greek models; they were built to be freestanding, and had complex arrangements of curtains and scenery. There were even some indoor theatres. The amphitheatres designed as arenas for races were also used for theatrical shows. Performances were sometimes given in private; players could be hired to entertain dinner guests, while members of the literary elite would hold prestigious private readings of their works.

Roman drama disappeared in the 6th century AD when Christian opposition to acting resulted in the emperor Justinian closing down all the theatres.

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