New life for lost plays

Greek tragedy is considered the wellspring of the Western theatrical tradition, but the plays that survive represent a tiny proportion of what once existed. Of the 1200 tragedies or so we know were performed during the fifth century BCE, less than 3% made it through to the modern day. It is tempting to believe that these plays represent the ‘best’ of what was ever written, but the road to survival was plagued by vagaries. The views of scholars such as Aristotle as to what a tragedy ‘ought’ to be like, or ancient school teachers as to what was a suitable curriculum for their pupils, were probably as influential as any absolute sense of excellence. Many plays of Euripides survive by pure chance, since they fell into a particular section of his complete plays (arranged alphabetically by title) which happened to survive to the Middle Ages, and so our knowledge of nearly half his complete plays depends on a single fourteenth-century manuscript.

Fragments of the seating in the Athenian Theatre of Dionysus.

This phenomenon is by no means unique to tragedy, and classical literature is the story of what is lost as much as what remains. However, what is unusual about tragedy is the vast corpus of fragments (five hefty volumes), which represent an exciting and largely untapped resource. They range from a run of disconnected words to isolated speeches or even a whole scene, and along with ancient hypotheses (plot summaries) and other information, scholars have used them to reconstruct many ‘lost’ plays. But reconstructing a play’s contents is only the first step to understanding its literary or cultural significance. In recent years classicists have seen a resurgence of interest in the fragments of the Greek lyric poets, where scholars have demonstrated that small scraps can yield enormous impact. My research aims to apply this methodology to tragic fragments, and tease out the contribution they can make to our understanding of the genre. Fragments are exciting, not least because they represent plays that failed to conform to the rules that governed which plays were selected for survival. They also provoke our imaginations. An isolated image or phrase takes on a quality of special vividness, while the gaps in our knowledge prompt us to engage and ask questions more than we might do if we had the whole picture.

A bronze tragic mask, on display in the Archaeological Museum of Piraeus (Athens). Image credit: Giovanni Dall'Orto.

I aim to write a scholarly monograph on tragic fragments that investigates how these texts inform our expectations of tragedy as a genre, our presuppositions as to what is typical of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and what they contribute to tragedy’s handling of ‘big picture’ questions such as myth, Athenian identity, and family relationships. I am also looking forward to continuing a collaboration I began last year with modern theatre-makers on the creative possibilities of staging these texts. Our ‘work in progress’ piece was performed at the first Being Human festival in November 2014, and used fragments and research on them to explore broader issues of how we experience the world in a fragmentary way. We’re now hoping to take this project further, and work towards a finished piece of modern theatre.

Dr Laura Swift
Open University
Philip Leverhulme Prize