DIVERSIFYING GREEK TRAGEDY ON THE CONTEMPORARY US STAGE

Melinda Powers

OUP (2018) h/b 256pp £60 (ISBN 9780198777359)

P. discusses the ways in which contemporary US playwrights from under-represented and marginalised communities engage with Greek tragedy, adapting and invoking the ancient genre to various progressive ends. Her book examines contributions from African-American and Chicanx playwrights, as well as others from the LGBTQ and veteran communities, illustrating the manner in which they have ‘re-claimed’ and transformed the ancient genre into socially engaged theatre for today. Her inquiry is fascinating, particularly since the ten-year period which she considers, 2005-2015, coincides with the rise of Barack Obama. In a time presently marked by the rise of alt-right and fascist groups who unapologetically claim the Graeco-Roman, her book provides a refreshing counterpoint. 

The bulk of P.’s analyses draw upon scholarly insights from the field of Performance Studies. Thinkers such as Harvey Young (who coined the term ‘re-claiming’, cited above), José Esteban Muñoz, and Brian Herrera dominate in her discussions of African American and Chicanx engagements with Greek tragedy, which are the focus of her first two chapters. P. takes us through performances such as Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Trojan Women as well as Luis Alfaro’s ‘cholo’ triad of Electricidad, Oedipus El Rey, and Mojada. Her argument in these chapters centers on issues of identity, and specifically how these productions have tackled popular stereotypes about these communities on the stage.  

The three remaining chapters addresses other communities which have also been marginalised in US society. In chapter three, Powers turns to plays which challenge or uphold gender binaries. This bizarrely includes a play from 1989, Split Britches’ Honey I’m Home: The Alcestis Story—which, though interesting, disrupts the ‘contemporary’ focus she promises—as well as a case study from comedy, Lewis Flynn’s Lysistrata Jones. Chapter four turns to various queer performances which confront dominant stereotypes and representations of gay men, paying particular attention to the gay suicide trope. Her accounts of Tim O’Leary’s The Wrath of Aphrodite and Aaron Mark’s Another Medea emphasize the manner in which each playwright uses Euripides’ tragedies in order to politicise the death of gay men; by not aestheticising them they thus subvert the trope. The fifth and final chapter discusses the combat veteran community, which was a central audience in the ancient Greek context, but in the US comprises less than 1 percent of the population. Her account is similarly concerned with the manner in which these productions dissect stereotypes about this community, in this case, that of the ‘disabled’ veteran; for this she relies on recent scholarship from the field of disability studies. For example, her analysis of Outside the Wire’s ‘Theater of War’ project, which has performed Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes before countless military personnel and members, veterans and their families, discusses the extent to which this project encourages a universalised sense of emotional identification with ancient characters while ‘inadvertently … employing the very tropes of pity and fear which lead to misrepresentations of veterans’ (p. 190).

In the introduction, P. justifies her choice of these particular case studies as follows: ‘I have chosen to limit my discussion to professional productions that I have seen live in the theatre’ (p. 3). This emphasis on having witnessed these plays first-hand of course allows her to enrich her discussions of each play with commentary of particular props and gestures employed, as well as attention to the stage and viewing audience. However, one wonders if this ‘eyewitness’ requirement has somehow limited the study, placing too much of an emphasis on the East and West coasts of the United States and overlooking other important regions such as the Midwest and the South, areas which have become more ethnically and progressively diverse since the turn of the century. 

Nonetheless, the book should be valuable to anyone interested in the contemporary afterlife of Greek drama, particularly in the United States. 

Rosa Andújar

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