Many things stand between the ancient Greeks and “us”. Still, we’re able to see ourselves in their ancient culture, recognize their preoccupations to be similar to our own. Ancient plays have graced the stage through its various incarnations in modern times, from mannerism to expressionist opera, experimental psycho-drama to sword and sandal film, multifariously produced for all kinds of performances in the metropoles of modern Europe and beyond.
Visionary stage directors and translators, script editors, actors, set and costume designers, composers and librettists have perpetually re-adapted ancient Greek plays to give them a contemporary spin that would appeal to the audience of, say, 1910s Vienna, 1860s London, or 1940s Paris (or indeed the African colonies, or America, or the provinces…).
There’s a case to be made that the musical genre Opera was first invented with Greek tragedy in mind, as the earliest operatic works known today pay homage to Greek drama. The earliest known composition is from 1597 Florence and by Jacopo Peri. His operatic work based on antique themes from Greek drama falls within the general zeitgeist of classical revivals so dear to the Italian Renaissance.
Opera as a genre and the production of libretto texts for operatic performances continued to go in pair with classical drama for many centuries, updated and upgraded as music developed new trends and styles, and costumes changed with time as well. In the late 1800s, national Italian themes flourished more than ancient Greek ones, as the romantic era of nationalism and post-napoleonic pride was in full swing; and in Germany, the mid- to late 19th century saw developments on the operatic scene exponentially intensified. Between Wagner, Strauss, and Berg, the advances and modernization of musical composing and staging are as fast-paced and startling as was the advent of modernism and the birth of the industrial megalopolis in the late 19th, early 20th century which engulfed all activities of the time. Early cinema and photography accompanied the developments of the all-new, over-crowded and high-rising, electric city with its trams and streetlights, its malnourished children and the broken shells of romantic aesthetics.
Berlin’s expressionist scene, powered by a group of poets whose first vocation had been medicine, under poet and psychiatrist Gottfried Benn’s influence especially, colluded together with Freud’s Vienna, where an passion for describing and studying dreams through the medium of poetry and literature had begun to produce an all-new set of literary works. The film “Dr. Caligari’s Cabinet” epitomizes the fascination with the subconscious mind, mixed with the fascination for horror of the deranged brain, the attraction of the mental asylum that was to become absolutely central for the surrealists of the 1920s and their aesthetic of contorted bodies and the twisted mind.
But I go too fast. What of the ancient Greek plays that were, after so many years, still underwriting many librettos and operatic productions?
In 1907, Richard Strauss asked Hugo von Hoffmannsthal for an opera libretto based on the poet’s play Electra which had been published a few years earlier. The production premiered first in Dresden in 1909, and soon thereafter also in London in 1910, where aside from the English King’s death, this opera and the debates it roused became the event of the year.
Why? Informed by the psycho-pathology of Freud’s Vienna and Benn’s Berlin, this production was ultra-modern for its time, and shocked the artistic sensitivity of many London opera-goers. With its heavily re-worked dialogue focusing all attention on grim and dark mental processes, *Electra* featured in the title role a woman seeming rather like a Bedlam escapee.
This Electra was all the opposite of what, by 1910, the public had come to expect of the Greek heritage: a dignified, high-minded, infinitely poised and rational picture of womanhood should have greeted the London audience that year, not a distraught woman in the rages of bloodlust and revenge. This Electra “Electrified” London, as the newspapers were quick to report. Not only did it turn on its head the image of the Greeks per se, but in the era of Britain’s colonial empire it was also customary to use Greek civilization as an anchor point of European culture, and now this culture was being made to look rather chaotic and tribal, full of violence and retribution, framed by harrowing new costume styles and the modernist music of the day.
It inaugurated a reflection upon classical drama itself in the universities, that had not yet been a focus of classical studies itself, and even if from today’s perspective, these productions seem in their turn dated, they’re a crisp window through which we can look at the differences between ancient and modern, “them” and “us”.
picture: Annie Krull as Electra, 1909. Wikimedia Commons.