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Crossing the Stages:
The Production, Performance and Reception of Ancient Theater


Edith Hall
Somerville College
Oxford University

Greek Tragedy and the British Stage in the 18th and 19th Centuries

This paper traces the relationship between Greek tragedy and the British stage between the Restoration and the first world war, a completely neglected area within theatre studies, Classics, and English. The story begins with Dryden and Lee's Oedipus, and passes on through the popular Iphigenia plays of the Hanoverian era, the adapted Euripidean she-tragedies (Hecuba, Medea) which were enjoyed at Drury Lane in the 1720s, James Thomson's politically charged Agamemnon and its implication in the licensing act of 1737, to the mysterious case of Sophocles' Electra in the second half of the 18th century. Although classical tragedy retreated into the Romantics' closet from the public stage after the French revolution, by the 1820s Greek tragedies were again appearing as public interest was awakened by the Greek war of independence, and by the 1830s Euripides was being used to legitimise parliamentary reform. Before the Cambridge Greek play and Gilbert Murray, Greek tragedy holds the London stage in the form of burlesques, and the contribution of Planche, Vestris, Mathews and Robson is briefly surveyed. The emphasis throughout is on the different ways Greek tragedy is altered to fit the emotional, social, and political preoccupations of each successive generation of British theatregoers.

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