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


Marianne McDonald
Professor of Classics and Theatre
University of California, San Diego

Phaedra's Flame and Delphic Fire: From Euripides to Dassin

The cinema which is based on a projection of light is the new Delphic fire, ensuring that the torch of Greek tragedy is passed on to modern generations. Although we know that the original poetry can never adequately be translated, it can be transformed into a new creation, as it is in the cinema.

Phaedra blazes brightly from antiquity. Each age passes on her fire, which is both illuminating and blinding, vital, yet potentially destructive. Ovid offers a witty rhetorical version and Seneca brings us into the baroque. Racine's Phèdre (1677) alters the plot and adds a love interest for Hippolytus. In modern times, Tony Harrison's Phaedra Britannica (1975) follows Racine, and is set in the context of British imperialism in India. Brian Friel brings Phaedra and Hippolytus to Ireland in a play called Living Quarters (1977) which he subtitles, "After Hippolytus." The family strife parallels that of Ireland itself. Sarah Kane's Phaedra's Love (1996) is used to criticize the British Royal family and ends in incest and murder: one Royal outdoes the other in monstrous crime.

Mann's Desire Under the Elms (1958) and Dassin's Phaedra (1962) show how the cinema is a bold new medium for transmitting the original fire of Euripides' play. They reflect the historical particulars of the time they were written, and social concerns are raised in which power and property seem to figure more than honor. Some of the dangerous immediacy of the stage is lost, but we still receive the universal message of this tragic love.

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