Jennifer Wallace on Greek Tragic Performance

Thoughts on Greek Tragic Performance by Jennifer Wallace, who lectured on our Tragedy Study Day, 18 March 2017. 


It’s impossible to recreate a faithful, accurate performance of Greek tragedy. The most interesting productions are ones in which modernity and antiquity meet in a fascinating, estranging and illuminating encounter. But recognising and thinking about different aspects of ancient theatrical conventions – the chorus, the masks, the ritual/religious setting, the drama competition – allows one to understand the dynamics and anxieties of ancient tragedy more deeply, which can feed through into modern versions and productions.

electra with urn.jpg

It is in these performances and new productions that tragedy is confronted again and puzzles us afresh. For tragedy does not exist on the page, in a textbook or a set of dusty rules and definitions. It lives, it is re-embodied and made present again in performance. As Electra clasps the urn that she wrongly supposed contains all that is left of her brother, as Agave looks down at the face of her son she has torn apart in The Bacchae, no logical explanation or textbook analysis will do. We are there in the theatre with these characters, at this moment, viscerally bewildered and metaphorically torn apart too.

Jennifer Wallace
Peterhouse, Cambridge