Wednesday, September 17, 2014

An Ancient Greek Dramatist on Remakes: Athens is Officially Out of Ideas

Before I decided to pursue an MFA in playwriting, I had briefly contemplated pursuing a more academic route in either theatre history or dramaturgy.  In many ways I feel like it would have been a stronger candidate for masters and Ph.D. programs in those areas.

But though I am really enjoying my current path, occasional tidbits from theatre history tickle my fancy, in particular a lost essay by Charon Isherwopolos, a little-known ancient Greek theatre critic, that proves that remakes and unoriginality that we lament in theatre and film today are far from a new problem.

Athens is Officially Out of Ideas
by Charon Isherwopolos

It is again the Festival of Dionysus.  Heading the bill is the tragic story of Electra, the youngest daughter of the house of Atreus, who, after being reunited with long-lost brother Orestes, avenges the murder of her mother Clytemnestra for the murder of her father.

What's that?  Do you think I have made some mistake?  Surely I've confused this year's program with another?  Wasn't it only a few harvests ago, you say, that that Sophocles presented a stirring version of the post-Trojan War saga to great acclaim?  Many agreed Sophocles provided a definitive version of the tale--what purpose, you wonder, would it serve the young Euripides to revisit the saga so when a perfectly excellent production captured the public's imagination in such recent memory?

That's not to say that Euripides rendition of Electra's story will not hold any interest. As was last seen with his Medea, the playwright possesses a unique ability to convey the inner emotional lives of his personages.  In choosing to focus on the villainous Medea for that drama rather than the noble Jason, we saw an ability to look critically at the unheroic nature of our national mythologies, in ways both touching and surprisingly comic.  I am certain his Electra will prove equally illuminating.

Still, what made Medea feel so fresh was not merely the human dimensions and fantastical Olympian chariot to the heavens endings that have become his signature.  It was also the chance to look at a new story.  Perhaps not new entirely--Jason and Medea are iconic figures after all--but characters that have not been so frequent visitors to Dionysus's stage in recent seasons that audience members have developed wine-swilling games for every time Electra and Orestes' relationship turns unnervingly incestuous.  Lest we forget, even Sophocles's masterpiece was an earlier retread of the events Aeschylus's acclaimed Libation Bearers.

Perhaps this impulse is natural.  As a young dramatist, perhaps Euripides aims to take on the iconic dramas of his forbears to enter into a conversation with his masters.

Once he has done so, hopefully his path will be less well-worn and familiar.  Or at least include more phalluses.

Dramas can always be improved by more phalluses.


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