Tragedy

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Agamemnon (Play One from The Oresteia)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Aeschylus’ The Oresteia is a trilogy of Greek tragedies concerning the murder of King Agamemnon of Argos, together with its aftermath. The name derives from the character Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, who sets out to avenge his father's murder. The three plays – Agamemnon, Choephori (Libation-Bearers) and Eumenides (The Furies) – were originally accompanied in performance by a satyr play, Proteus, now lost. The Oresteia, which won first prize at the Dionysia festival in 458 BC, is the only surviving example of an ancient Greek theatre trilogy.

This translation by Marianne McDonald and J. Michael Walton is based on the Oxford text (to which the line numbers refer). It follows a distinction in the original text between the lines spoken by the characters (which are mostly composed in iambics), and those spoken by the Chorus (which adopt a much freer lyric verse); here, the lyric passages belonging to the Chorus are identified by the use of initial capital letters for each new line. In addition, various expressions such as io, pheu, oimoi and others have been left transliterated from the original Greek, being (in the words of the translators) 'indications of grief rather than actual words'.

The first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, details the homecoming of Agamemnon, King of Argos, from the Trojan War. Waiting at home for him is his wife, Clytemnestra, who has been planning his murder, partly as revenge for the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia, and partly because in the ten years of Agamemnon's absence Clytemnestra has entered into an adulterous relationship with Aegisthus, Agamemnon's cousin and the sole survivor of a dispossessed branch of the family (Agamemnon's father, Atreus, killed and fed Aegisthus's brothers to Aegisthus's father, Thyestes, when he took power from him), who is determined to regain the throne he believes should rightfully belong to him.

The second play, Choephori, deals with the reunion of Agamemnon's children, Electra and Orestes, and their revenge. Orestes kills his mother Clytemnestra to avenge the death of his father.

In the final part, Eumenides, Orestes, Apollo, and the Erinyes go before Athena and eleven other judges chosen by her from the Athenian citizenry to decide whether Orestes' killing of Clytemnestra makes him guilty of the crime of murder.

All For Love

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

All for Love, or The World Well Lost is John Dryden's epic adaptation of the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra into a neo-classical quintet with supporting voices. The play, which the 1678 quarto titlepage claims is ‘Written in Imitation of Shakespeare’s Stile’, draws heavily on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra; it does away, however, with the salaciousness of Shakespeare’s text, and reduces his temporal and geographical range to that of one time and place as per Aristotelian dramatic unities. The play was arguably intended to be seen in direct relation to the contemporary Antony and Cleopatra: A Tragedy (1677), written by politician and playwright Charles Sedley. Dryden’s application of neo-classical conventions and contemporary dramatic practice gives the classic love story a structural beauty and an austere power.

After Cleopatra’s desertion of Antony at the battle of Actium, not only his wife Octavia but also his general Ventidius and his friend Dolabella strive to win him over to their side. Antony, torn between the claims of duty, friendship, dignity and love, despairs when he hears the rumour of Cleopatra's death, which is not, as in Shakespeare’s version, spread by the queen herself but by her deceitful eunuch.

The first recorded performance was at the Theatre Royal, London by the King’s Company in 1677. The play’s political implications have perhaps been lost over time: absolute monarchy and the illicit love of a ruler were highly topical concerns in a post-Restoration Britain, when King Charles II’s extra-marital amours, most famously with the celebrated actress Nell Gwyn, were the subject of much anxiety.

audio Antigone (Anouilh)

LA Theatre Works
Type: Audio

"The body of Polynices, Antigone's brother, has been ordered to remain unburied by Creon, the new king of Thebes. Antigone's faithfulness to her dead brother and his proper burial, and her defiance of the dictator Creon, seals her fate. Originally produced in Paris during the Nazi occupation, Anouilh's Antigone was seen by the French as theatre of the resistance and by the Germans as an affirmation of authority.

Includes an interview with translator Christopher Nixon and director Brendon Fox. Also includes an interview with Ned Chaillet, a playwright, radio producer and director for the BBC. Chaillet is the former Deputy Drama Critic for the Times of London and the London theatre critic for the Wall Street Journal-Europe. He spoke with us about Antigone in the context of World War Two, the differences bewtween the original myth of Sophocles and the Anouilh version, and Anouilh’s influence on later playwrights. An L.A. Theatre Works full-cast performance featuring: Jordan Bridges as Haemon and Guard Dominic Fumusa as Guard Francis Guinan as Creon John Hansen as Guard and Messenger Alan Mandell as Chorus Elizabeth Marvel as Antigone Alley Mills as Nanny Mandy Siegfried as Ismene Directed by Brendon Fox. Recorded before a live audience at the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles."

Featuring: Jordan Bridges, Dominic Fumusa, Francis Guinan, Alan Mandell, Elizabeth Marvel, Alley Mills, Mandy Siegfried, John Hansen

Antigone (trans. McCafferty)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Owen McCafferty's version of Sophocles’ Antigone is a muscular take on the ancient Greek tragedy that offers a reflection on the nature of power, democracy and human rights. It was first performed by Prime Cut Productions at the Waterfront Studio Hall, Belfast, in October 2008 as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival.

The play takes place in a huge hall within the palace of Creon, the new ruler of Thebes. The palace is in ruins after battle and, although the war has ended, with peace comes conflict. Antigone’s brother Polyneices lies on the battlefield where he fell, his burial outlawed by Creon. Antigone is determined to overrule him and attempts to persuade her sister, Ismene, to join her in rebellion against the king, but to no avail. When Creon discovers that Antigone has disobeyed him and buried her brother, she is captured, a decision that triggers a catastrophic chain reaction resulting in the double suicide of his son Haemon and wife Eurydice.

Sophocles’ tragedy has a powerful resonance in post-conflict Northern Ireland and this version is set entirely within the walls of a palace destroyed by war. Written in his distinctive style, McCafferty highlights the human frailties of these mythic characters by drawing attention to the family saga element of the story.

The Prime Cut Productions premiere was directed by Owen McCafferty and designed by Lorna Ritchie. It was performed by Walter McMonagle, Katy Ducker (as Antigone), Rosie McClelland, Ian McElhinney, Conor MacNeill, Paul Mallon, Harry Towb, Eoin McCafferty, Tom Loane, Chris Corrigan, Julia Dearden, Cat Barter, Barry Etherson and Matt Faris.

Antigone (trans. Taylor)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In his Guide to Greek Theatre and Drama, Kenneth McLeish writes: “Antigone is a textbook example of how to develop one short episode from a myth-story to make a full-scale tragedy articulating universal themes and meanings… The fact that her story has had such an effect on world consciousness – she is one of the best loved characters in all Greek myth – is entirely due to the issues which Sophocles draws from the myth, and to his portrayal of Antigone herself, pulled between heroic certainty and all too human frailty.”

The story of one sister’s loyalty to both her brothers, regardless of their acts or opposing political beliefs, Antigone is one of the most consistently popular plays in the history of drama. This translation, by Don Taylor, was commissioned by the BBC, and was first broadcast in autumn, 1986.

Antony and Cleopatra (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Antony and Cleopatra rival Romeo and Juliet for the title of most famous lovers in Western drama. Shakespeare’s play, probably written around 1606-7 (though not appearing in print until the First Folio of 1623), reflects the popularity of the story in the early modern imagination. Shakespeare’s play is heavily indebted to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans, written in the first century AD, and translated into English by Sir Thomas North in 1579.

Marc Antony is one of three triumvirs ruling Rome following the assassination of Julius Caesar. Neglecting his political duties, he lingers in Egypt with Cleopatra, a queen who sees herself as a demigod, an embodied Isis. When unrest threatens Rome, Antony must leave Cleopatra in order to solidify his power against threats from Pompey and fellow triumvir Octavius Caesar. Despite marrying Octavia, the passive sister of Caesar, for the sake of peace, he soon longs for his ‘wrangling queen’ and returns to Egypt. The ensuing war between the lovers and Octavius Caesar engulfs the Roman world. The eponymous lovers are unable to reconcile their martial defeat and its consequent shame with their hyperbolic self-images, and commit two of the most memorable suicides in the Shakespearean canon.

From its earliest audiences, Antony and Cleopatra has received criticism. Post-Restoration critics knocked the play for the way it disregarded the classical unities of drama, which stated that a play should cover one idea, in one place, at one time. With its action historically spanning a decade, and its scenes ranging from Europe to Africa and back again, the play affronted those who desired a neater retelling of the famous love story. John Dryden took it upon himself to rewrite the tragedy in his play All for Love, first performed in 1677: covering only the last day of the lives of Antony and Cleopatra, the play reaches for a grander love affair, removed from the lust, jealousy and self-inflation of Shakespeare’s play. Scholarly criticism has dwelt upon the play’s use of opposites, the imagery of instability, and the performance of gender on the early modern stage (to which Cleopatra metatheatrically refers, when she fears boy actors will portray her ‘squeaking [. . .] i’th’posture of a whore’ [5.2.219-20].

The staging of the play has long been of special interest to critics and theatre-makers alike: the play calls for a sea-battle, and a colossal monument to Cleopatra up to which the dying Antony must be hoisted. Notable Antonys have included John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Patrick Stewart; notable Cleopatras Peggy Ashcroft, Vanessa Redgrave and Mark Rylance, in the 1999 all-male production at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London.

video Antony and Cleopatra (Globe on Screen)

Globe on Screen
Type: Video

Virtue and vice, transcendent love and realpolitik combine in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s greatest exploration of the conflicting claims of sex and power, all expressed in a tragic poetry of breathtaking beauty and magnificence.

Featuring: Ignatius Anthony, Peter Bankole, Eve Best, Jonathan Bonnici, Philip Correia, Jolyon Coy, Phil Daniels, Kammy Darweish, Paul Hamilton, James Hayes, Rosie Hilal, Sean Jackson, Daniel Rabin, Sirine Saba, Obioma Ugoala, Clive Wood.

Bacchae

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Bacchae is one of the nineteen surviving plays by Euripides, a tragedy written during his final years in exile in Macedonia. It was first performed in 405 BC, a few months after his death.

The play's action is based on the Greek myth of King Pentheus of Thebes and his mother Agave, and their punishment by the god Dionysus. At the beginning of the play, Dionysus appears before the royal palace of Thebes and proclaims that he has come to avenge his rejection by the people of the city. He intends to make all Thebes accept him, beginning with the women, whom he has filled with ecstasy and driven into the mountains. He disappears to join them there, on Mount Kithairon, where (as the Chorus recounts) his ecstatic worshippers, the Bacchae ('bacchants') or Maenads ('ecstatic ones'), dance in his honour. When Pentheus tries to have Dionysos arrested, the prophet Teiresias counsels him to accept the god, but Pentheus sends his guards nonetheless. Dionysos willingly accepts his arrest, only to instigate his horrific revenge, ending with the murder of Pentheus at the hands of the Bacchae.

This version of Bacchae is a translation by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish. In their introduction to the play, they write: 'the play’s continuing relevance, 2500 years after it was written, not to mention its extraordinary ability simultaneously to exhilarate and discomfort anyone who takes it even remotely seriously, reflects not merely Euripides’ mastery but also the bitter continuity in human life of political and religious tyrannies and absurdities of every kind'.

The Bacchae

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

One of the greatest of all Greek tragedies – savage, comic and intensely lyrical – The Bacchae powerfully dramatises the conflict between the emotional and rational sides of the human psyche. The magnetic young Dionysus – icon, hedonist, god – returns home with his cult of female followers to exact his revenge, unleashing the full force of female sexuality on the city.

David Greig's version of The Bacchae premiered at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh, in August 2007 in a co-production between the Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre of Scotland.

audio Black Water: An American Opera

LA Theatre Works
Type: Audio

Based on National Book Award-winner Joyce Carol Oates’ novella about the Chappaquiddick scandal, this tragic and beautiful new opera enthralls as a handsome Senator uses power to enchant, seduce and carelessly destroy.

An L.A. Theatre Works full-cast performance featuring David Lee Brewer, Reid Bruton, Stephanie Buckley, Karen Burlingame, Kimberly Graham, Linda Kerns, Erin Langston, Patrick Mason, John Savarese and Rob Shacklett.

Composed by John Duffy, libretto by Joyce Carol Oates.

Featuring: David Lee Brewer, Reid Bruton, Stephanie Buckley, Karen Burlingame, Kimberly Graham, Linda Kerns, Erin Langston, Patrick Mason, John Savarese, Rob Shacklett

A tragedy is a serious play with an unhappy ending. The word is often said to mean ‘goatsong’ (Greek: tragos, goat; ode, song), although modern etymologists have disputed this. It was Aristotle who provided the classic definition of tragedy, stating (in his Poetics) that tragedy should move one “by pity and terror” at the fall of a great person: the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place.

The genre developed in ancient Greece, where tragedies were expected to follow a fairly strict form. Tragic protagonists were drawn only from deities, royalty, and the upper classes, and their inevitable suffering and downfall was brought about by a combination of fate and their own hubris. The three great authors of classical tragedy were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, all of whom wrote in the 5th century BC. The rules of classical tragedy were rediscovered at the Renaissance, as were many of the Greek and Roman texts. The gory tragedies of the Roman Seneca proved particularly influential on the playwrights of the time.

Typically, the tragedies of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras combined violent and sensational action with acute psychological insight and intense poetry. The great tragedies of Shakespeare are usually considered the pinnacle of world drama. In the 17th century the Frenchmen Corneille and Racine led a return to the stricter Greek forms of tragedy. Thereafter the tradition of serious tragic writing declined, being largely displaced by sentiment and melodrama.

It did not revive until the late 19th century, when such writers as Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov managed to combine the sombre themes and moral seriousness of tragedy with a realistic depiction of contemporary life. Perhaps the only modern writer to attempt the classic tragic form was the US dramatist Eugene O’Neill.

from Jonathan Law ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (London, 2011)