Skip to main content

Ancient Greek Theatre

The ‘tapestry scene’ of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, NT 1999, dir. Katie Mitchell

Module code: CX267/367

Module value: 30 CATS

Module convenor: Dr Emmanuela Bakola

Timetable in 2016/17: Lectures: Mondays at 16.00-18.00. Location: OC0.01

Seminars: Mondays between 13.00 and 16.00; Locations: H2.04, H1.07, H3.57.

Workshops: Friday the 28th of October, 13.00-18.00; Location: Humanities Studio;

Friday the 27th of January, 17.00-22.00. Location: TBC

Q800 students: Mondays 13.00-14.00. Location: H4.22/4


This module explores the unique nature and continuing significance of ancient Greek theatre. It offers an integrated study of Greek tragedy, comedy and satyr drama through close readings of the plays (in translation) and an exploration of how they would have worked in performance. As well as performance and theatricality, the module explores plays’ political, social and literary dimensions, their economic, religious, social and political context, issues of translation, as well as their ancient and modern reception.
The set plays include Aeschylus’ Oresteia and [Aeschylus’] Prometheus Bound; Sophocles’ Electra and Women of Trachis; Euripides’ Medea and Bacchae; Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Women at the Thesmophoria and Frogs, as well as satyr dramas, tragedies and comedies which have only survived in fragmentary form.
The module offers two practical workshops (on the Oresteia, the Prometheus Boundand Frogs) with theatre practitioners, as well as the opportunity to apply your knowledge to the production of the student-led annual Classical play.


50% Assessed course work (Terms 1 and 2), 50% exam (summer term)

Course Outline

Term 1

Week 1 => 3 October - NO LECTURES.

Week 2 (L) => 10 October: Introduction to Greek theatre and its context; the dramatic festivals of Athens and their social, political and financial context; re-performances and their implications; theatrical and dramatic space; chorus and the actors; body and space in tragedy and comedy + (Q)

Week 3 (L) => 17 October: Aeschylus’ Agamemnon; theatrical space and the characters; the house of the Atreids and its polysemous nature; imagery in performance; props; the ‘tapestry scene’ + (Q)

Followed by the screening
of Peter Hall’s Oresteia (NT, 1981-3) , 6.30 pm onwards. Location: S0.21

Week 4 (L) => 24 October: Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and the Oresteia: trilogies and their special nature; salient themes of the Oresteia and the different approaches to it over the years in scholarship and in performance + (Q)

SAME WEEK (W) => ***Friday the 28th of October, 13.00-18.00*** Practical workshop based on the Oresteia, led by Adele Thomas (director of the2015 Globe Theatre Oresteia). Location: Humanities Studio

Week 5 (L) => 31 October: Sophocles’ Electra; in the shadow of Aeschylus’ Choephori and Eumenides: space and characterisation; Aeschylean and Sophoclean Furies; the Sophoclean house of the Atreids.
+ (S): Close reading and literary interpretation of selected texts on the handling of the mythical cycle of the Atreids

Week 6 => 7 November: Reading week – no meetings

Week 7 (L) => 14 November: Sophocles’ Women of Trachis: myth, space and structuralism; space and time in Sophocles; barbarity and civilisation; Sophoclean theatre and the scholarship of J. P. Vernant and Charles Segal + (Q)

Week 8 (L) => 21 November: Sophocles’ Women of Trachis and the performance of masculinities and femininities; Sophoclean endings and the ending of the Women of Trachis + (Q)

Week 9 (L) => 28 November: Introduction to the genre of comedy; Aristophanes and other playwrights; comedy, competitiveness, innovation, experimentation; Aristophanes’ Lysistrata: the female in Greek comedy; sex and gender on stage; feminist or patriarchal poetics?; domestic and public space; the body and the polis + (Q)

Week 10 (S) => 5 December: Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazousae; Aristophanes' fascination and rivalry with tragedy; performing the poetic persona in comedy [excerpts from different plays and fragments]

Term 2

Week 11 (L) => 9 January: Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazousae and Frogs: Aristophanic comedy and Euripidean tragedy; ‘poets’ on journeys and ‘poets’ on stage; comedy on tragedy and the role of drama in ancient literary criticism + (Q)

Week 12 (L) => 16 January: Euripides’ Medea: killing children in Greek literature; space in Medea: scenic and extra-scenic spaces, esp. the house; ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’ spaces and human psyche; gestures and proxemics + (Q)

Followed by a screening of [Aeschylus'] Prometheus and
Aristophanes' Frogs in Social Sciences S0.19, at 6.45pm


Week 13 (W) =>26 January, 17.00-21.00: Discussion and practical workshop with Helen Eastman, director of the Live Canon and three times director of the Cambridge Greek play; Venue: HUMANITIES STUDIO (please note change of venue, effected in the morning of 26.1.2017)

Week 14 (L) => 30 January: Euripides’ Medea in modern performance: an introduction by the APGRD Director, Professor Fiona Macintosh; Medea then and now; Greek theatre and patriarchal ideology; the ‘other’ in performance + (Q)

Week 15 (L): => 6 February: [Aeschylus’] Prometheus’ Bound: the question of authenticity; the lost trilogy; the political context; Zeus and the divine element; play and staging; ancient and modern reception + (Q)

Week 16 => 13 February: Reading week – no meetings

Week 17 (L) => 20 February: Satyr play and the Dionysiac: Fragment 341 from Sophocles’ Searchers, and Tony Harrison's The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus (+ Q)

Week 18 (L) => 27 February: The Dionysiac and Greek tragedy: Euripides’ Bacchae; thinking about the Dionysiac through space; costume and disguise in the Bacchae; the mysteries in performance; madness and psychotherapy on stage; modern versions of the Bacchae (Q)

Week 19 (L) => 6 March: Lost dramas in Classical Athens: the missing 98% - PART I (tragedy)
+ (S) Religion, ritual and Greek theatre

Week 20 (L) => 13 March : Lost dramas of Classical Athens: the missing 98% PART II (comedy) + (Q)

Term 3

Week 21 (L) => 24 April: Seminar across playwrights as revision

Week 22 (S) => 1 May: NO CLASS (BANK HOLIDAY)

Week 23 (L) => 8 May: Formal revision class + (Q)

Key: L = Lecture; S = Seminar; W = Workshop; Q = Work with the original Greek for students of Q800


Principal Module Aims

1. For students to understand the special nature of Greek tragedy, comedy and satyr play as performative genres through selected readings, screenings, class discussions, and practical workshops.
2. For students to gain a thorough knowledge of the spectrum of theatre practice in the fifth century BC and its engagement with earlier and contemporaneous literary and cultural production.
3. For students to understand the links between aesthetic events with their political, social and cultural contexts.
4. For students to understand the continuing significance of Greek theatre in the modern world.

Principal Learning Outcomes

By the end of the module students should:
1. Have a thorough knowledge of the spectrum of Greek theatre in its performative, social, political and cultural contexts
2. Have enhanced their research, writing and communication skills.
3. Have gained an understanding of the availability, uses and limits of primary source material, both literary and archaeological.
4. Have experience of working alone and as part of a team to achieve individual objectives, facilitating transition from university to an independent professional environment.
5. Be able to deploy electronic technologies in their learning.

Still from the Oresteia, Globe Theatre 2015, dir by Adele Thomas.

Dr Emmanuela Bakola has been awarded a 'Pedagogic Intervention' Grant from IATL for her project “Ancient Greek Theatre in Action: Exploring the performance of Greek plays”.

This IATL grant funds two practical workshops led by professional directors: namely Adele Thomas (Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Globe Theatre 2015) and Helen Eastman (three times director of the Cambridge Greek play and artistic director of the Live Canon). In these immersive workshops, the students will work with the directors in order to understand the relationship between chorus and characters, the importance of space and proxemics, and the communication between cast and audience. Students will explore the semantics of the human body and its movement in space, the impact of individual and group performance, as well as props, their signification and use in the theatre. Both workshops, which will follow screenings of modern productions of Greek theatre on campus, will be designed to provide in-depth, practical understanding of the material of the research-led lectures and seminars which will have been conducted in previous weeks. They will also foster imagination and original thinking coming from the non-traditional (for Classics) route of theatre practice.

The grant also funds a session on the study of modern performances of Euripides’ Medea, led by the director of Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama in Oxford, Professor Fiona Macintosh. This session will provide another dimension into the study of Greek drama, by introducing the students into a variety of acclaimed engagements with the Medea of Euripides and the value of archival research into the reception of Greek drama in performance.