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date: 07 October 2022

drama, reception offree

drama, reception offree

  • Emma Cole


Ancient drama has had a vast influence upon the literary, performance, and intellectual culture of modernity. From ancient Greece thirty-two tragedies, eleven comedies, and one satyr play survive, and from ancient Rome ten tragedies and twenty-seven comedies remain, alongside countless fragments from all genres. Many of the surviving plays are staged in contemporary theatre in both literal translation and more liberal adaptation, and today more ancient drama is seen in professional theatres than at any point since antiquity. Although all ancient dramatic genres have a rich reception history, Greek tragedy dominates the field, particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries. Productions of Greek tragedy today range from masked performances in the original language through to radical, avant-garde, immersive, and postdramatic reinventions. Greek tragedy is also frequently used as a touchstone within literary theory and broader intellectual discourse, from the theorisation of the ideal form of performance (Wagner’s Gesamtkuntswerk) to the development of psychoanalytic theory (Freud’s Oedipus complex) and structuralism (Lévi-Strauss). Ancient drama has also provided inspiration for entirely new dramatic forms; the influence of Roman tragedy, for example, can be felt within the revenge tragedies of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, while traces of Roman comedy can be felt in slapstick comedy and Italian commedia dell’arte. Current growth areas within both artistic practice, and academic research into the reception of ancient drama, include the performance reception of dramatic fragments, an increased interest in forms such as burlesque and pantomime, and the use of ancient drama as a tool of resistance against oppressive political regimes.


  • Greek History and Historiography
  • Greek Myth and Religion
  • Reception
  • Roman History and Historiography
  • Roman Myth and Religion

The Reception of Ancient Drama in the Modern World

Greek Drama


The reception history of Greek tragedy is dominated by the extant works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Today seven Aeschylean tragedies, seven Sophoclean tragedies, and eighteen Euripidean tragedies remain, alongside countless fragments. These thirty-two plays survived through a mixture of deliberate preservation and accident. During the 4th century bce, there was a rise in the reperformance of the plays of these three tragedians, which in turn led to an increase in actor additions to the texts. The Lycurgus Decree of the 330s bce sought to canonise official versions of the plays and prevent further changes to the texts; these official versions formed the basis of what has survived into modernity. By the Byzantine era, a selection of twenty-four plays had become the focus of the study of Greek tragedy; these twenty-four plays consisted of the seven tragedies by Aeschylus and Sophocles that still survive today, plus ten of the surviving Euripidean tragedies. It is only due to the chance survival of a pair of manuscripts containing eight further Euripidean tragedies that scholars have so many more of his plays.1

Manuscripts and early printed versions of the three tragedians’ plays began circulating in the West in the early 16th century; the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius released his editio princeps of Sophocles in 1502, Euripides in 1503, and Aeschylus in 1518. Latin translations of the Greek texts followed shortly after, including those of Erasmus and Sanravius, and were the dominant means through which the tragedies were disseminated in the early modern period. The growing prominence of Aristotle’s Poetics, which was familiar through William of Moerbeke’s 13th-century medieval Latin translation and the Aldine edition of the Greek text (1508), also helped establish the canonical status of the extant tragic texts.

The modern performance reception of Greek tragedy also commenced in the 16th century, with Sophocles’ Oedipus the King premiering at Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza (1585). The production used Orsatto Giustiniani’s Italian translation and helped shepherd in a wave of vernacular translations and adaptations throughout Europe. The 16th century saw, for example, the Italian translations of Lodovico Dolce, and the freer adaptations (also in Italian) of Giovanni Rucellai (Oreste, c. 1515–1520) and Luigi Alamanni (Antigone, published 1533). Some of these examples were further translated into English and performed across the Channel, where tragedy was also being staged in educational settings, with Latin performances of Hippolytus at King’s College, Cambridge (c. 1552–1553) and Hecuba at Trinity College, Cambridge (c. 1559–1560). Original English translations from the Greek also commenced during this period, beginning with Lady Jane Lumley’s Iphigenia at Aulis translation (1550s). These early modern translations gave rise to a broad familiarity with the tragic heroines of Greek tragedy amongst dramatists of the period, providing inspiration for the plots of their original plays and meaning that irrespective of, for example, whether Shakespeare had any first-hand encounters with Greek tragedy, he could still have Hamlet ask “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, / That he should weep for her?” (2.2.494–495).

The 17th and 18th centuries saw a consolidation of the tradition of performing Greek tragedy in both ancient languages and in translation, and established a new trend for the writing of fresh adaptations. Intellectuals such as René Rapin studied Aristotle’s Poetics with renewed interest and extrapolated (or interpolated) from the treatise a series of rules for dramatic literature, including plausibility, propriety, and unity, which dramatists including Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine utilised in their own neoclassical tragedies by rigorously applying said rules to the extant material. Outside of France, Greek tragedy was staged in Italian courts and aristocratic circles, in Strasbourg school theatres, and in British educational and professional environments, including on Drury Lane and the Haymarket. Artists also borrowed from tragedy for the creation of entirely new genres of dramatic art; Greek tragedy was used as a conceptual point of departure for opera, and several baroque operas also went on to reinvent individual plays, beginning with Pietro Andrea Zianni’s Antigona delusa di Alceste (Venice, 1660) and Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Alceste (Paris, 1674) and leading to the more famous 18th-century examples of Handel, Rameau, and Gluck.

Until this point, the reception history of Greek tragedy involved increasing but still isolated instances of reception. The phenomenon of philhellenism changed this trajectory and helped establish a European-wide obsession with Greek tragedy. Originating with Winckelmann’s positioning of Greek art as the high point in the history of art and archaeology, Graecophilia spread throughout Germany during the 18th and 19th centuries and gained currency through the literary activities of Hölderlin, Hegel, and Schelling. These thinkers used ancient drama to create their own philosophical theories of the tragic; Sophocles’ Antigone was crucial in this endeavour. The global rise of Greek tragedy within philosophical and literary circles can specifically be attributed to August Wilhelm Schlegel’s hugely influential lectures on dramatic art, which positioned Aeschylean tragedy as unrefined greatness, which reached perfection in the work of Sophocles, and began to decline with Euripides. The publication of Schlegel’s lectures in 1809 meant his sentiment had far-reaching influence upon critical opinion. A swell in productions of tragedy followed, including close to five hundred productions of Aeschylean, Sophoclean, and Euripidean plays throughout the 19th century.2 Landmark productions such as the 1841 Potsdam Antigone, with a score composed by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, and the 1881 Paris Oedipus the King, featuring acclaimed actor Jean Mounet-Sully in the eponymous role, had a seismic influence upon critical thinkers, with Freud, for example, infamously in the audience for Mounet-Sully’s Oedipus. Theoretical works on the origins of tragedy also helped fuel international interest in the genre, none perhaps more so than that of the classical philologist and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) and his 1872 monograph The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. Ancient tragedy, Nietzsche posited, represented the ideal equilibrium between the Apolline and Dionysiac art forms, or between the opposing forces of, for example, order and the orgiastic, individuation and collective experience, and civilisation and nature. Nietzsche’s text intersected with artistic attempts to connect with the perceived essence of Greek tragedy, such as Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and left an indelible trace upon later interpretations of Euripides’ Bacchae, where Pentheus’s fate represents the dangers of resisting the Dionysiac.

Figure 1. Jean Mounet-Sulley as Oedipus, 1896.

While the philosophical and literary receptions of Greek tragedy in the 19th century were largely the preserve of the male, educated elite, the performance receptions occurring in British theatres in the form of classical burlesques ensured that a more diverse and representative section of society was also engaging with ancient drama. Victorian burlesques combined song, rhyme, farce, circus, drag, and slapstick to parody well-known stories. Burlesques regularly turned to Greek tragedy, beginning with Edward Leman Blanchard’s Antigone Travestie (1845). The burlesques rewrote tragic plot lines to feature a happy ending, with James Robinson Planché’s burlesque of Medea, titled The Golden Fleece; or, Jason in Colchis and Medea in Corinth (1845), ending with the children alive and well, and Robert Brough’s version Medea; or, the Best of Mothers, with a Brute of a Husband (1856) with the children revivified. Despite the evident humour of the performances they had a serious political dimension addressing, for example, marriage legislation in their content and issues of class and education in their form.

The 20th century saw the popular interest in staging Greek tragedy go global and performance receptions increase exponentially. The proliferation in receptions is vast and makes full coverage impossible; this article foregrounds some major, not mutually exclusive, 20th-century trends, including modernism, the avant-garde, and interculturalism.

In the anglophone world, Gilbert Murray’s translations, particularly of Euripidean tragedy, are largely responsible for the initial 20th-century increase in receptions. The 1904 Hippolytus at London’s Lyric Theatre was the first of many productions of Murray’s translations, and between the 1920s and 1950s, his verse translations were regularly broadcast on BBC radio, beginning with Iphigenia in Taurus for BBC Belfast (1925). Yet Murray’s translations were not for everyone, with T. S. Eliot, for example, damning them as “more impenetrable than the Greek language.”3 W. B. Yeats’s prose translations offered an alternate model and achieved great success on the contemporary stage, with his King Oedipus premiering at the Abbey Theatre (1926) before being staged first at London’s Old Vic with Laurence Olivier in the eponymous role (1946, dir. Tyrone Guthrie) and then in a masked, and subsequently filmed, performance in Stratford, Ontario (1955–1956, dir. Tyrone Guthrie).

Yeats’s translations are part of a wider 20th-century crossover between Greek tragedy and modernism. In contrast to the philhellenists’ championing of the original form of Greek tragedy, the modernists turned to the genre as part of their wider rejection of 19th-century traditions in favour of fresh experiments with form. Modernist engagements with Greek tragedy encompass both translation and adaptation; Ezra Pound’s translation of Sophocles’ Women of Trachis (1953–1954) and Eugene O’Neill’s Oresteia adaptation Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) are paradigmatic examples of the former and latter, respectively. Outside of literature, Martha Graham’s modernist experiments with dance technique and form intersected with Greek tragedy in, for example, Cave of the Heart (1946), Night Journey (1947), and Phaedra (1962).

Figure 2. Portrait of Martha Graham and Bertram Ross as Clytemenestra and Orestes, 1961.

The wider modernist phenomenon influenced the theatrical experiments of the historical avant-garde, which refers to a cluster of early-to-mid-20th-century productions that were unified by a political opposition to mainstream culture and an attempt to revolutionise beyond the theatre. Notable avant-garde receptions commence with Richard Schechner’s adaptation of Euripides’ Bacchae, titled Dionysus in 69 (1968). Schechner’s production, devised with his company The Performance Group, is often positioned as a watershed moment within the history of Greek tragedy in the 20th century; the New York production was staged in a disused factory and combined approximately six hundred lines of Euripides’ text with newly devised content, parts of which were based upon ritual exchanges from New Guinean tribes, including the Asmat birth ritual with which the show opened. Audience involvement in a variety of scenes, including one labelled as a “group grope,” was encouraged. The play’s thirteen-month duration meant the production was extensively reviewed and witnessed by a large audience, allowing Schechner’s combination of Greek tragedy and experimental performance strategies to become frequently echoed in subsequent productions. Avant-garde receptions continued, for example, in Germany through the theatre of Heiner Müller and Peter Stein, with the former most famous for his 1982 three-part reinvention of Medea, Verkommenes Ufer Medeamaterial Landschaft mit Argonauten (Despoiled shore Medeamaterial landscape with Argonauts) and the latter for his productions of The Bacchae (1974) and The Oresteia (1980) at Berlin’s Schaubühne. Almost every notable avant-garde performance artist in the late 20th century experimented with Greek tragedy, including Pina Bausch, Romeo Castellucci, Jan Fabre, Robert Wilson, and The Wooster Group.

The 20th century also saw three other key trends emerge in the reception of Greek tragedy. Firstly, stemming from Laurence Olivier’s turn as Oedipus, Greek tragedy emerged as a vehicle for both auteur directors and star actors. High-profile directors including Peter Hall and Katie Mitchell directed productions of the Oresteia for London’s Royal National Theatre, in translations by Tony Harrison (1981, with music by Harrison Birtwhistle) and Ted Hughes (1999), respectively. At the same theatre, Ralph Fiennes took a star turn as Oedipus (2008) and Helen McCrory performed as Medea (2014). Secondly, directors began combining Greek tragedy with other performance traditions in intercultural performances. Schechner’s Dionysus in 69 is an early example of the intercultural phenomenon, which subsequently proliferated around the globe. In Japan, for example, Tadashi Suzuki combined tragedy with traditional Japanese practices such as Noh, Kabuki, Bunraku puppet theatre, and martial arts, directing acclaimed productions of The Trojan Women (1974), The Bacchae (1978), Electra (1995), and Oedipus Rex (2000). In France, Ariane Mnouchkine brought together Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis and Aeschylus’ Oresteia with Noh and Kathakali techniques in Les Atrides (1990), while Nigerian playwrights Ola Rotimi and Wole Soyinka combined Greek tragedy and Yoruba religion in The Gods Are Not To Blame (1968, from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex) and The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite (1973), respectively. Rotimi’s and Soyinka’s adaptations are also examples of a final 20th-century trend, namely the use of Greek tragedy as a tool of resistance against colonial forebears; their receptions are joined by, for example, Athol Fugard’s apartheid-era adaptation of Antigone, The Island (1973), and Seamus Heaney’s versions of Philoctetes (The Cure at Troy, 1991) and Antigone (Burial at Thebes, 2004).

The arrival of cinematic receptions of Greek tragedy occurred concurrent to the rise of Greek tragedy in 20th-century theatres. Indeed, there was substantial crossover between stage and screen receptions, with filmed theatrical productions representing one of the primary modes of cinematic reception. Of the previously mentioned theatrical productions, Tyrone Guthrie’s Oedipus Rex (1957) and Brian de Palma’s split-screen film of Dionysus in 69 (1970) are especially worthy of note; however, the interrelationship between stage and screen is much more pervasive than simply the filming of staged drama. One of the earliest films that was based upon tragedy involved Jean Mounet-Sully reprising his role of Oedipus in the (now lost) 1912 silent film La Légende d’Oedipe, while the Nigerian “Nollywood” film The Gods Are Still Not To Blame (2013, dir. Funke Fayoyin) is based upon Otun Rasheed’s 2011 adaptation of Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not To Blame. Feature films based upon Greek tragedy represent the other dominant mode of cinematic reception. European directors have been particularly prolific in creating filmed adaptations of ancient tragedy, with the most famous examples belonging to Greek Cypriot director Michael Cacoyannis (Electra, 1962; The Trojan Women, 1971; and Iphigenia, 1977) and Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini (Edipo Re, 1967; Teorema, 1968; Medea, 1970; Notes on an African Oresteia, 1973). The success of Cacoyannis’s and Pasolini’s films nods to the rich performance histories of tragedy in Greece and Italy, both of which are tied to issues of national identity. Cacoyannis’s films, for example, were shot around the time of the Greek military junta (1967–1974), during which tragedy was staged at the National Theatre to demonstrate the power of Greece’s cultural history, while in Italy the Greek theatre in Syracuse became an important 20th-century home for tragedy, where the choice of ancient play and its relative connection to the founding of Athenian democracy mirrored the rise and fall of fascism. Outside of explicit receptions of tragedy on film there is another, more conceptual, strand of reception history, with film theorists turning to the genre and its theorisation by Aristotle to better understand the way, for example, that character, narrative, and spectatorship can be manipulated in the medium.

The 20th-century surge in performance receptions shows no signs of waning, and in the 21st century, artists are finding further new ways to stage Greek tragedy. One strand of reception in the United States, for example, has brought tragedy into social impact settings, involving directors such as Peter Meineck and Bryan Doerries exploring the therapeutic power of Greek tragedy for the treatment of returning war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Further afield, in Syria and Jordan, displaced women and refugees turned to both Euripides’ Trojan Women and Sophocles’ Antigone to explore their own experiences of violence and warfare. The productions Queens of Syria (2013–2016, originally called Syrian Trojan Women) and Antigone of Syria (2014) were both the subject of documentaries that explored how the women used tragedy to mediate their experiences. Another key trend in the reception of ancient drama in the 21st century is the renewed interest in the staging of tragic fragments. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s adaptation of Sophocles’ lost Tereus, The Love of the Nightingale (1988) for the Royal Shakespeare Company, is one of the earliest examples of the trend. Other experiments including Colin Teevan’s reconstruction of Euripides’ lost Alcmaeon in Corinth (2004), and British theatre company Punchdrunk’s expansion of the surviving three lines of Aeschylus’ Kabeiroi (2017) into a four-to-six-hour immersive experience, which took place on the streets of London for just two audience members at a time.


The extant texts of the Old Comic playwright Aristophanes and the New Comic playwright Menander dominate the reception history of ancient Greek comedy. Of the two playwrights, Menander was more prolific, authoring approximately one hundred comedies in comparison to Aristophanes’ approximate forty. Menander’s plays circulated widely until the 7th century, before being entirely lost until papyrological discoveries in the 20th century. Prior to these discoveries, knowledge of New Comedy was derived from the Latin adaptations of Plautus and Terence. There is consequently a large lacuna in Menander’s reception history, which the corpus is yet to recover from, and today Aristophanic receptions greatly outnumber those of Menander. These receptions, like Aristophanes’ original plays, tell the story of their contemporary sociopolitical landscape, often satirising the political background, working as a form of protest, and/or exemplifying government censorship in action.

Eleven of Aristophanes’ comedies survive. The oldest manuscript containing all eleven plays is the mid-10th-century Ravenna manuscript; it is joined by approximately 170 manuscripts containing one or more of the playwright’s comedies, dating from between the 10th to the 16th century, before printed texts overtook manuscripts as the key source of transmission. The editio princeps of Aristophanes was compiled by Marcus Musurus and Aldus Manutius and appeared in Venice in 1498. It included all extant Aristophanic comedies bar Lysistrata and Thesmophoriazusae, which followed in a Florentine text from c. 1515. Latin translations followed throughout the mid-16th and 17th centuries, including Andreas Divus’s 1538 translations of the full oeuvre. Both performance receptions and modern language adaptations and translations began during the same period. Notable early modern adaptations include Machiavelli’s lost Le Maschere (1504), which was supposedly inspired by Aristophanic comedy, while key early performances of Aristophanes in Greek include a 1536 production of Plutus and a 1546 production of Peace, both at Trinity College, Cambridge; the latter featured a flying dung beetle of such magnificence that director John Dee was accused of sorcery.

During the 17th century, Aristophanes’ plays gained a more prominent profile through the increased circulation of printed texts in Greek and in both Latin and vernacular translation. Aristophanes’ Plutus emerged as a clear favourite during the period, with notable receptions including Anne Le Fèvre’s (later Mme Dacier) French-language translation (1684) and the English adaptations of the anonymous H. H. B. (1659) and Thomas Randolph (1651). These texts, titled The World’s Idol; or, Plutus the God of Wealth and Ploutophthalmia Ploutogamia, A Pleasant Comedie: Entitled Hey for Honesty, Down with Knavery, respectively, satirised the modern sociopolitical landscape. Randolph’s text, for example, referenced numerous contemporary incidents, from the Civil War and the Irish rebellion to Shakespeare’s comedies and John Milton’s divorce pamphlets. Several more indirect forms of reception joined these Plutus reworkings and represent the beginnings of Aristophanes’ use as a model for original comic innovation. Ben Jonson, for example, who was the head of Randolph’s literary group, authored several comedies that contain an intertextual relationship with Aristophanes by featuring parallel passages or by more generally receiving Aristophanes’ model of comic structure.

Receptions continued to emerge throughout Europe at a similar rate during the 18th century. The preference for Plutus above the other comedies waned; notable receptions of Aristophanes’ broader corpus include Goethe’s Birds in Weimar (1780) and a flurry of activity in 1794 including Christoph Martin Wieland’s German translations of Archarnians, Knights, Clouds, and Birds, alongside Friedrich Schlegel’s positioning of Aristophanes as the paradigmatic example of the comic ideal in his Vom ästhetischen Wert der griechischen Komödie (On The Aesthetic Value of Greek Comedy). François-Benoît Hoffman’s Lysistrata adaptation, Lisistrata ou les Athéniennes (1801–1802), represents the continuation of politicised receptions; it was staged during the French Revolution and ran for only four performances before being closed by the censors. Other notable moments within Aristophanes’ 18th-century performance reception include his premiere in London on Drury Lane and the Haymarket, with Henry Fielding, for example, including Frogs as a play-within-a-play device in The Author’s Farce (1730), and Francis Wrangham (under the pseudonym S. Foote Jr.) adapting Plutus into a satirical reflection upon 18th-century Britain, titled Reform: A Farce Modernised from Aristophanes (1792). The 19th century saw a continued increase in performance receptions, in both the original language and in adaptation as well as, for the first time, in unadapted English translation from the 1870s. These receptions paved the way for the remarkable upsurge of interest that greeted Aristophanes in the 20th century.

The exponential increase in comic receptions in the 20th and 21st centuries meant Aristophanes was no longer the preserve of the educated and/or wealthy European elite. Both Gilbert Murray’s rhyming verse translations and Dudley Fitts’s colloquial translations, published in England and in the United States, respectively, were widely circulated within the anglophone world and brought Aristophanes to the masses. These translations had large print runs and were used as the basis for several stage productions, with Murray’s translation of Frogs receiving another life on BBC radio via a 1947 broadcast. Murray’s Frogs was not the first time that Aristophanes was heard on BBC radio; this honour goes to Louis MacNeice’s Enemy of Cant (1946), which contained scenes from a variety of Aristophanic comedies embedded into an original frame narrative and told in chronological order. Patric Dickinson’s Lysistrata (1957) followed on the radio and was adapted for BBC television as Lysistrata; or Women on Strike (1964).

The comedies reached additional fresh audiences as they began to be adapted into new mediums, with Aristophanes making his opera debut in the 1920 Walter Braunfels adaptation of Birds (Die Vögel), which premiered at the National Theatre of Munich, and ballet debut in a series of Lysistrata adaptations including those of Antony Tudor (1932), and Boris Blacher and Gerda von Einem (1950). Additionally, in the 20th century, the comedies began to be adapted in the form of the Broadway musical, representing a new chapter in the poet’s reception history. High-profile examples include Gilbert Seddes’s musical adaptation of Lysistrata (dir. Norman-Bel Geddes, 1929) with the Philadelphia Theatre Association, which featured a cast of approximately ninety singers, dancers, and actors and ran for six weeks in Philadelphia, before transferring to Broadway at the Forty-Fourth Street Theatre for 256 performances. Burt Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim’s one-act musical adaptation of Frogs (1974), which featured a young Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver in the cast and was staged by the Yale Repertory Theatre in the Exhibition Pool at the Payne Whitney Gymnasium, is perhaps the most famous musical adaptation to date. Shevelove initially directed the comedy in the same venue in 1941, with Charon and Dionysus rowing the length of the pool in a small boat while the chorus, performed by the university swimming team, swam around them. After collaborating with Sondheim on the Plautine adaptation A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Shevelove convinced Sondheim to provide music and lyrics for the restaging of his adaptation; the Frogs text was further expanded into a two-act musical with additional Sondheim songs at the initiation of Broadway veteran Nathan Lane at the start of the 21st century. The Broadway production, at the Lincoln Centre, New York City, maintained Shevelove’s inclusion of William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw as a modern-day Aeschylus and Euripides. The dramatists were here resurrected to heal an explicitly post-9/11 city, which was made clear through added verbal references to both President Bush and the Iraq War, and the inclusion of the Manhattan skyline upstage in the mise en scène at the end of the show.

The use of Aristophanes to reflect upon a post-9/11 landscape is representative of the most significant strand of the poet’s recent reception history. The practice of modernising the political figures, religious practices, and government decisions that Aristophanes caricatures saw several productions censored. The affected productions include: a sold-out production of Lysistrata by the Seattle Negro Repertory Company (1936), which was closed after the opening night due to political and racial pressures; a now-infamous version of Birds (dir. Karolos Koun), which opened at the Herodes Atticus theatre in Athens (1959) and was closed after opening night but went on to have an illustrious international run and ultimately returned to Greece for a state-sponsored performance at Epidaurus (1975); and a 2002 production of Frogs at the Festival of Classical Drama in Syracuse (dir. Luca Ronconi), which was due to feature a caricature of Silvio Berlusconi and other Italian political leaders on panels in the mise en scène but was performed without the panels amidst Ronconi’s proclamations of censorship.

Against the backdrop of politicised Aristophanes receptions is a more specific trend for using Lysistrata to redress modern sociopolitical conflicts. Lysistrata was translated into Afrikaans by Johannes Petrus Jansen van Rensburg and adapted by Ben DeHaeckas as Lucy Strata (1986) in a South African production that implied peace could be made through the elimination of apartheid. Lysistrata was also staged to explore the Israel-Palestine conflict in 2000 in a left-wing, feminist, anti-induction performance at the Cameri Theatre (dir. Edna Maziah). In the anglophone world Lysistrata was read and performed in protest of the Vietnam War during the 1960s and 1970s across US college campuses and in protest of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The 2003 reception, as part of an initiative known as The Lysistrata Project, involved more than one thousand simultaneous public readings of Lysistrata across more than fifty countries. In the early 21st century, the comedy has been used to explore racial tensions on stage and screen. In the United States, for example, Rhodessa Jones adapted the play for the African-American Shakespeare Company of San Francisco (2007) and used the text to comment on both the Iraq War and black-on-black crime in the Bay area, while in the United Kingdom, Blake Morrison pitched a white British community against Muslim immigrants in Lisa’s Sex Strike (2007). Spike Lee’s film Chi-Raq (2015) used the women’s sex strike to resolve conflict within Chicago’s gang violence scene.

In contrast to the professional presence of Aristophanes, Menander is predominantly staged in academic environments. Scholars have approximately 8 percent of Menander’s output, including substantial fragments of Arbitration, Samia, and Aspis, and the almost-complete text of Dyskolos. There have been sporadic productions of all surviving texts since the early 20th century, beginning with Parnassus, the Athenian Philological Society, performing Arbitration in 1908. Gilbert Murray translated and reconstructed Perikeiromene, of which approximately half survives, for BBC radio as The Rape of the Locks in 1942; the broadcast was not received with the same zeal as his tragedy translations, and Murray’s translation did not see publication in written form for several years. The first modern performance of Dyskolos, performed within a year of its publication in ancient Greek at the University of Sydney, on July 4, 1959, is noteworthy as the students staging the production worked in collaboration with the university’s Greek scholars, who emended the text based on fresh insights gleaned through performance. Corrections made to the text include the reassigning of dialogue and the insertion of the character “Mother of Sostratos,” who was not mentioned in the dramatis personae listed on the papyrus but is now a largely (although not universally) accepted inclusion. In September 2009, scenes from the play were again performed at the university in a fiftieth-anniversary celebration.

Satyr Plays

Relatively little is known about the genre of satyr drama due to the loss of all but one satyr play, namely Euripides’ Cyclops. The reception history of satyr drama is reflective of the lack of sources; even Cyclops is rarely performed or translated outside academia, with notable exceptions including Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1819 translation and the 1983 musical (Cyclops: A Rock Opera) which it inspired, and Luigi Pirandello’s 1918 Sicilian dialect translation ’U Ciclopu. In contrast, Arthur S. Hunt and Bernard P. Grenfell’s 1912 discovery of papyrus fragments containing the first 458 lines of Sophocles’ Ichneutai (The trackers) in the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus (POxy. 1174) has prompted more creative engagements, the most famous of which is Tony Harrison’s The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus. Harrison’s play premiered on July 12, 1988, in Delphi, Greece, before opening (with a revised script) at the National Theatre in London in 1990. The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus reconstructs Sophocles’ play and places the surviving satyr drama within the frame narrative of the papyrus’s discovery in Oxyrhynchus; it was subsequently performed in 1992 in Sydney, Australia, and was remounted in London at the Finborough Theatre in 2017. Ahmed Etman’s Egyptian adaptation of the fragments, Meaiz Albahnasa (The goats of Oxyrhynchus), was published in 2001.

Roman Drama


Roman tragedy has a chequered reception history. While the plays have been crucial in shaping the dramaturgical tone of some important original playwriting since the early modern period, as well as experimental theatrical practice since the mid-20th century, they are not frequently performed in the original Latin, in translation, or in adaptation in the modern world. The nine Senecan tragedies (plus the pseudo-Senecan Octavia) that constitute the surviving Latin tragic corpus were rediscovered in the 13th century by Lovato dei Lovati and were initially used as a resource for rhetorical training and adopted as a model for neo-Latin tragedies. Albertino Mussato’s c. 1314 Ecerinis, a Latin verse tragedy that follows Senecan tragedy in theme, style, and metre, represents the earliest known example; the tragedy, which dramatised the fall of tyrannical ruler Ezzelino III da Romano (1194–1259) in a manner that the author noted was reminiscent of Seneca’s Medea or Thyestes, was partially responsible for Mussato’s crowning as the first post-classical poet laureate. Another nine neo-Latin tragedies, which were associated with the wider humanist movement and were also written in imitation of Seneca’s linguistic style, followed throughout the remainder of the 14th and 15th centuries and included Antonio Loschi’s Achilles (1390–1401) and Gregorio Correr’s Procne (c. 1429). Most of these plays, however, were written to be read rather than performed; the performance reception of Senecan tragedy did not commence until 1485 with a student production of Phaedra in Rome.

The Elizabethan and Jacobean periods are a crucial chapter in Seneca’s reception history. Senecan tragedy was translated and performed during this time primarily in universities and amateur environments. More significant, however, was the influence that these plays had upon the original revenge tragedies of the period, in which numerous Senecan quotations can be found. The violent plots of these plays, including Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, represent a reception of the dramaturgical tone of Senecan tragedy; without Seneca’s influence it is unlikely that these now canonical early modern dramas would exist. Seneca also played an important role in shaping European drama in this period as well. Several translations and adaptations of Senecan tragedy premiered in France concurrently to the British revenge tragedies, including La Péruse’s Médée and Robert Garnier’s Hippolyte. The later neoclassical tragedies of both Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine derived their plots from a combination of Greek and Roman tragedies.

Following the Renaissance, Seneca’s influence waned, and he became increasingly unpopular both on the stage and in philosophical and literary circles. This was in part thanks to A. W. Schlegel’s aforementioned lectures on dramatic art and the rise in German philhellenism and wider Graecophilia. Senecan tragedy struggled to shake off Schlegel’s 1809 critique of the plays as “bombastic and frigid, unnatural both in character and action, revolting from their violation of propriety, and so destitute of theatrical effect, that I believe they were never meant to leave the rhetorical schools for the stage.”4 Performance statistics provide quantifiable evidence for this decline in popularity; Senecan tragedy practically ceased being staged even in university contexts and was only performed internationally, in translation or adaptation, approximately twenty times throughout the 19th century. The by-product of this neglect was that Senecan tragedy developed a reputation as a problematic, and even unperformable, dramatic genre.

Roman tragedy’s controversial reputation proved alluring to the 20th-century avant-garde and facilitated a resurrection of the dramatic form in the 20th century. French theatre theorist Antonin Artaud is a key player within this reception history; Artaud argued that Senecan tragedy was the best textual representation of a Theatre of Cruelty, and he consequently set about adapting Seneca’s Thyestes. Although this adaptation, titled The Torments of Tantalus, was never realised and the script has subsequently been lost, Artaud did manage to stage a production of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci in 1935. Shelley’s gothic play The Cenci was not based upon a Senecan tragedy, but like the aforementioned Jacobean and Elizabethan plays was a revenge tragedy which represented a reception of the tone of Senecan drama. Artaud’s production of the text demonstrated the Senecan qualities of his Theatre of Cruelty, including heightened emotion and physicality, an aesthetic of excess, imagery of horror, and a prioritisation of affect.

In the 20th century, several British dramatists turned to Senecan tragedy as a source for reinvention. In 1968, Ted Hughes’s translation of Seneca’s Oedipus was staged at the National Theatre in London (dir. Peter Brook). Caryl Churchill’s translation of Thyestes premiered at London’s Royal Court in 1994 (dir. James McDonald), and Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love opened at Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre in 1996 (dir. Sarah Kane). Both Churchill and Kane rewrote their Roman source texts in modern, spartan prose. Although Churchill’s production was advertised as a translation and retained the chorus, Kane’s was representative of the “in-yer-face” genre of British theatre and was a stripped back, visceral adaptation highly reminiscent of both the Jacobean and Elizabethan revenge tragedies and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. In 21st-century Australia, Voice Theatre Lab turned to Seneca’s Oedipus as a source for their production Iam Nocte (the title is the first two words of Seneca’s Latin text), and The Hayloft Project turned to Thyestes for their 2010 devised reinvention of the myth, which was also titled Thyestes and premiered at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre. The production has since toured through Australia and Europe.


Roman comedy is performed relatively rarely in contemporary professional theatres. Yet the genre had a decisive influence upon early modern dramatists, and Roman comedy today lives on through the regularly produced dramas of Molière and Shakespeare, and the form of slapstick comedy.

Although there were a range of comic genres in ancient Rome, including atellana, togata, and mime, the only surviving texts come from the palliata genre. Palliata plays are, generally, adaptations of Greek New Comedy and represent part of the reception of Greek comedy in antiquity. Twenty-one of Plautus’ comedies survive; they are joined by Terence’s entire corpus (six plays), plus a range of fragments of (other) Plautine comedies and those of other Roman dramatists.

The transmission history of Plautus and Terence begins around the 6th century, via the “Ambrosian manuscript” palimpsest for Plautus and the Codex Bembinus manuscript for Terence. Terence has a much denser early reception history than his forebear, occupying a crucial role in monastic educational settings as a means for teaching Latin. He was in wide circulation throughout the Middle Ages, included in more than 650 manuscripts published after 800 ce. Key during this period are the nun Hrothswitha of Gandersheim’s six Christian comedies written in the 10th century in imitation of Terence. Within a period dominated by male-authored receptions, her didactic comedies stand out, not only for their authorship but also for their subject matter, which frequently highlights female characters who are often Christian virgins or religious converts who, through the course of the play, gain the promise of eternal glory. Terence served as a model for other neo-Latin comedies during the period, including Petrarch’s lost Philologia (pre-1336). By the 15th century, thanks to the 1433 rediscovery of Aelius Donatus’s commentary on Terence and the 1470 publication of the Terentian editio princeps, Terence’s reception history included published translations and performance receptions as well. The editio princeps of Plautus followed in 1472, after Nicholas of Kues’s discovery of twelve Plautine plays in 1429.

In the early modern period, Plautus was admired for his theatricality and performability. As such, his reception history straddles vernacular translation (into Italian in the 1520s, for example), theatrical production (in Rome in 1480, in Ferrara at the Palazzo del Corte in 1486, and at Queen’s College, Cambridge, in 1522), and the development of new dramatic styles. In Italy, Plautus was used as source material for the 16th-century commedia erudite (learned comedy) of authors such as Ludovico Ariosto, Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena, and Ludovico Dolce, which transported Plautine situations and stock characters such as the cunning slave and the identical twins into contemporary Italian settings. The popular, improvisatory commedia dell’arte also borrowed from Plautus’ stock characters. Flaminio Scala’s published “scenarios” for commedia (1611) reveal the continued reliance upon the Plautine slave (the “zani” in commedia, Pedrolino and Arlecchino) who can break the fourth wall, assist young lovers, disrupt the plans of a master, and is in general self-confident, boastful, and a glutton. Elsewhere, in France, Molière borrowed from Plautus’ Amphitryon in his 1668 comedy of the same name, and from Aulularia for his later L’avare. In Germany, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote Plautine adaptations and used the playwright as evidence in his theoretical essays on modern drama, while more than a century later, Heinrich von Kleist would adapt Amphitryon (1807). Plautus’ presence can also be felt in British early modern drama. Shakespeare, for example, took broad inspiration from Plautus and borrowed the Plautine theme of mistaken identity along with the dramatic devices of a street setting, lockouts, eavesdropping, and disguise scenarios in several of his comedies, whilst also drawing upon specific comedies as direct source material, including Menaechmi and Amphitryon in The Comedy of Errors (1594). Ben Jonson, mentioned above for his engagement with Aristophanes, also borrowed from Plautus, including from Captivi and Aulularia in The Case is Altered (1609), Casina in Epicoene (1610), and Mostellaria in The Alchemist (1610), while at the end of the 17th century, John Dryden adapted Amphitryon (1690).

Terence, in contrast, was admired in the early modern period for his craftsmanship, including his five-act, three-part structure, use of a double plot, and unity of time and place. His works were broadly circulated, with more than five hundred editions printed between 1470 and 1600; these editions included French translations in 1466 and English translations in 1598. Terence was performed as the first Cambridge classical play (c. 1510–1511) at King’s College, and was staged in Oxford by the mid-16th century. His influence can be felt in the minor genre of the neoclassical prodigal son plays of Macropedius, Stymmelis, Gascoigne, and Cecchi, and in a small number of adaptations including Molière’s L’ecole des maris (1661), which borrowed from Adelphi, and Les fourberies de Scapin (1671), which used Phormio. However, although widely studied, commented upon, and admired, Terence’s work had a more marginal impact on modern dramatic practice than Plautus’.

As Latin became increasingly marginalised within global educational curricula, the comedies of Plautus and Terence faded from popular consciousness. They are now produced, outside of educational settings, infrequently. Throughout the 20th century, Plautine comedy found some success in the form of the Broadway musical. Cole Porter’s adaptation of Amphitryon, Out of This World, ended in the red after 157 performances at New York’s New Century Theatre in 1950 but was restaged more successfully in 1995 at New York City Centre, while Larry Gelbart, Burt Shevelove, and Stephen Sondheim’s 1962 musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which adapted Plautus’ Pseudolus, Miles Gloriosus, and Mostellaria, won a Tony Award in 1963 and was turned into a film (dir. Richard Lester) in 1966, before being successfully revived on Broadway in 1972 and 1996, and at the Royal National Theatre in 2004. Notable 21st-century receptions include Meryl Friedman’s Tug of War at the Getty Villa (2007), adapted from Plautus’ Rudens and set in New Orleans in a post-Katrina landscape, Brigitte Jacques-Wajeman’s take on Aulularia (La Marmite, 2002) at the Louvre Museum and Pseudolus (2003) at Ariane Mnouchkine’s performance space La Cartoucherie, and Peter Oswald’s The Storm, adapted from Rudens, at Shakespeare’s Globe (2005). Overall, however, second-degree receptions, in the form of adaptations of early modern writers or original comedies that speak to Terence’s dramaturgical craftsmanship, represent most of today’s Roman comedy receptions.

Discussion of the Literature

The recent proliferation in performances of ancient drama is matched by a rise in publications devoted to the topic. Chapter 4 of Lorna Hardwick’s Reception Studies (“Staging Receptions”) offers an excellent introduction to the area, while for longer, synchronic and diachronic studies of the topic one should turn to the monographs and edited collections connected to the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama.5 Hall, Macintosh, and Wrigley’s Dionysus Since 69: Greek Tragedy at the Dawn of the Third Millennium is an ideal starting point, which offers an interdisciplinary investigation into 20th- and 21st-century receptions and the cultural forces that shaped them.6 The other publications associated with the Archive, including investigations into the performance reception of individual plays and poets (Adventures with Iphigenia in Tauris, Agamemnon in Performance 458 BC to AD 2004, Aristophanes in Performance 421 BC—AD 2007, Medea in Performance 1500–2000) and specific places (Greek Tragedy and the British Theatre, 1660–1914, Performing Greek Drama in Oxford and on Tour with the Balliol Players, The Oxford Handbook of Greek Drama in the Americas), offer more extended coverage and strike a balance between breadth and depth of analysis.7 Elsewhere, the trend towards documenting the performance history of a poet, play, or place remains the dominant approach to the area, with Helen Slaney’s The Senecan Aesthetic: A Performance History a key example of the reception history of a poet, Kathleen Riley’s The Reception and Performance of Euripides’ Herakles: Reasoning Madness an instance of a reception history of a play, and Erika Fischer-Lichte’s Tragedy’s Endurance: Performances of Greek Tragedies and Cultural Identity in Germany since 1800 indicative of a reception history linked to a place.8 Thematic approaches to the subject are, however, becoming increasingly common, and since 2010, insightful investigations into postcolonial receptions of ancient tragedy, particularly in Africa (Crossroads in the Black Aegean: Oedipus, Antigone, and Dramas of the African Diaspora) and the Global South (Greeks and Romans on the Latin American Stage), have been published.9

The Classical Receptions Journal (founded 2009) contains important investigations into performance reception, with articles encompassing the influence of ancient writers such as Aristophanes, periods such as the early modern, places such as South Africa and Argentina, and the practices of visionary directors such as Katie Mitchell. Arion and the International Journal of the Classical Tradition also regularly feature inquiries into the reception of ancient drama.


  • Andújar, Rosa, and Konstantinos P. Nikoloutsos, eds. Greeks and Romans on the Latin American Stage. London: Bloomsbury, 2020.
  • Augoustakis, Antony, and Ariana Traill, eds. A Companion to Terence. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2013.
  • Bloemendal, Jan, and Howard Norland, eds. Neo-Latin Drama in Early Modern Europe. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013.
  • Bosher, Kathryn, Fiona Macintosh, Justine McConnell, and Patrice Rankine, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Greek Drama in the Americas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Cole, Emma. Postdramatic Tragedies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
  • Dinter, Martin T., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Roman Comedy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  • Easterling, Pat, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Flashar, Hellmut. Inszenierung der Antike: Das griechische Drama auf der Bühne der Neuzeit 1585–1990. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1991.
  • Fontaine, Michael, and Adele C. Scafuro, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Comedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Hall, Edith, and Stephe Harrop, eds. Theorising Performance: Greek Drama, Cultural History and Critical Practice. Oxford: Duckworth, 2010.
  • Hall, Edith, Fiona Macintosh, and Oliver Taplin, eds. Medea in Performance: 1500–2000. Oxford: Legenda, 2000.
  • Hall, Edith, Fiona Macintosh, and Amanda Wrigley, eds. Dionysus Since 69: Greek Tragedy at the Dawn of the Third Millennium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Hall, Edith, and Amanda Wrigley, eds. Aristophanes in Performance 421 BC–AD 2007: Peace, Birds and Frogs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Lauriola, Rosanna, and Kyriakos N. Demetriou, eds. Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Euripides. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015.
  • Manuwald, Gesine. Roman Tragedy: A Reader. London: Bloomsbury, 2010.
  • McDonald, Marianne. Ancient Sun, Modern Light: Greek Drama on the Modern Stage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
  • Michelakis, Pantelis. Greek Tragedy on Screen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Olson, S. Douglas, ed. Ancient Comedy and Reception: Essays in Honor of Jeffrey Henderson. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014.
  • Pollard, Tanya. Greek Tragic Women on Shakespearean Stages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Revermann, Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Greek Comedy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  • Revermann, Martin, and Peter Wilson, eds. Performance, Iconography, Reception: Studies in Honour of Oliver Taplin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Rodosthenous, George, ed. Contemporary Adaptations of Greek Tragedy: Auteurship and Directorial Visions. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.
  • Slaney, Helen. The Senecan Aesthetic: A Performance History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • van Zyl Smit, Betine, ed. A Handbook to the Reception of Greek Drama. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2015.
  • Walsh, Philip. “A Study in Reception: The British Debates over Aristophanes’ Politics and Influence.” Classical Receptions Journal 1, no. 1 (2009): 55–72.
  • Walton, J. Michael. Found in Translation: Greek Drama in English. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.