Vol. 31 No. 2

Rewriting Greek Tragedy / Confronting History in Contemporary American Drama: David Rabe’s The Orphan (1973) and Ellen McLaughlin’s The Persians (2003)

by Konstantinos Blatanis
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 2 (Winter 2019)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2019 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center


Ever since the late 1960s and early 1970s, a host of diverse American playwrights and directors have resorted to ancient Greek tragedy more intensely than their predecessors had ever done before. Varied in scope and aims as well as distinct in form and expression as these works have been, they have mainly served to re-contextualize the source material in their own present moment and their immediate sociocultural and political settings. Similar to what holds true for their forerunners,[1] American rewrites of Greek tragedy of the last five decades highlight in multiple and inventive ways the “‘presentist’ dimension,” which, in Hugh Grady’s terms, underlies all ventures into “works of the past.”[2] Furthermore, these modern plays also verify in practice the scholar’s argument that “the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, [and] Euripides . . . have never been mere exemplars of a later discourse on the tragic.”[3] Specifically, they manage to do so as they reclaim those resources and particular qualities of classical tragedy by means of which artists and audiences alike are able to engage with issues of historical understanding.

In essence, contemporary American rewrites of Greek tragedy reaffirm in their own modes the close connections that the cultural form has perennially sustained with history on both a theoretical and a practical level. In her influential work on tragedy and modernity, Olga Taxidou insightfully stresses that history “forms one of the main structuring forces of tragic form” that has nonetheless “always occupied an ambiguous position in studies of tragedy.”[4] The author elaborates on the findings of her research and proceeds to endorse in particular those “new ways of talking about tragic form that create historical accountability, radical critique and introduce the possibility of change.”[5] It is precisely the possibility of such an accountability that fuels the aspirations in the two different plays studied in this article. Seeking to interrogate how this age-old and fertile dialogue between tragedy and history can be reclaimed in present-day terms, the discussion focuses on two works which undertake the exact same challenge while being separated from each other by four decades. In general terms, David Rabe’s The Orphan (1973) and Ellen McLaughlin’s The Persians (2003) are singled out here as objects of study precisely because they confront questions of historical perception which relate primarily to the US but also prove of great significance for the rest of the Western world during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

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