Western society has often looked to the democracy of ancient Athens for texts and philosophies through which to understand the modern world. Greek drama, arguably classical Athens’ most renowned literary product, has been adapted and reused in every age, in an enormous variety of venues—public, political, private and academic. For example, in 20th century America, artists have used Greek drama to express current political concerns.
In 1912, New York suffragettes staged Aristophanes’ plays to raise awareness of their cause. In 1914, Maurice Browne toured the country—on the dime of the Women’s Anti-War League—with a production of Euripides’ Trojan Women to protest American involvement in WWI. Richard Schechner adapted Euripides in 1968 to support liberal values in the American presidential election, and, more recently, Robert Auletta has adapted Aeschylus and Sophocles to comment on the Iraq and Vietnam Wars. In 2003, two New York actresses organized more than a thousand worldwide stagings and readings of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata in response to the war in Iraq. This recent history of reception follows a long tradition of reproductions and revivals in varied cultural and political contexts.
As early as the 5th B.C.E., for example, the Sicilian tyrant Hieron I sponsored a production of Aeschylus’ famously anti-tyrannical masterpiece, Persians. In the 2nd century B.C.E., Ezekiel wrote a drama in the style of Euripides, celebrating Moses and the Exodus. In Rome, Seneca rewrote Greek tragedies to respond to the horrors of Nero’s reign. The enormously complicated cultural history of the contexts of reception of Athenian drama remains largely unexplored, however, both because we often turn directly to the ancient texts without considering the intervening traditions, and because scholars working on the wider context of each moment of reception are separated by their different departments, institutions and countries.