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Myth and the birth of drama

By Ben Stevens H P Stevens, on 21 May 2013

These days, when people think of classical drama they think of Greek tragedy. Professor Gesine Manuwald (UCL Greek & Latin) sought to redress this notion with her enticingly-titled lecture, ‘Drama & theatre in ancient Rome: braggart soldiers, parasites & murderers’ on 15 May, which formed part of the UCL Festival of the Arts.

She began by outlining how Roman drama grew out of the regular festivals and ceremonies held in Republican Rome to honour various gods.Greek theatrical mask

In 364 BC, the magistrates of Rome decided to introduce performances and Etruscan dancing to appease the gods after an outbreak of pestilence. However, it wasn’t until 240 BC that they commissioned Livius Andronicus (Rome’s first poet) to write a play – the first of its kind – one year after the Punic War to celebrate the victory.

A new art form
Livius was actually Greek and had experience of Greek drama, but he wrote in Latin. In letters, both Cicero and Horace look down on his writing as basic and unpolished, yet he introduced both comedy and tragedy to Rome.

Plays were written new for each festival and this led to a growth in new genres. Plautus (second–third century BC), the earliest playwright for who we have complete works, wrote exuberant comedies based on Greek plays from the fourth and third centuries BC.

In Miles Gloriosus, for example, he tells the story of a braggart soldier who is accompanied by a ‘parasite’ – a flatterer who is always looking for free food while making rude asides. He also uses exaggerated Greek names such as Pyrgopolynices and Artotrogus for comic effect.

Ennius was the next significant Roman poet and seen as the real originator of Roman drama. In his version of the Medea story, he reorders events to make them more comprehensible to Roman audiences and incorporates Roman ideology in the verse.

The Medea myth
Medea was a very popular story – Ovid and Seneca both wrote plays about the character. In Seneca’s version, his Medea even talks about becoming a ‘Medea’ – by now, a familiar avenging figure.

The character’s popularity stemmed from the way that Rome constantly looked back to Greece and appropriated many of its myths: the Aeneid, for instance, explicitly links Rome with Troy.

This was just one of several fascinating areas touched upon in a very engaging and well-attended panel discussion, ‘Myth: from the ancient world to modernity’ on 16 May.

Another event in the Festival of Arts’ classics strand, it saw Dr Giulia Biffis (UCL Greek & Latin) interview three of her academic colleagues: Professor Chris Carey, Professor Miriam Leonard and Dr Rosa Andújar.

Asked to define myth, Dr Andújar described it as neither truth nor hard fact and how, instead, it derived from the ancient Greek word muthos meaning ‘story’. “It’s a helpful vehicle to answer questions about the place of man in the universe,” she added.

Gods and heroes
Professor Carey explained how there are two broad strands in Greek myth: one about gods and another that offers narratives about heroes from the past. He also argued that within both, there is a sense of decline from a mythic past.

After the previous day’s primer on Roman drama, it was particularly interesting to hear about the interplay between myth and drama in Greece.

According to Professor Carey, tragic plays from the fifth century BC were based purely on myth and it was 100 years before anyone attempted an original plot.

Indeed, Professor Leonard pointed out that Herodotus even mentions how one poet was fined for writing a historical story because it provided a painful reminder of the past rather than provoking the constructive emotional reaction that Aristotle called catharsis.

Professor Carey then highlighted how Greek tragedy emerged as a product of Athenian democracy, even though the myths that it retold originated from aristocratic or monarchic societies.  “The distance provided by myth allows scrutiny of Athenian democracy and asks at what point it begins to slide into tyranny,” he added.

Enter Freud
Myth continues to exert considerable influence to this day – especially in terms of the insight that these shared, universal stories may offer into the human mind.

Professor Leonard argued that Freud used Greek myth not only because he saw it as a means to explore universal truths about the psyche, but also because it was synonymous with high culture and, therefore, gave credence to his rather radical ideas.

His use of the Oedipus myth as a universal insight remains fairly controversial, though, especially when applied to non-western myths.

This serves to underline, however, the point made by all three panellists that myth remains “a living discourse” on these questions and many others.

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