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Murder in the Theatre

By Edmund Connolly, on 18 September 2014

Medea and Jason, Waterhouse

Medea and Jason, Waterhouse

Greek plays seem to be having resurgence across Britain. The National’s Medea has only just come off and the Old Vic are hosting Electra, both tragedies with a lot of deaths and political commentary.

Given their morbid tone why are they so popular? With modern attention spans dwindling perhaps their short punchy nature appeals over epic 3 hour long Shakespeares. Over in 90 minutes and loads of action, it’s an easy sell to people working late or in need of entertainment.

A Greco-Roman theatre token

A Greco-Roman theatre token

Perhaps it’s the fantastic understanding of human nature these plays contain. Medea is a play about a jilted woman, abandoned by her lover who is alone in a foreign land. Given the prevalence of divorce and immigration, this millennia old play strikes a very modern chord. That said, the National’s production wasn’t great, with Medea a weak and broken woman, rather than the powerful and emancipated mother.


In the ancient world, Greek plays were popular and performed abroad. Copies of plays can be found on papyrus used on cartonnage (a papier-mâché type material used on coffin cases). One of the earliest papyri from Egypt is an extract of ‘The Persians’ (another Greek tragedy with ghosts, vengeful fathers and a lot of weeping) and is about 2.5 thousand years old.


In the Petrie collection much of our theatre material is a lot jollier. We have 8 comedy masks and faces all stylised to look like specific characters. More information on Ancient theatre can be found on Digital Egypt, but I would disagree with the idea that Greek theatre is the main influence on much modern theatre. Greek theatre traditionally had 3 actors and a chorus, performed whilst wearing masks depicting the character. Western theatre is far more grounded in oral story telling traditions (well I think so anyway), like the oral poems of Homer, and Old English pieces like Beowulf.


A grinning comedy mask

A grinning comedy mask

Plays were a very popular form of entertainment, often performed at religious festivals and at large theatre competitions.  There was a theatre industry, with regular visitors and troupes. Objects such as this token (see above) might have been used a theatre tokens instead of a ticket and vast theatres like that at Oxyrhynchus could hold an audience of around 11,000 (by Petrie’s estimate).


Greek plays are popular then and now, but I’d say some of the London productions really are a bit odd.


Edmund Connolly is the British Council – UCL Museum Training School manager

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