Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #4: The Engaged Citizen and Performing Greek Tragedy: A Performance Approach to Teaching Humanities

February 1, 2014
Theater & Performance

In a freshman Humanities seminar, a group of students performs Trojan Women, by Euripides, in the setting of the Warsaw Ghetto in World War II. Another group performs the play in the round, with actors interspersed throughout the audience and surrounded by photos of war from across history and geography. A third group frames Trojan Women as the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. These examples describe a Communication pedagogy that draws parallels between (a) Euripides, his audience, and his strategic engagement of mythopoetic content; and (b) 21st-century college students, their audience, and their adaptations of Euripides’ plays to a range of issues salient to a participatory democracy. 

I attempt to deepen contemporary understanding of the relationship between performance and rhetoric within Communication, as well as demonstrate the value of both to the liberal arts and humanities, by providing experiential classroom learning of how rhetoric and performance functioned and were perceived in fifth-century BCE Athens, a performance-centered culture in which people were able to discern clearly the different spaces and functions of the various forms of public discourse that encouraged reflection upon the world and daily life. One form of public discourse sometimes overlooked for its rhetorical power is theatre performance.

The plays of Euripides stand out as profoundly contemporary in their radical critique of many of the societal norms of his time. A performance studies perspective invigorates the way we see the plays of Euripides as directly related to human rights and social justice, and how performance functions as embodied rhetoric. Euripides utilized the traditional myths in novel and risk-taking ways to give voice to marginalized groups in his contemporary society. With characters and stories that were deeply symbolic and familiar to his audience, he could, with small yet crucial changes, introduce new ideas and perspectives into the stories to encourage his audience—his fellow citizens—to reflect upon and question received views and the status quo. 

Working within a tightly controlled and rule-bound system of drama, Euripides introduced innovation as he reshaped heroes and other characters into recognizable, everyday people with whom his audience could identify, and used drama to explore their motivations and challenges—all for the purpose of inviting spectators to reflect upon the characters, relationships, and action as they related to and influenced their own lives, selves, and relationships, both personal and civic. 

For example, Iphigeneia at Aulis opens with Agamemnon in crisis as he tries to undo his plan to sacrifice his daughter to appease the goddess Artemis and sail to Troy for war. Not only would this objective have shocked the audience as a departure from the familiar story, but in addition to Agamemnon’s portrayal as a father more than a warrior-king, an elderly slave displays wisdom and provides counsel to Agamemnon. Later, Iphigineia watches and listens as her parents talk about her impending sacrifice, and the audience witnesses Agamemnon’s oppositional pulls as his family encroaches on the male-centered world of the army and Clytemnestra challenges him within that space. This play highlights Euripides’ bold choices in confronting his fellow Athenians’ views of, for example, women, war, and status, and how these choices resonate in the very bodies of the actors on stage.

The team-taught Humanities seminar I teach explores the ancient world, mostly from a Western perspective, and includes strands in philosophy, theology, and literature. My literature strand approaches all texts through performance. Only a few students enter the class with prior experience or interest in performance. While they analyze and reflect upon their performances in writing, the performances themselves, solo and ensemble, function as both the method of student inquiry and product of their analysis. 

Engaging problems of representation, we question what can be inferred about Euripides’ placement of women, slaves, enemies, and foreigners as central characters in his plays—characters with whom his audience would have been uncomfortable yet with whom Euripides clearly intended them to identify. We ask why, as an educated Athenian man of no small privilege, he would choose to put these individuals on stage before an audience. The students explore not only what it means to immerse themselves in the experience of an Other, but also what it means to speak for an Other—and the ethical risks, challenges, and responsibilities this entails. Grounding discussion in evidence from Euripides’ plays and the socio-political contexts in which they were produced, students experience the plays as living, critical approaches to contemporary problems as Euripides saw them.

Our work on tragedy culminates in 15 to 20-minute condensed, original adaptations of some of Euripides’ plays. I guide students at all levels of production, but the work is theirs from concept to execution. As noted at the beginning of this essay, the productions address a wide range of social problems and attitudes towards justice. The Warsaw Ghetto production drew the audience’s attention to questions of resistance and victimage as well as the tension between following orders and acting with humanity. The in-the-round performance highlighted the centrality and strength of Hekuba by having only the actor playing Hekuba remain in the center from beginning to end. In the Iraq War production, three actors took turns playing Hekuba and the Chorus to show the commonality and solidarity among women. Hekuba was distinguished by the color of her hijab; to move from one Hekuba to another, the women exchanged hijabs in silent ritual. 

These condensed productions ranged in overall performance clarity and effectiveness, but all contained moments of performative knowing. The students recognized their own otherness while discovering points of connection with the characters and each other. One student in the Iraq War production expressed strong reticence about her ability to produce truthfully the depths of grief required in Trojan Women. In rehearsal we worked on different ways of breathing and vocalizing to express grief, and in the performance this student found herself sobbing, particularly when she spoke the words of Hekuba. Additionally, in performance the women clung to each other in ways that had only been suggested during rehearsal. 

This classroom work compels students to experience in part the norms of the ancient Greek polis: they understand why and how participation in public discourse as both speaker and spectator is synonymous with and necessary for involved, active citizenry, both then and now. Highlighting the linkages between performance and rhetoric, within Communication and on an interdisciplinary level, can inform the Humanities, demonstrating the continuing relevance of playwrights such as Euripides and manifesting a shared commitment to engaged citizenry, embodied discourse, and ethical praxis.

Performance and rhetoric are linked by the focus on voice and audience in the public sphere, and the ways in which personhood, identity, and belonging are defined by having a voice, whether centrally located or from the margins. Euripides’ plays planted the seeds of social change in his time and new seeds may be planted when people invest his words with new meaning. Much like contemporary performance studies scholars, Euripides asks implicitly, what can performance do in the world?

About the author (s)

Heidi M. Rose

Villanova University

Associate Professor