Screen Versus Stage: the Constant Presence of Greek Drama in Film

This dissertation shall attempt to identify the universal aspects of Greek drama and myth that are identifiable on the stage and on the silver screen. It will aim to draw comparisons between films and plays, and will take stock with Hollywood’s choosy approach towards the rich narrative offerings of Greek myth. A few films will be cited and explored which depict both ancient Greece in its various guises, and modern day America, the latter films of which arguably reveal aspects of Greek myth and drama in the narrative. It will be helpful to use a number of theorists to discuss the meaning of certain devices, conventions and formulas inherent in performance. Ultimately the aim is to point out that Greek narrative still informs an integral part of world performance, as it has done throughout the ages.
When discussing the relationship between the audience and the screen and stage it is useful to consider the differing types of audience. There are ‘cinema-goers’ and ‘theatre-goers’, and then among them there are further divides, between those who go as a way of experiencing some light entertainment, and those who are connoisseurs of particular movie or theatre genres. Audiences generally all want to be entertained – this they have in common. As Gideon Nisbet states in his preface to Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture, ‘Mainstream British and American audiences are generally allergic to subtitles, writing off films such as Cacoyannis’ Iphigenia (1977) or Pasolini’s Medea (1970) as boring art-house elitism’ (2006, p.xii). This may well be the case, and he supports his claim by making reference to Hollywood’s avoidance of investing in Greece for film, with the exception of Alexander (2004) and Troy (2004), and Disney’s wholesale re-branding of Hercules. However these productions are not in any way Greek cinema. They take cultural products from Greece, such as the image of Hercules or the legend of Troy, and revision them in a way that will please and attract cinema-going audiences of the USA and other countries with an appreciation for English-speaking mainstream pop-culture. Thus the audience’s relationship with the screen is a topic prime for debate, as it can be argued to be a largely passive role that the audience plays, yet, as this essay shall attempt to show, historically it was perceived to be hugely participatory and reciprocal. The expectations of the modern day cinema audience is commensurate with what they have read or heard about the film, and of course by how much they have paid to see it. Another major factor is their understanding of what ‘going to see a film’ is. This is something proscribed by the progression of American and British cinema over the years, which has set a precedent for filmmakers who want their film to be successful. The requirements are thus: that the film is accessible; that it doesn’t confuse its audience without resolving the confusions at the end; and that it is not tedious. Ancient Greek drama does not conform to these requirements. Much of its content is taken from Greek mythology, which has a tendency to be singularly abstract and metaphorical. One example of a film that employed subtitles and in doing so risked rejection by audiences is Mel Gibson’s The Passion, yet this film was pumped with money and had as its subject matter an epic event in world history. These two factors alone make it accessible to the public and eliminate the risk.
When a film uses a different culture from that of its creator as its topic it must be cautious of how far it strays into that culture. If it were solely intended to make money it would first and foremost need to appeal to the mass-market and make necessary sacrifices of the too-authentic elements of that culture. If, on the other hand, it is not being made purely for financial profit it can delve as deeply as it likes into the realms of its topic, but then only expect to be seen by ‘boring art-house elitists’. A balance needs to be struck. If the film is trying to break false preconceptions and represent the culture to the mass audience more accurately whilst still appealing to that audience the task becomes a lot harder. I would suggest Joel Zwick’s screen adaptation of Nia Vardalos’ book, My Big Fat Greek Wedding as an example of a film British and American audiences were not allergic to, in spite of its concentration on Greek culture and society. It was widely embraced and lauded by critics and audiences alike. There are no subtitles to be seen and references to Greek language and heritage is made only by certain characters in order to enhance the comedy of the scene. The writer, who also plays the main character in the film, plays on the pastiche of previous representations of Greece: for example in the name of her family’s restaurant, ‘Dancing Zorba’s’ which references the character in Nikos Kazantzakis’ book Zorba the Greek. This illustrates the cashing in of the family on the popular literature of their culture and in turn illustrates how it is not merely big name players like Hollywood that capitalise on successful characters or icons but also those who are a part of the film’s genesis themselves, both participant and reciprocator.
The unfamiliarity of audiences with Greek culture and drama and the attempts of some to remedy this are further explored in Helene Foley’s essay, ‘Bad Women: Gender Politics in Late Twentieth-Century Performance and Revision of Greek Tragedy’, in which she refers to a play written and directed by a woman who came from a Greek part of Massachusetts. Tina Shepherd depicted Greek mythological personas alongside a chorus of modern day teenage girls who would double up to play daughter roles of Iphigenia and Electra. Foley states that Shepherd’s desire to represent the collision of Greek mythology with modern ‘Greekness’ is something that stemmed from her personal knowledge and experience of this situation for many Greco-Americans. Both Shepherd and Vardalos exemplify a trend that sees individuals representing the atmosphere that has coloured their upbringing and early life experiences and the influence that reception has played on establishing their identities. By attempting to present their reality, through the clash and compatibility of attitudes between young and old, Shepherd and Vardalos may be seen to be achieving a connection with their audiences. As Foley points out, ‘the shape of the play aimed to engage the audience and bring them closer to the myths in a fashion parallel to that of its chorus. The distance between audience and myths was underlined by contrast metatheatricality and yet their combined antiquity and modernity became increasingly vivid and emotionally engaging as the play evolved’ (2004, p.78). By portraying the life of the modern woman against the ancient lives of mythical Greek women the audience in turn can see a reflection of their situation, positioned beside a stage where reality is distorted, played with, subverted, but which is still a representation of reality. While ‘not all tragic heroines are well known to US audiences’ (2004, p.78) it appears not to matter so much to the stage audience as it might to the cinema.
Along with the practical and financial steps necessary in creating drama are what Aristotle called the ‘six salient parts of tragedy’ (2001, p.87) which were, ‘in order of their importance – plot, character, diction, music and spectacle’ (2001, p.87), all of which are still integral to narrative produced today. To see an example of this Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is a worthy choice. This film takes plot very seriously and employs the three-act model, whereby the narrative is split into three parts. The first introduces and sets up the running of plot and sub-plot. The second details a problem and brings the narrative to its climax. The third solves and concludes by including a denouement, to finish. There is also evidence for the presence of katabasis in this film, which is something that will be explored in more depth later on. The protagonist, J. J. Gittes, while trying to carry out his work as a private detective, finds himself caught up in a series of plot events, which he must try to navigate through, all the time trying to stay on track. He experiences a passage through a metaphorical underworld embodied by Times Square and survives through to triumph as the hero at the end of the film.
Where a modern film is largely shot in studios and on location, an ancient Greek play took place completely outdoors, on the open stage. The cast took a much more active part in the whole production of the play, being responsible for the action, for the musical score and for the choreography of the performance. Conversely, a film cast is more of a passive entity, under direction and therefore less autonomous than their ancient Greek counterparts. The writer of the ancient script would have been tutored in the rhetoric and poetic tradition, and would have produced plays with strongly literary compositions to them. The screenwriter on the other hand is at liberty to write for the masses: the large cinema audiences who would be unappreciative of lengthy monologues and dialogues of literary discourse. The producer of each performance, in the case of the ancient play, had a role that was just as much the actor’s as it was anyone else’s, as their performance, unlike that of a film actor’s, was unrepeatable. Each time an ancient play was performed it was also the last time, for no two performances were or are the same. Producers of films are not (generally) those who act in them, but people who have had different professional training entirely, and this time it is film that has less freedom. The benefactor of the ancient play would also be the patron, who would back performances and in turn gain popularity and favour in Athenian society, which in turn would enable him to gain office in communities and governing institutes. The benefactor of the film might come from any quarter.
When making comparisons between an ancient play and a modern film it is useful to begin with basic similarities between the two. Mary Kay-Gamel, in her essay, ‘An American Tragedy: Chinatown’ (Winkler, 2001) states, ‘Greek film and drama share obvious formal, thematic and affective features. Like drama, film is the product not of an individual but of the combined talents of author, director, actors, designers and musicians. Material aspects are crucial to both. The financial support of a producer and the economic, social, historical and ideological circumstances of production shape the characteristics of certain artifacts. In both cases a large audience, comprising all aspects of society expresses strong responses to what it sees’ (2001, p.149-150). Hence the production and reception of play and film is not dissimilar. It is when we start to analyse the subject matter and methods of delivery that contrasts emerge. The kind of dramatic production discussed earlier in the example of Tina Shepherd’s ‘Bad Women’ is an example of Greek drama that attempts to give a genuine depiction of the genre – as opposed to that which is commonly offered by mainstream entertainment industries – and still appeal to the wide majority audience. It is brave to do so as it is fighting against an automatic reaction by society to categorise Greek theatre. Gamel writes. ‘Like drama, film is the product’. Both of these are forms of artistic media but it is the latter which is most capable of maximising profit for its promoter or benefactor. Resultantly, Greek drama has seemingly been divided into two halves. The first half is for the ancient dramas that are considered highbrow literature with many levels, using and establishing many literary templates and devices, stylistically, rhetorically and conceptually. This is an art type which has roots in philosophy, psychology, sociology, linguistics and law, and which has also been integral to the formation of the methodology of these subjects. Consequently it has frequently been regarded as belonging more to the world of academia and left largely untapped for popular cinema or stage audiences. At the opposite end of the spectrum is a category that condemns Greek culture in much the same way as Brigadoon condemns Scottish culture; parodying it, simplifying it, going to town on the elements of gore and depravity inherent in its myths and legends, and creating endless spin-off fiction and fantasy by way of homage to it. With these two categories in mind the production of an ancient play will largely be a more conscientious procedure, as it will necessarily be concerned with accuracy and close allegiance to the script. The very nature of cinema is that it is not theatre; it is away from theatre, a different medium entirely and so decrees that a modern film need not conform to the limitations or directions of the original script.
Previous analysts of Greek drama have spoken of the symbiosis of the world in its temporal state and the drama that performs a reflection of it. An analysis of Greek drama ought to consider the history of the genre, and any historical analysis will, it is expected, consider the birth of the genre, and its subsequent purpose. Pat Easterling, in her essay ‘Constructing the Historic’ (1997), provides some useful background information: ‘plays were designed for the benefit for the community, for performances at public festivals in the presence of large audiences, and they were presented on the community’s initiative and behalf’ (1997, p.21). This is somewhat different to the reason for plays today, as I would hazard a guess and say few neighbourhoods put in requests at their local theatre for the upcoming arts season. Yet the situation Easterling describes is similar in the sense that it is the community for whom the play is being performed, whether that be to entertain, provoke or inspire. Since most theatre is an attempt to hold a mirror up to society it is certainly performed on the ‘behalf’ of that society, even if it criticises it. Today, perhaps, drama that criticises is less likely to create change beyond a kind of self-reflection on the part of the audience member. In the times of ancient Greece much more was expected of it politically speaking, given the fact that it received ‘state funding, both direct and indirect’ and that the cast was in fact made up of ‘citizen performers’ (1997, p.21). The notion of the audience and the performance as being part of the organic whole is here established, which parallels a similar notion of the chorus as both a plural spectator and participant. It is always from out of the crowd, or from out of the setting that establishes the time and place of a play, that new characters emerge, just as in politics the leaders of state rise from the body of citizens that they came to rule over. This also establishes the power of the chorus over the actor, in its ability to dictate to the latter and interact with him. In the story of Oedipus the chorus persuades the former not to order the execution of his brother-in-law, Creon. To refer back two sentences, the concept of an individual rising to power or prominence reflects that device of Greek tragedy and drama, katabasis, whereby a hero emerges from a challenging journey to become the leader of his people. As Easterling states ‘it certainly makes sense in general terms to look to the plays for some kind of refraction of the society that provided the context of production, but it is much harder to go further and attempt to read the signs in detail’ (1997, p.21). It is a given that drama, like literature, is inspired by the society it is created for. If it were not, it would have no relation to the lives and concerns of its audience and critics. However, there appears to be two worlds in opposition in Greek theatrical tradition. On the one hand it is expected to offer something useful – morally, politically and/or socially – to the audience, and on the other its subject matter is in the large part unrealistic, often ludicrously so, such as in its depiction of the Underworld; of Mount Olympus; and of the criminality of its heroes and gods. Also, ‘in the case of Greek tragedy there is the special difficulty that all the surviving plays... are given a heroic setting of some kind and go to great lengths to evoke a distinctively different world from that of the original audiences’ (1997, p.21). It is unnecessary for drama to replicate precisely the lives of its audience – although when this is gone about in the right fashion, such as in the writer, Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, in which a series of actors and actresses play a single character reflecting on their life in a flowing dramatic monologue. It was necessary for Greek plays to reflect the political and social feeling of the majority, of the whole audience, or of the ‘polis’ (Wiles, 2000, p.48), and they could not do so without also mining the philosophy upon which Greek civilisation operated. This philosophy is woven into the mythology of Greek culture, as was apparently discovered by the artistic creators of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). In Gideon Nisbet’s book Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture is a still from the film in which Socrates appears alongside the 1980s American protagonists. It is an example of reception possibly at its tackiest, yet it also illustrates how Socrates, who was not a myth, has been mythologised and manipulated to represent the same ancient Greece as do the characters of Michael Cacoyannis’ film classics.
Wiles (2000) speaks of the closeness of society and drama in his assessment of Athenian democracy, stating that ‘Greek tragedy was necessarily ‘political’: its subject matter was the well-being of the polis, and its performance was part of what turned its collection of men into a polis’ (p.48). He attributes even more importance to this symbiosis than Easterling, seeming to argue that Greek plays in fact created Greek society. Certainly they allowed for criticism of the state and could metaphorically be seen as a town hall where issues could be raised and conventions challenged. To return to Easterling, ‘One obvious benefit of a setting elsewhere, whether in time or space, is the convenient creation of distance, which helps avoid the danger of immediate repercussions’ (1997, p.29). In short, the fantasy of Greek myth meant there was little threat of its censorship. The creative freedom it enjoyed as a result lead to the popularity of Greek drama with certain subcultures of society, that recognise its ability to criticise a system of governance and even implement the breakdown of that system. Thus the temporal and spatial distance that characterises the settings of the plays does not change the essence of the production, but releases it from inhibitions and limitations. By setting the action in ancient Troy or Carthage the actual location of the theatre could not be seen as the place where the performance itself was taking place. Changing the dimension also proved the timeless nature of the plays – if they could be set in an ancient world yet still be relevant to the audience of the day that was one of the greatest achievements. The fact that the plays have reached the silver screen, courtesy of Cacoyannis, bear witness to their longevity and apparent resonance with so many artistic directors, actors, actresses and audiences. One example is that of Electra, which was filmed in 1962 and nominated with Iphigenia (1977) for an Academy Award, which Solomon describes as, ‘a successful film adaptation of an ancient Greek play’ (2001, p.264). The setting is ‘austere’, it is not ‘overburdened with costumes’, delivery of lines is not particularly poetic and events unfold with ‘unthinkable consequences’ (2001, p.264). All are elements that could potentially put off a viewer, but instead the film ‘thrives on its profound plot’. It is this ‘profound plot’ that supports the theory of Greek myth as the template for success, as will later be discussed. Nor does Electra need much special treatment to translate effectively into film, as Solomon points out: ‘Cacoyannis does not attempt to elicit the theatrical experience of an ancient Athenian audience, instead using a spare idiom to present drama to a modern film audience’ (2001, p.264). In this subtle way the film is adapted to be accessible; by knowing his limits and his options Cacoyannis does not make the mistake of attempting to film a play. Instead he uses cinematography, lighting, costume, camera angle and other filmic devices to ensure that subtleties that are created in theatrical performance are not lost on the silver screen. An example is when the boy, Astyanax, is thrown to his death, and the camera spins as well in the air carrying the audience along briefly before returning to a horizontal position.
Modernising touches, such as the representing of the ‘austere chorus’ (2001, p.263) of Electra as ‘the convincingly sympathetic local wives with whom any ancient (or contemporary) Mediterranean woman would naturally have spent the majority of her time’ (2001, p.264) is indicative of the prevalence of Greek theatrical tropes throughout the history and practice of drama in the twentieth century. Any play or film would be peculiar without its neutral cast of extras or without a musical score. It is pertinent to have a chorus that chimes with the background of the audience’s time. The ‘local wives’ are familiar to Mediterranean women, and their presence ensures the story is made relevant to a watching Mediterranean audience. We have seen this practice of modernising the chorus in Tina Shepherd’s ‘Bad Women’. These templates of Greek tragedy are recognised by many as precursors to all ensuing performances. Mark Griffith identifies ‘the persistence of heroic plots and characters in Attic tragedy’ (Easterling, 1997, p.23), other conventions that recur in so many plays, both ancient and modern, as well as in films. He speaks about the success of the Attic plays in their ability to be re-performed as ‘the modern equivalent of the greatest literature of the past’ (1997, p.23). It is necessary to pay special attention to a classic play as a whole, and not merely the various winning aspects of it, for to detach them from the rest of the play would run the risk of creating ‘imitation or pastiche’ (1997, p.23).
‘Next came Old Comedy, much praised, though its liberty descended into vice and violence deserving restraint of law: the law was accepted, and the chorus fell silent, its right of shameful insult removed.’ (Horace, 2001, p.130) The ability to criticise, for which the chorus was largely intended, seems to have been somewhat removed as classical Greek developed. Horace claims this was due to ‘Old Comedy’. In the modern world society is a much-loved topic of film, while comedy is the genre that parodies, tests and judges it. It appears that comedy has essentially replaced the chorus of ancient Greece in its common achievement.
The direct influence of Greek tragedy and myth in modern film is frequently overlooked. By looking at the work of Michael Cacoyannis and Pier Paolo Pasolini we can take their films as case studies in an appraisal of how classical templates have informed the directing of films right up to the present day. This also allows for discussion into their choice of subject matter and how it relates to contemporary audiences.
As has already been noted modern day artistic directors have tried to illustrate the influence of Greek heritage on their lives, both private and public. Shepherd was reputedly attracted to the ‘badness’ of her heroines: of Electra, Iphigenia and Medea. She felt the subject matter to be important as a way of mirroring and revealing modern day American youth culture, creating a symbiosis between bad women and teenage adolescents, and playing on the accuracy/inaccuracy of such terms. Shepherd was not alone in championing the antihero; actors and actresses are also ‘eager to take on what they view as some of the major female roles in the Western theatrical tradition’ (Foley, 2004, p.78), despite these being often unwholesome and treated with suspicion.  Since actresses were traditionally an unloved race, regarded as one step up (or to the side) from prostitutes, much has been made of the fact that most female roles were played by the more effeminate looking and behaving actors of the time. Greek traditional drama stands in direct opposition to this, where one character would play many parts, employing a myriad of masks and costumes in order to achieve this flexibility. In a reflection of this the characters of Greek mythology are notorious shape-shifters; changing mood, sex and form frequently and for any number of reasons. They are often half-breeds, with dubious parentage, the most well known of whom is Hercules, the demi-god. Grecian drama may therefore be considered to be demonstrating reception in its depiction of its mythical past - through imitating the fluidity of its protagonists in a similar fashion; through having a cast of not more than three to play many; and through having an ever-present chorus from which other characters can be drawn should the need arise. The chorus ensures the illusion of an audience - an audience within a performance – is maintained. The celebration of gender, class and temporal mix-up in Greek myth and drama is something noted and imitated by ensuing dramatists and scriptwriters, not least by Shakespeare. By littering his plays with cross-dressing royals, twins and supernatural beings he strained against the gender limitations imposed by a close-minded and judgmental Elizabethan society.
In writing and re-visioning plays with characters ‘found in several of Euripides’ plays, it is by and large the outrageous, courageous, untraditional and androgynous female figures – both mothers and daughters like Iphigenia or Electra who have been most performed and reworked to heighten the gender issues in these plays on the late twentieth-century stage’ (Foley, 2004, p.78). The choice of subject matter has been to challenge limitations and opinions of gender (which dictates the behaviour of men and women outside of the theatre space). Nisbet identifies the subculture of gay and lesbian ‘scenes’, where ‘members express and create their subcultural identities via shared cultural forums (often subsequently appropriated by the mainstream): the way they dress, the books and music they argue about, the clubs they attend, the slang they use’ (2006, p.147). Not only is gender and sexuality queried in Greek mythology, and hence Greek tragedy, due to its heavy borrowing from this genre, but also fundamental social morals and values are tested. Most people who have come into contact with Classics will have heard of the passions, promiscuity and rage of the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. By appropriating this material screenwriters and directors have a free reign to subvert societal norms. ‘Tolerance for and even delight in the transgressive actions and at times aggressive sexuality of these characters apparently extends beyond what would be tolerated from those of less magnitude and mythic pedigree’ (Foley, 2004, p.79). The leaning of homosexuals towards Greek myth and performance of myth may be in part due to the transgressive nature of its main players; the gods and goddesses who manipulate, abuse and murder each other – breaking the tenets of civilised community living – and yet get away with it. In no way is the attempt here to equate homosexuals with maniacal gods; rather the idea is to establish the situational similarities of power hierarchies. In the history of the world religiously decreed tenets have never looked favourably down on homosexuals or those with a different understanding of sexuality than the supposed norm. Or at least these tenets have never been interpreted in their favour. Yet in the cornerstones of Greek identity is the divine hierarchy of Mount Olympus, which operates along a very different set of guidelines: which instead smiles fondly at the madness and mayhem that surrounds it, where Medea kills her children, Clytemnestra kills her husband and Orestes kills his mother.  
Athenian theatre was traditionally ‘directed at male spectators’ (Wiles, 2000, p.67) and women were all but barred from attending. This prejudice juxtaposes the genderless protagonist of Greek theatre, who plays all parts. This actor is a paradox in turn, since ‘Athenian theatre was sponsored by the state, and thus men attended as members of the male community that embodied the state’ (2000, p.67). If the state was male, and the theatre was, as has been suggested, an extension of the state, then by rights it too should be male. However, as Wiles puts it, ‘there was a conspicuous gap in classical Athens between sex and gender’ (2000, p.70). Exactly so - there may have been a patriarchal presidency over society but the definitions of masculine and feminine in ancient Greece were never clear. ‘Dramatists could construct new myths in order to efface this gap, or they could play upon the gap to explore deep-tensions and contradictions within the democratic system’ (2000, p.70). Electra, Clytemnestra and Iphigenia are prototypes for what might be termed, raging against the machine. Strong and often vicious, and apart from the civilised society of the audience, they deviate from societal norms concerning the behaviour of the fairer sex and thus in this deviation necessarily query the societal norm for the male sex. Greek theatre here is shown for its ability to cause controversy. This is generally due to the truths it exposes, ones that would ideally remain unspoken, even if they were known about. Wiles cites Aeschylus’ Oresteia as an example of what must be the outcome between two opposed moral stands during the trial of Clytemnestra:
‘Whose crime is greater? That of the woman who broke the social bond by killing her husband, or that of the man who broke the biological bond by killing his mother?’ (2000, p.71). Philosophy loves this game of ethical conundrum and this example illustrates how easily the great philosophers and thinkers of ancient Greece became so closely associated with its mythology. Firstly there are two catastrophic crimes that have been neutralised because they happened in a parallel world where they do things differently. This creates distance from the time and place of the audience. Secondly, the crimes have been recognised and the perpetrators put on trial. This creates immediacy and relevance for the audience, as it is a replication of their own judicial system. The judge, Athene, who may be a man or a woman – again there surfaces this reluctance to proscribe gender – ‘determines, through her casting vote, that the social bond is more important. The overt moral is clear: in Greek democratic society, ties of family have to be subordinated to those socially constructed ties which constitute the political system.’ (2000, p.71). So society, rather than family, wins out. Yet contradictions abound. Many characters of Greek mythology are ambiguous in gender. Characters are often androgynous in fact, and women are just as powerful as men; men just as subject to their feelings as women. The age-old battle of the sexes was alive and kicking in ancient Greece. Wiles details the final scene of Eumenides (the third play of Oresteia) when ‘Athene makes her peace with the Furies, and gives them a home in a cave beneath the Areopagus, the crag on which the court sat’ (2000, p.71). Here again is an example of how the play is protected from censorship by the sheer dreamlike quality of its setting. Although the classical narratives deal with crime and punishment, pertinent issues for the ancient Greek, they also turn such issues into rhetoric; fodder for debate and analysis, but not as a way of deciding new laws for Athens. Their purpose is not to decide the law, but to question it and any other institutions that hold sway over the polis. Wiles gives possible metaphors as reasons for Athene’s actions, one of which is ‘Women are equated with forces of political instability: if the lower orders of society are not accommodated the power structure will collapse’ (2000, p.71).   
The theatre may equally be regarded as a female arena. The androgynous nature of Greek symbolism – nude figures on vases, and athletes at the Olympic games where nudity was the norm – may justifiably allow for the theatre, where men go to be entertained, as representative of the mistress he does not want to be seen with. Helene Cixous, in her seminal essay, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, declares that men have mobilized ‘their great strength against themselves, to be the executants of their virile needs. They have made for women an antinarcissism! A narcissism which loves itself only to be loved for what women haven’t got! They have constructed the infamous logic of antilove!’ (2001, p.2042). This is rather obscure, but the point she is trying to make is that the inequality in society is mirrored in literature, where woman has no female literary tradition from which to create her own artistic identity. But the theatre of ancient Greece seemed to be a space where man felt her absence. She had to be invented by actors. Although women were restricted from entering, their exclusion had to be confirmed by some kind of acknowledgement of their absence, and for this reason she was recreated within the arena. Thus society’s age-old battle of the sexes was also represented on the stage of ancient Greece.
O Brother Where Art Thou is a film directly influenced by Greek myth. Essentially it is a retelling of the same story but in a different time and space, illustrating the malleable nature of ancient Greek drama. The events take place in America in the 1930s, a far cry from the warm Hellenic, but such is the versatility of Greek myth that events can take place anywhere in whichever time, and still reveal imitations of the genre. The film mimics the myth of Ulysses, as related in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Characters in the film bear startling similarities to those of Homer’s, from the escaped con Ulysses Everett McGill who pays homage to the protagonist of the original text, to Big Dan Teaque who has only one eye and is a reference to the cyclops Polyphemus. It is not only the characters that define how directly influenced the film is to Greek myth, but also the presence and use of devices such as katabasis and constant identity changes. The plotline is briefly summarised as three prisoners escape from their chain gang and go in search of hidden treasure. The plot is thicker than this of course but the embarking on a journey is the most significant element to note at this juncture as it exemplifies an instance of katabasis in modern film: Everett must survive a sequence of threatening events in order to finally reach his destination. He must also use his wits and in this sense he closely embodies Homer’s Ulysses, who was known alternatively as Odysseus the Cunning, and whose intellect is frequently fundamental to his survival. This is similarly the approach of the protagonist in O Brother Where Art Thou. There is a moment in the film when Everett is angrily asked, ‘Who elected you leader of this outfit?’ to which he replies openly, ‘Well Pete, I figured it should be the one with the capacity for abstract thought.’. The twists and turns of the plot certainly challenge the fugitives to think fast and creatively as they try desperately to stay ahead of the law. The methods they employ to maintain their freedom are varied and one which is particularly interesting to note is the constant switching of guises that occurs repeatedly throughout the film. Everett and his two partners-in-crime masquerade as a band, and give themselves the name of The Soggy Bottom Boys. They also pretend to be members of the Ku Klux Klan in order to infiltrate the sect and save their black guitar player from murder. The Sirens, who the fugitives come across in the river, are devilishly camouflaged, to the extent that they appear to be the opposite of what they truly are. Also the leader of the Ku Klux Klan is actually a governmental candidate. All these cases of double-identity and deception hark back to the practice in Greek theatre of the actor constantly changing role and appearance.
Another parallel with Homer’s The Odyssey is in the appearance of cattle. In the film Oh Brother Where Art Thou, one character known as George Nelson, who is also a criminal, shoots some cows. In Homer’s epic poem cattle are also attacked, but they are sacred cattle belonging to the sun god and as a consequence Zeus smites Ulysses’ whole crew with lightning as a form of revenge. In a mirroring of this Everett comes across George again, on his way to the electric chair, which must be a morbid parody of Zeus’ lightning scythes. The significance of the cattle is in line with a trend in Greek mythology that perceived strong, muscular, healthy animals as symbolic of virility, prosperity and wisdom. The plethora of mammals to be found in mythology is significant, as almost always there will be a part of them which will be particularly symbolic or lucky; possibly a horn, a fleece, or a wing for example. There is a trend in Greek mythology to combine the supposed best parts of a variety of animals, leading to the creation of weird powerful beasts, such as the minotaur, the sphinx, the centaur, the satyr, and so forth. As a result almost any other narrative that features animals in the same fashion will be borrowing from this ancient trove.
The story of Oedipus is undeniably borrowed from by Shakespeare; we can see traces of it particularly in Macbeth, which sees ominous prophecies being fulfilled and the fallacies exposed which lead to the fall of what could potentially have been a great man. As Sigmund Freud writes, ‘The action of the play consists in nothing other than the process of revealing, with cunning delays and ever-mounting excitement - a process that can be likened to the work of a psychoanalyst – that Oedipus himself is the murderer of Laius, but further that he is the son of the murdered man and of Jocasta’ (2001, p.920). Oedipus is another example of the obsession of classical drama for moral and ethical dilemmas, as has been seen in Oresteia. It is not so much events that are the focus of the narrative, but the aftermath of events, again a technique identifiable in Shakespearean plays (Romeo and Juliet for example, opens in the middle of the story as it is unfolding). Just as the legal judgment of Clytemnestra is a central chapter to her myth so most of Sophocles’ tragedy focuses on the search for a murderer. This unique focus of the narrative is what has lead Oedipus to be cited as the original detective story. In 1967 Pier Paolo Pasolini made Oedipus Rex, which starts out in pre-war Italy and then moves back in time to the classical era. In the film the Sphinx makes an appearance, and illustrates the versatility of cinematography that allows for mythical creatures of ancient Greece to be visualised on screen. It is also this fantastical creature that may be the justification for why classic Greek narratives have remained a very specialist arena. The wealth of meaning and complexity of Greek mythology is such that it is nigh on impossible to effectively portray it on the silver screen for the rest of the world. Drama and tragedy is tightly interwoven with myth and all three have developed over hundreds of years to create a narrative heritage that is from the land of Greece itself. This heritage is three dimensional, psychological, interactive and as much a fabric of the country as is the Parthenon. The Sphinx is integral to the story of Oedipus, which is festooned with incest, patricide and dark prophesy; aspects which are at their most believable when they are but alluded to. When cinema attempts to recreate myths and legends it fails to do so seriously because of the inevitable comedy that accompanies any life-sized model of a half-human, half lion. It all too easily becomes farce and mockery.
The Trojan Women (1971) is an especially relevant film to make, as Cacoyannis knew, as it dealt with the lives of women in the aftermath of war. Their situation is one that is reflective of that of so many women throughout history and up to the present day. They are frequently the ones left behind to pick up the pieces from the wreckage. Thus the miseries of Hecuba, Andromache, Cassandra and Helen of Troy are especially resonant to the contemporary audience. It doesn’t matter that the presentation of individual stories cannot be the same as the original because the theme is so wide reaching. Conversely Iphigenia (1977) deals with a topic that audiences would find impossible to empathise with – that of infanticide. Certainly, it can be used to illustrate the severance of parent and child and thus can be applied as a metaphor for any number of situations. Where there is conflict within a family, for instance, or where there is growth of urban sprawl and people are no longer in touch with their roots, the story of Iphigenia acts as a reflection of these severances within society.
The indirect influence of Greek drama and myth in modern cinema is just as relevant and perhaps even more prevalent and identifiable than the direct influence. To demonstrate this it is useful to refer to successful narratives of Greek plays and to point out where formulas from Greek tragedy have been applied, often unconsciously, in film plotlines.  
To support claims about Shakespeare’s usage of certain elements and plot techniques of Greek drama Winkler states that ‘myth informs most narrative literature’ and as proof of this ‘one may point to the ubiquitous and wholesale adaptation of Greek myth by Roman and early medieval writers’ (2001, p.24). Further examples of the influence of Greek drama and myth in modern cinema, though less directly, are offered by Holtsmark in his essay, ‘The Katabasis Theme in Modern Cinema’. He establishes the existence of katabasis in most genres, from westerns to science-fiction films, and awards Odysseus as the original script over which all other films are traced. Here, he has identified, perhaps, the point at which categorisation of Greek drama occurs, for the concept of ‘the hero who survives the journey through hell’ (2001, p.30) is at the heart of so many cinema plotlines played out across the celluloid world. Katabasis is an example of one of the literary devices that, when employed as a filmic device, is guaranteed to strike a cord in most members of the audience and leads to reviewers and critics giving the film such accolades as ‘pure escapism’ and ‘epic’. Films where katabasis is identifiable are infinite in number, and even the less obvious ones will demonstrate some element of it. Examples are Thelma and Louise (1991), Star Wars (1977), The Lord of the Rings (2001), E.T. (1982), Jurassic Park (1993), Castaway (2000) and Into the Wild (2007), to name a few. All of the films cited are at one point or another concerned with the journey of the protagonist and the adventures that befall him or her on the way. The metaphors of Greek drama are readily identifiable in modern film. In his synopsis of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) Holtsmark analyses the entrance to the town’s bar, ‘these saloon doors have appeared numerous times before and have become a kind of iconic short hand for entrance into a zone of danger, that is, a katabatic realm. One may note that a common euphemism in classical myth for the underworld was pylae (“gates, entryway”)’ (2001, p.32). The focus on such tangible elements of the stage and their subsequent textual significance ties into the influence of mise-en-scene upon the audience and for the plot events.
The importance of katabasis for the protagonist ought not to be underestimated, and another element of Greek theory which ensures that it is not, is the pressure upon the individual to ‘know thyself’, a ‘Delphic injunction’ from Greek philosophy ‘repeated in countless guises throughout Greek literature’ (2001, p.33) according to Holtsmark. A plenitude to be certain of who you are is seemingly at odds to the Greek theatricals of constant character change as discussed earlier. It is evidently very necessary to understand that the individual has an essence – maybe they can wear any array of cloth or expression but innately they cannot be changed.
Horace informs us of the occasion when theatre started to develop: ‘After him came Aeschylus, the inventor of the mask and splendid robe; he gave the stage a floor of modest boards, and taught the actors to talk big and give themselves height by their high boots’ (2001, p.130). One of the best-known conventions of Greek theatre was the mask, worn by both the actors and the chorus. This is something that is rarely employed now in adaptations of Greek drama, but which at the time was a vital part of performance. The mask enabled changes of gender, age, class and so on, but also, by virtue of its immovable features, meant that body language and posture were extremely important in achieving the feelings of the character. The Mask (1994) is a film in which the power of wearing a mask, and consequently becoming someone else, is very effectively established. Although the allusions in the film are mainly to the Norse god Loki, the wearing of the mask becomes a performance and draws strong parallels to its prolific presence on the traditional Greek stage. It changes the character of the shy protagonist and he becomes an alter ego of his everyday self. The mask itself is depicted as having a consciousness and is not worn so much as it wears the individual. In a contrary manner the Greek actor is envisioned as part of a greater thing – his wearing of the mask is not in order to bring out his own personality, but to represent the character of the tragedy or drama. He is a mouthpiece, announcing the grievances and passions of a well-established persona, whether they be mythical or in existence, to that of the audience and chorus.
Horace also states, ‘The hitherto unknown genre of the tragic Muse is said to be Thespis’ invention: he is supposed to have carried on a cart verses to be sung and acted by performers whose faces were smeared with wine-lees.’ (2001, p.130). The fact that Greek tragedy is, before Thespis, believed to have come from dithyrambs sung to Dionysus lends weight to the idea of the genre as being far more than just entertainment. It is elevated to have a function almost divine in nature, in the way in which it is perceived as a mode of communicating with the gods. It provides some basis for the later significance of the chorus and the idea that this body is representative of the people, from whom an individual is chosen as spokesperson for society.
In ‘A Defence of Poetry’ Percy Shelley talks about the greatness of Greek theatre as it ‘is as a prismatic and many-sided mirror, which collects the brightest rays of human nature and divides and reproduces them’ (2001, p.703). The work of Cacoyannis and Pasolini are interesting examples of how some bold directors and visionaries have transformed ancient plays into the modern medium of film and attempted to retain the subtle representations of human nature that Shelley praises. This is why the two directors are so concerned with sticking closely to the scripts and the subject-matter of those scripts; for to deviate too much would be to fall out of sequence with the finely-tuned whole.
This dissertation has looked at the relationship between the audience and stage and the audience and the screen, as well as the significance of this relationship for the individual and for the community. It has considered the similarities and differences between the production of an ancient play and a modern film, and cited examples of each. There has been a concentrated attempt to address the social and political context of Greece when the ancient plays were performed, with reference to the function the chorus played in challenging the state. The division between men and women has also been touched upon and how this in turn was challenged by the theatre. There has also been an appraisal of the social and political context of the world today and how this is manifested in film. This essay has discussed the direct and indirect influence of Greek drama and myth in modern film, and cited the films of Cacoyannis and Pasolini as case studies. There has been discussion about the subject matter of these films and why the directors felt the need to stick so closely to the ancient scripts. O Brother Where Art Thou is an example of a film directly influenced by Greek myth, while films such as Chinatown are far less directly influenced by it. Other elements that have been discussed have been the various formulas and conventions that characterise and identify Greek drama and myth. There is always the danger of a divide between what has been termed ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture respectively and in this study this is between the ‘kitsch’ drama and tragedy of Greek culture and its more ‘refined’ elements. The fact that the films of Cacoyannis and Pasolini never received the accolades that the blockbusters did is perhaps due to the complexity of their chosen narratives. There is nothing easy about these ancient mythologies. They investigate unsettling notions on identity, family and society, and are too nightmarish in substance for the popcorn-munching audiences of mainstream cinema. It may also be that their ubiquitous presence in literature and script means that they have no home, but, like Odysseus, must be content with the eternal journey. Nisbet’s point earlier will ever hold true; there is the blockbuster cinema, or the art-house cinema, but nowhere niche enough for the classical plays of ancient Greece.


Cixous, H., 1975, 1976. The Laugh of the Medusa. In V. B. Leitch, ed. 2001. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company. 2035–2056.

Easterling, Pat & Hall, Edith. 2002. Greek and Roman Actors. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press.

Easterling, P. E., 1997. Constructing the Heroic. In C. Pelling, ed. Greek Tragedy and the Historian. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 21-37.

Foley, H., 2004. Bad Women: Gender Politics in Late Twentieth-Century Performance and Revision of Greek Tragedy. In Hall, E. & Macintosh, F. & Wrigley, A. eds., Dionysus Since 69: Greek Tragedy at the Dawn of the Third Millennium. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 77-111.

Freud, S., 1900, 1929. The Interpretation of Dreams. In V. B. Leitch, ed. 2001. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company. 913-956.

Holtsmark, E. B., 2001. The Katabasis Theme in Modern Cinema. In M. M. Winkler. ed. Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 23-50.

Horace, Ars Poetica. ca. 10 B. C. E. In V. B. Leitch, ed. 2001. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company. 121-135.

Nisbet, Gideon. 2006. Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture. Exeter: Bristol Phoenix Press.

Shelley, P. B., 1840. A Defence of Poetry. In V. B. Leitch, ed. 2001. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company. 695-717.

Solomon, Jon. 2001.The Ancient World in Cinema. Yale & London: Yale University Press.

Wiles, David. 2000. Greek Theatre Production: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Winkler, Martin M., 2009. Cinema and Classical Texts. Apollo’s New Light. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Winkler, Martin M., 2001. Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press.