A New Trend: Reviving Greek Classics

A New Trend: Reviving Greek Classics


Whether it’s Shakespeare in space or Antigone in occupied France during World War ll, classics are making a comeback. In the last few decades many producers and directors are scrutinizing classic Greek plays such as Oedipus Rex, Medea or even  Electra for creative inspiration. This has developed into a common trend  to adapt ancient works for the modern stage. Greek tragedies, especially now, are used to emphasize social and political messages. In lieu of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial tensions, and police brutality on under represented groups, Theater of War Productions presented an adaptation of Antigone called, “Antigone in Ferguson,” which directly dealt with present social and political issues involving black and brown communities. In an article commenting on the recent trend, Helen Foley states, “Greek tragedy permits a political response to irresolvable, extreme situations without being crudely topical.” 1 The heightened extremity and archetypal nature of Greek plays lend themselves to comment on moral issues in an almost satirical yet distanced manner which does not undermine the integrity of the issue. It offers great opportunity in encompassing the progressive voices now emerging in present protest. The unique yet universal characteristics of Greek tragedy offer modern directors a creative freedom with both language and interpretation that facilitates space for activism. The elements of Greek tragedy are what allow these plays to resonate with modern audiences at a human level and facilitate modern activist explorations of their ancient messages. 

To examine how the elements of Greek tragedy enhance and create space for modern interpretation, I am using The National Theatre’s 2014 production of Medea as a model. 

Based on the original myth of Jason and Medea, Euripedes’ Medea, follows the character of Medea who has now been brought to Corinth by her husband Jason. She laments the loss of her love as Jason has been sleeping with the king’s daughter, princess Glauce, for political ambition. The plot then follows Medea’s scheme of revenge on Jason for his immoral actions which results in the murder of the princess as well as Medea’s own children. 

The revenge story of Medea is relatively straightforward and simple, which is a great draw for modern directors to find ways to manipulate the context around such a storyline. The definition of Greek tragedy in accordance with Aristotle’s Poetics is, “is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude;” 2 In the story of Medea this can be interpreted as Jason’s act of cheating on his wife. This is the act that drives the plot’s conflict. The serious implications can refer to Medea’s revenge plot which ultimately ends in the murder of her own children. Though the act may in itself seem relatively minor, the grave and heightened implications that this action leads to are what characterize it as a Greek tragedy. Though the acts are amplified in a dramatic sense, the acts are not hyper specific to a distinct social or historical context.  A director can displace the idea of a husband cheating on his wife with another woman to gain political power out of the original Greek context and setting to apply it to a modern audience. The original story is an imitation of the dramatic action, by being a retelling of the original Greek myth, but our adaptations also contribute to this idea of imitation by creating our own modern spins. 

The National Theatre does this by shifting the story to modern day through set and costume design choices. The play opens with Medea’s two sons watching television in sleeping bags. These modern components are present throughout the play with examples such as Medea herself smoking a cigarette and the wedding scene between Glauce and Jason having elements of a modern wedding such as a three tier cake. The actors are all dressed in  timelessly modern attire, which reflects both ancient elements and fashion of the last century.  Jason is dressed in a suit and Medea wears  a casual sleeveless top and cargo pants. These modern fashion elements are blended with Greek references such as Medea’s pleated white flowing romper that references the style of ancient Greek dresses and fabric. 

The modernity added to the piece allows audiences to further relate to the story line by seeing what they would see in real life. Situating the play according to the needs of the social and historical context of the time allows audiences to empathize and connect with the piece. Audiences can then place themselves within the context of the story and find ways to connect with the universal themes as it applies to their experience. This is what allows modern audiences to resonate with the adaptation of classics. The structure of the story and implementation of an action with severe consequences is a bold and straightforward structure that allows directors to easily displace such a situation to cater to the experiences of the audience. 

The archetypal nature of Greek characters also allows for a multitude of directorial opportunities. When describing the dynamic flexibility of Greek plays, Foley states, “ it is also amenable to both changes of venue and to multiracial casting.”3 In an age where now diversity has become a prominent issue both in the workforce and specifically on stage, this becomes a crucial selling point to producers when considering Greek plays. The characters are broad and open imitations or representations of ideas and emotions that they are not limited by superficial qualities or appearance. In this version of Medea, Jason and the nurse were both African American actors. Medea played by Helen McCrory, a white actress, and  Medea’s children were a reflection of the interracial relationship present. Overall the cast, and especially the chorus was full of racial diversity and was not biased toward a singular racial group. The roles offered a greater sense of inclusivity and flexibility to actors. 

Aristotle describes Tragedy as being, “an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life,”4 This describes how characters are just manifestations of the elements of the story, they are representations of larger ideas and universal themes present in the text. Medea can be seen as a representation of women under societal pressure by their husbands and the patriarchy. Medea is simply to accept that her husband sleeps with another woman due to the societal position of women at the time. She is a representation for a group of people, of their pain, their suffering, their resentment and their experience. Although she is an individual, she represents a whole, which leaves immense casting flexibility and opportunity. Helen McCrory does a phenomenal job in The National Theatre production of portraying the raw emotion women harbor when suffocated under societal pressure and gender expectations. Her Medea is anger, pain, and grief to the absolute. It is terrifyingly heightened and present through the stark emotionality of her monologues. She speaks not for herself, but for all the women of the world who resonate with her experience: anyone who has suffered under societal pressure, been wronged by a man, been undermined by men in authority, or simply felt unwanted or unheard.

By having characters embody such large ideas, Greek plays become vehicles for political and social activism. Aristotle states, “Character is that which reveals moral purpose, showing what kind of things a man chooses or avoids.”5 This embodies how characters are designed to facilitate  the confrontation of the human experience. It expresses that these plays are rooted in human instinct and how we as individuals react to the world around us. When you recontextualize these characters who inhabit the story as representations of moral and philosophical ideologies, they become modern morality plays that can be shaped to fit the needs of the present moment. 

The presence of the chorus, which is unique to traditional Greek theater, is another component that greatly allows for vast opportunities in modern adaptation. The chorus is a body of voices that collectively represents an aspect of the audience. In Oedipus Rex, the chorus is a representation of the people of Thebes. In Antigone, the chorus represents those oppressed by Creon, and in Medea the chorus is seen as the women in Greek society. The chorus traditionally speaks or sings together in unison, but in The National Theatre adaptation, the chorus members were each assigned individual lines from the play. By breaking this ancient convention, it made the adaptation more humanistic and natural. It emphasized more individuality within the chorus. You feel a poignant individuality with  each line spoken out by these individual characters, yet their movements were fluid and coordinated. Their costumes would blend together, yet sometimes they would be posed at sharp and distinct angles. There was this constant conflict between individuality and unity or rigidity and fluidity. By emphasizing individuality the chorus gave voices to women who went unheard, but by coordinating them and unifying them through movement their pain and experiences were the same. Like this interpretation of the chorus, there is much freedom for directors to manipulate how these voices are used, how the masses are communicated to audiences. By having this physical collective as a part of a production it establishes that there are suppressed perspectives and voices, and from an activist perspective allows the audience a clear distinction between the powerplay of characters which grants a clearer view of the message being emphasized. 

One of the most human and universal elements of Greek tragedy, catharsis, is greatly why its reception is so popular and powerful today. Aristotle states that, “Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect.”6 This element  can be identified as Catharsis or The Tragic Wonder. The striking ending of Medea in which she follows through with her revenge to the point of murdering her own children is an example of emotional catharsis. It is the release of this pent up anger, sadness, resent, hatred, and raw pain. This is the moment of release which is so powerful. In the staging of this production the murder happens offstage, but the visual effects and silhouette of Medea committing this violent acts makes this moment stand out so much more as the audience is left to imagine for themselves the gore and cruelty of the actual act. Medea’s catharsis ends with her completely covered in blood which also amplifies the gravity of the act. Before and after the moment, Helen McCrory walks up to the edge of the edge baring her heart to the audience, one in pure white and the other covered in the blood of her children.  The expression of emotion in the moment of catharsis is greatly what makes these plays human. This is what drives audiences to watch classics. The dissonance of heightened text and archetypal characters is not what people come for, it is to be drawn in and compelled by the raw human experience that lives in these works. 

In a review of The National Theatre’s production it states, “ ‘My heart is wrenched in two,’ McCrory [as Medea]  announces at one point; and throughout, her Medea switches, with brilliant volatility, from the manipulative to the murderous to the unpredictably humane.”7 McCrory’s performance emphasizes the humanity of Medea through her manipulation of emotions. It also does not paint Medea in a starkly innocent light, but rather embraces the humanity of her moral ambiguity. Tragic heroes are never good or bad, but rather toe a fine line between the two. This is what cultivates empathy from the audience and makes these pieces so powerful. Though they have elements of artificiality and dramatized heightened elements, they are all rooted in a sense of humanity that each audience member can attune to; whether it’s back in Thebes or on the moon, humans are still humans. 




  1. Foley, Helene P. “Modern Performance and Adaptation of Greek Tragedy.” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-) 129 (1999): 2.
  2. Aristotle, Poetics, Translated by S. H. Butcher (New York: MacMillan, 1925), 23.
  3. Foley, “Modern Performance”, 2
  4. Aristotle, Poetics, 27
  5. Aristotle, Poetics, 29
  6. Aristotle, Poetics, 39
  7. Billington, Michael. “Medea Review – Carrie Cracknell’s Version Is a Tragic Force to Be Reckoned With.” the Guardian, July 22, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/jul/22/medea-carrie-cracknell-helen-mccrory-national-theatre-review.
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