The Cambridge Greek Play

Posted on 12th August 2021 by simonbeattie

Yesterday I published my annual summer Theatre list, and I thought I would share here details of one of the items featured.

It is a series of etchings published to commemorate the first Cambridge Greek Play, from 1883.

‘The tradition of performing a Greek play in Cambridge goes back to 1882, when the very first production was of Sophocles’ tragedy Ajax.  The two producers were not classicists in the strict sense: the first was John Willis Clark, superintendent of the Museum of Zoology who possessed a passionate interest in the theatre.  The other was Charles Waldstein, a classical archaeologist.

‘From the first, the plays were intended to be effective drama as well as accurate reconstructions of the ancient Greek productions.  The producers were inspired by the opportunity to stage the plays rather than to read them as texts, and to make a wider audience aware of the particular strengths of Greek tragedy and comedy.  “Directness and vitality” was the ideal, according to Waldstein.  Even in the nineteenth century it was accepted that most of the audience were not sufficiently fluent in Greek to follow the play, and a printed English translation was provided.

Ajax was a triumph and was followed by Aristophanes’ comedy Birds in the following year.  The plays flourished during the nineteenth century amid the contemporary passion for all things classical’ (Vanessa Lacey, archivist to the Cambridge Greek Play Committee).

‘The Ajax of Sophocles was chosen, partly perhaps because it had only one female character (A. R. Macklin of Caius was a great success as Tecmessa).  The other great success was J[ames]. K[enneth]. Stephen as Ajax.  “Subject to the divine frenzy, there is madness in his distorted face and rolling eye”, said the Daily News.  People remembered it poignantly when, a few years later, this cousin of Virginia Woolf did indeed go mad’ (L. P. Wilkinson, ibid.).  Other performers in the first play included A. C. Benson and the composer Arthur Somervell. Here is a full cast list:

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