Thursday, November 5, 2015


Thomas E. Jenkins, Antiquity Now: The Classical World in the Contemporary American Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. viii, 253. ISBN 9780521196260. $99.99.

Reviewed by Justine McConnell, University of Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site


It is not often that you find yourself chuckling at a choice turn of phrase or unexpected observation when reading an academic book, but Thomas Jenkins' accessible and astute monograph elicits this reaction on a fairly regular basis. The relaxed style of writing doesn't betray a lack of intellectual rigour, but it does remind readers that the modern works under examination were, for the most part, intended to appeal to wide-ranging audiences and can be analysed in equally accessible terms. Antiquity Now promises to focus on the contemporary American reception of the classical world, and is profitably divided into sections broadly focused on gay and lesbian receptions of the ancient world; classics and ideology; September 11th on stage; race and ethnicity; feminism; and ecocriticism. The result is a book that will be of great interest to scholars working in these specific areas of classical reception, as well as proving useful for those teaching modules on classical reception, particularly as the book's configuration suggests a thematic course structure that has the additional benefit of avoiding accusations that the ancient is prioritized over the modern.

The introduction confronts this latter thorny issue, with a brief précis of the debates surrounding the terminology of the 'classical tradition' versus 'classical reception'. It is a pity that Silk, Gildenhard, and Barrow's The Classical Tradition (2014) must have been published too late to be included in Jenkins' discussion: their approaches to 'reception' and to popular culture are so very different that it would be interesting to see one in dialogue with the other. Jenkins' interest and the focus of his book, is, he proclaims, 'adaptations of ancient texts and themes that are outrageously, violently, wonderfully un-literal' (p. 29). Not fearing the ire of conservative classicists, Jenkins opens his volume with Buffy the Vampire Slayer before going on to explore some territory familiar to those working on classical reception (e.g. Richard Schechner's Dionysus in 69, Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, and Frank Miller's 300), some less familiar (Mark Merlis' An Arrow's Flight, Craig Lucas' Small Tragedy, for example), and some that Jenkins' work will surely help propel towards the 'canon' of classical reception (such as Luis Alfaro's Electridad, Oedipus el Rey, and Bruja).

The motivation underlying Jenkins' choice of case-studies and his analysis of them offers a welcome antidote to the too-easy assertion that something 'universal' lies at the heart of the continued appeal of classical literature. On the contrary, Jenkins claims, these works flourish in the modern era when they can illuminate specific contemporary concerns, such as gender, ethnicity, and politics. Hence the chosen foci of his chapters, which he readily admits are influenced by his own identity as a twenty-first-century American. Indeed, the book's subtitle, 'The Classical World in the Contemporary American Imagination' hints at something slightly different from that which emerges: it is hard not to be startled by the inclusion of Seamus Heaney, Conall Morrison, Barry Unsworth, Carol Ann Duffy, or Margaret Atwood in a volume that purports to focus on the United States (the wider Americas are not discussed beyond Atwood). Jenkins admits this in a footnote early on (p. 30, n. 61), describing the 'hand-wringing' that accompanied the inclusion of 'American' in the title, but I still wish it had been rephrased slightly. That said, Heaney's The Burial at Thebes and Morrison's The Bacchae of Baghdad clearly are influenced by, and comment on, the political situation in the United States at the time, and their inclusion is welcome, notwithstanding the slight misnomer of the book's title.

Throughout the volume, Jenkins reads contemporary popular culture with the critical apparatus routinely afforded to more elite and established art forms. The opening discussion of Buffy, for example, argues that Sappho's 'Hymn to Aphrodite', tattooed onto the back of one of the young heroines by her female lover, signifies the lesbian relationship between the two by the mutual 'queering' of Buffy by Sappho, and Sappho by Buffy's maker, Joss Whedon. So far, so reception studies: it has long since been established that works of classical reception can illuminate the ancient world just as revealingly as the ancient illuminates the modern. But Jenkins takes an intriguing side-step away from this: in 'queering' antiquity (or enacting any other kind of transformation born out of modern culture, be that feminism, racial equality, or ecocriticism) he suggests that such contemporary receptions move us further away from a historically accurate vision of the ancient world, even while the classical lens bring us closer to understanding how these issues are configured in the modern imagination (p. 94).

The second chapter (by far the longest in the book) continues the focus on gay and lesbian receptions of antiquity begun in the introduction, with analysis of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and All About Love (two musicals inspired by Plato's Symposium), Schechner's Dionysus in 69 (Euripides' Bacchae), Merlis' An Arrow's Flight (Sophocles' Philoctetes), Eric Shanower's graphic novel Age of Bronze (the Epic Cycle), and Alice Tuan's Ajax (Por Nobody), as well as some examples of academic responses to sexuality in antiquity. The latter includes a college textbook on classical mythology that, having relied heavily on an ideologically skewed modern source itself, in turn presents a highly subjective view of Greek myth. This issue of the influential role of an educational environment in the dissemination of the classical world recurs twice more in the book, and is clearly crucial to the way antiquity figures in a nation's cultural imagination. Thus, in the following chapter's discussion of the openly partisan Young Adult book, Dateline: Troy, we learn that its target audience of middle-school students will be treated to — alongside their Greek myths — some pointedly pacifist rhetoric decrying U.S. foreign policy. Relatedly, a reconstruction of the Prometheus trilogy by Harold and Ruth Birnbaum is seen to give Zeus a final speech of Judaeo-Christian creationism, just four years before the Louisiana legislature wrote into law that creationism and evolution should be allocated equal teaching time in public schools (pp.216-220).

The third and fourth chapters are fairly closely linked, being devoted to 'Classics and Ideology' (particularly contemporary political ideologies) and 'September 11th on the Western Stage'. The focus on the United States comes to the fore here, and there is interesting work on a number of responses to the Persian Wars (including those by the performance group, Waterwell, the graphic novelist Frank Miller, the film-makers Zack Snyder and Oliver Stone, and playwrights Heaney and Morrison), which have inevitably dominated American dialogues with classical antiquity since the First Gulf War. Likewise, prominent plays by Ellen McLaughlin (Helen) and Mary Zimmerman (Metamorphoses) receive welcome analysis.

At a number of moments, Jenkins' concise approach to the works he examines left me wishing to hear more: the notion that Alexander should be seen as the first in Stone's George W. Bush trilogy (p. 123), for example, and Kurzanki and Hopkins' comic book version of Antigone that opens with images of Tiananmen Square, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Kent State Massacre, and the attack on the Twin Towers, are both treated all too briefly. Likewise, the idea that a work such as Bill T. Jones' The Bacchae Project could contribute to national political discourse (p. 136), rather than merely respond to it, is one that it would have been interesting to see explored in more depth.

In contrast, two of the most rewarding sections of the book are those in which Jenkins allows himself the luxury of space to formulate his argument. Lucas' rendition of the Oedipus story, Small Tragedy (pp. 152-157) and Alfaro's three Greek plays (pp. 165-183) both receive rich treatment, with Jenkins demonstrating the ways in which their sometimes radical re- moulding of the ancient sources foregrounds their social and political context. Eschewing the better-known African-American writers who have engaged with classical antiquity (though pointing readers to some of the scholarship in that area), Jenkins turns to a thinly-veiled musical retelling of the story of the girl-band The Supremes, and the way in which Cleopatra and debates regarding her race feature in it. Analysis of underappreciated works such as this is one of the most gratifying elements of the book, though it is a pity to have no space dedicated to any African-American writers or directors (other than a brief mention of Will Power's The Seven) in this section on race in the States.

The final chapter turns to feminist responses to classical epic, offering detailed readings of Atwood's Penelopiad and Ursula LeGuin's Lavinia. Jenkins ultimately argues that while these two twenty-first century novels give voice to the women previously silenced in Homer and Virgil, they simultaneously reinscribe themselves only ever in the margins of those epics by adhering so closely to the ancient plotlines. This chapter on 'power, the canon, and the unexpected voice' concludes with a short section on eco-criticism slightly awkwardly tacked on, although its content in and of itself (on modern ecological re-readings of Plato and Ovid) is interesting.

Antiquity Now is a very welcome addition to the scholarship being done on contemporary classical receptions. One of its greatest strengths, in my view, is Jenkins' exploration of a number of lesser-known works, combined with his ability to analyse art forms across a range of media with equal authority and confidence. Ideally, the book might have tackled the ways in which the reception of classical antiquity in the United States differs from that in other parts of the world, explaining what is particularly and peculiarly American about his case studies (other than the nationality of their creators or their place of composition or performance). But perhaps that is an impossible task without first undertaking a project of global reach, and Jenkins' book not only offers a great deal to those working on classical reception, but will no doubt provide the fertile soil from which much new research will grow.

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