Sunday, October 6, 2019


Fiona Macintosh, Justine McConnell, S. J. Harrison, Claire Kenward (ed.), Epic Performances from the Middle Ages into the Twenty-First Century. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xx, 643. ISBN 9780198804215. $155.00.

Reviewed by Hendrik Müller, Hochschule Fresenius (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

In recent years the number of performances of epic on stage has increased enormously. In Germany alone a theatrical production of the Odyssey was shown at the Thalia Theater Hamburg in 2017, and a new version by Roland Schimmelpfennig at the Staatsschauspiel Dresden has been announced for the autumn of 2019.1 In the US one could mention the Chicago Court Theatre's one-man Iliad in 2011 and Paper Cinema's live animation of the Odyssey in 2012 a year later. This clearly shows that audiences worldwide enjoy performances of epic material—a phenomenon that is, however, far from new and can in fact be traced in European culture over the past centuries.

One of the achievements of the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama (APGRD), founded in 1996 by Edith Hall and Oliver Taplin at Oxford University, is its focus since 2000 on these epic performances on the European stage. The current volume is the result of its three-year research program 'Performing Epic,' which was supported by the Leverhulme fund. The volume was co-edited by APGRD director Fiona MacIntosh, Stephen Harrison, the Archive's researcher Claire Kenward, and Justine McConnell, who is well-known for her work on the reception of Greek drama. It contains no fewer than 36 contributions from various scholars, and with more than 600 pages is quite an impressive outcome of the research program, which aimed to collect the reception of Greek and Roman epic across all performance genres from the Middle Ages into the 21st century. One important goal of the Archive´s research was to embrace the reception of epic literature in any performance medium, so that it includes not only reception in obvious genres like theatre or opera, but also adaptations in dance, film, and radio.

The range of contributors is not surprisingly as wide as the abundance of topics. The list contains researchers from different academic disciplines in various stages of their career, including some with experience in performance. The volume's publishers have divided the numerous papers into five parts in order to structure the content, although one can identify quite a number of connecting themes between these parts. Within each part of eight papers (apart from the shorter first part) the contributions are presented in a rough chronological order. As it is an impossible task to review all the contributions of the volume, this review will offer only a short overview. Nonetheless, whenever I go a little more into detail about individual contributions, this is based solely on my subjective choice and specific interest and is not meant as a judgement of quality.

The first part of the book, labelled 'Defining terms,' starts with Fiona Macintosh's introductory paper (pp.3-15). Three other contributions follow, including one from the practitioners' side. MacIntosh explains in detail how the members of the project defined 'Epic content' and 'Epic form' as a long narrative hexameter poem in Greek or Latin. She also points out that the reworking of epic material already started in antiquity, and that the authors of Greek tragedy initiated the migration of the Homeric epics to the theatre. But the long tradition of epic performances on stage in modern European culture also includes Latin authors of Epic poetry: a number of well-known operas of the 17th and 18th century by composers like Handel and Purcell were clearly inspired by motives and characters from the Aeneid and Ovid´s Metamorphoses.2 But apart from these obvious examples of epic reception, Macintosh mentions a technique that 20th-century German playwright Berthold Brecht called Verfremdung (alienation). Brecht deliberately used it in his practical theatrical work—clearly contrasting the Aristotelian view of tragedy—to block the audience's emotional response and engage them in reflecting on contemporary social realities. 3 Although "the epic performances discussed here do not adopt in any systematic fashion" (p.4) this concept, Brecht's theoretical approach has been helpful to analyse epic stage performances. Likewise his attempt to create what we might call Epic folk theatre has changed our understanding of epic itself: This view is supported by Tim Supple (pp. 46-59) who, as a renowned theatre practitioner, examines not only his own work but that of various practitioners around the world. As a result, he concludes the introductory part by defining essential elements of 'epic' theatre that are valid from a worldwide perspective.

The second part of the volume bears the title 'Crossing genres' and reveals in detail how epic has become part of performative genres through other literary genres. The important intermediate role of the ancient Greek plays is underlined by Pollard, who demonstrates in that the epics' early modern reception in the form of sixteenth-century drama is shaped by the plays from the fifth century BC based on Homeric material. Both Wiles and Ward in their chapters refer to Shakespeare and questions of genre. These papers on early modern epic performances are followed by another four focusing on more recent reception: Michelakis' paper deals with Ridley Scott's film Prometheus (2012) and the meaning of epic in early twenty-first-century cinema in general. It shows that although Scott's film "does not engage with specific epic texts" (p. 132), even in fantasies about genetic engineering epic motifs are polyvalent. Recent poetic responses to the Homeric epics are the topic of Paul's contribution who examines the Iliadic Memorial by English poet Alice Oswald and the cycle of Odyssey poems by her German counterpart Barbara Köhler. The chapters of Stanger and Crawley focus on contemporary dance, the latter from her own performer's perspective of how epic is sited in the body.

The third part of the volume, named 'Formal Refraction,' combines a number of contributions that focus on the alteration of the original epic material into other performative forms. Whereas traditional stage reception is examined by Kean, who explains that the early modern London stage made the katabasis to the epic underworld a popular feature of performance, Greenwood investigates the influence of the figure of the (Homeric) bard on contemporary British poets like Simon Armitage and Alice Oswald. She states that while Armitage evokes the figure of the bard as a wandering poet, Oswald's concept is more historicized and adapted from a simile applying to Euphorbos at Iliad 17.53-8 (p.277-8). More recent modes of performance are also covered by Harrop, who claims that Homer's oral poetry might serve as an inspiration for contemporary performing artists. Closely linked to this assumption is Bird's contribution in which he connects Homeric formulas with elements of improvisation in jazz performances. Finally, Sapsford examines two recent dance adaptations of the Odyssey, one of which was undertaken in 2015 at the APGRD.

The fourth part, 'Empire and Politics,' illustrates how the reception of epic and its performances are over time influenced by contemporary political issues. The papers consider a period of 500 years and geographically extend far beyond Europe: Choi's paper proves impressively how the Spanish comedias indianas of the 16th and 17th centuries, which were set in the Americas, are linked with Roman epic traditions. A more recent example of epic reception in American culture is pointed out by Rankine who examines the problem of the body for epic performances. For this reason, he contrasts the Brazilian poet Jorge de Lima's epic poem Invenção de Orfeu (1952), in which the poet´s body is physically absent with the 2014 stage production An Iliad (2014) adapted by Tony-winning actor Denis O'Hare and director Lisa Peterson as an embodied performance by Homer brought to life as a single narrator.

The fifth and last part ('High and Low') contains papers on both the reception of individual epic characters and the influence of so-called 'low culture' elements. It includes papers on the refiguration of singular characters like Cassandra or Achilles (Monros-Gaspar, Reynolds), but also on the impact of contemporary modes of performances: According to Hall, the cultural presence of classical epic in England has been influenced enormously by Elkanah Settle's fairground droll The Siege of Troy which was a popular show at both Southwark and Bartholomew fairs from the end of the seventeenth century. As Burlesque drama became the most widespread form of theatrical entertainment in nineteenth-century Britain, Bryant Davies demonstrates that this theatrical mode introduced a broader range of spectators than before to classical epic. Stead comes to the same conclusion by presenting Midas, a musical theatre piece or by Irish poet Kane O'Hara´s first performed in the 1760s in Dublin. O' Hara's burletta based on the Ovidian myth, became a "classic" (p. 472) and was transformed by the author himself into a puppet theatre show that was enjoyed by an audience from all social classes. The last piece of the volume by Hardwick is labelled as an epilogue (pp.558-572) and summarizes the versatility of epic in modern performances, singling out the potential of radio adaptations of epic as an "under-researched strand in the history of classical scholarship" (p. 571). The volume is meant to be the first systematic account of epic reception on the modern stage and with its range of topics, both historically and geographically, and contributors from various disciplines it certainly meets this expectation. Additionally, it sets a milestone for future research on the reception of antiquity on the whole. An extensive bibliography, an index and a number of black-and-white illustrations (most of them showing actual epic performances on stage) round up the impressive amount of interesting contributions.

Authors and titles

List of Illustrations
List of Contributors
Note on Nomenclature, Spelling, and Texts
1: 'Epic' Performances: From Brecht to Homer and Back, Fiona Macintosh
2: Performing Epic and Reading Homer: An Aristotelean Perspective, Barbara Graziosi
3: Shakespeare and Epic, Colin Burrow
4: Theatre on an Epic Scale, Tim Supple
5: Encountering Homer through Greek Plays in Sixteenth-Century Europe, Tanya Pollard
6: Epic Acting in Shakespeare's Hamlet, David Wiles
7: 'I am that same wall; the truth is so': Performing a Tale from Ovid, Marchella Ward
8: Monsters and the Question of Inheritance in Early Modern French Theatre, Wes Williams
9: The Future of Epic in Cinema: Tropes of Reproduction in Ridley Scott's Prometheus, Pantelis Michelakis
10: From Epic to Lyric: Alice Oswald's and Barbara Köhler's Refigurings of Homeric Epic, Georgina Paul
11: Choreographing Epic: The Ocean as Epic 'Timespace' in Homer, Joyce, and Cunningham, Arabella Stanger
12: Epic Bodies: Filtering the Past and Embodying the Present A Performer's Perspective, Marie-Louise Crawley
13: A Harmless Distemper: Accessing the Classical Underworld in Heywood's The Silver Age, Margaret Kean
14: Epic Poetry into Contemporary Choreography: Two Twenty-First Century Dance Adaptations of the Odyssey, Tom Sapsford
15: Voicing Virgil: Dante Performs the Latin Epic, Robin Kirkpatrick
16: Homer as Improviser?, Graeme Bird
17: 'Now hear this': Text and Performance in Christopher Logue's War Music (1959-2011), Henry Power
18: Unfixing Epic: Homeric Orality and Contemporary Performance, Stephe Harrop
19: Multimodal Twenty-First Century Bards: From Live Performance to Audiobook in the Homeric Adaptations of Simon Armitage and Alice Oswald, Emily Greenwood
20: Homer 'viewed from the corridor': Epic Refracted in Michael Tippett's King Priam, Emily Pillinger
21: Institutional Receptions: Camões, Saramago, and the Contemporary Politics of The Lusíads on Stage, Tatiana Faia
22: Achilles in French Tragedy (1563-1680), Tiphaine Karsenti
23: The Spectacle of Conquest: Epic Conflicts on the Seventeenth-Century Spanish Stage, Imogen Choi
24: Epic on Stage in the Dutch Republic, Frederick Naerebout
25: 'Marpesia cautes': Voicing Amazons, England and Ireland, 1640, Deana Rankin
26: After the Aeneid: Ascanius in Eighteenth-Century Opera, Stephen Harrison
27: Epic Performance through Invencão de Orfeu and An Iliad: Two Instantiations of Epic as Embodiment in the Americas, Patrice Rankine
28: Performing Walcott, Performing Homer: Omeros on Stage and Screen, Justine McConnell
29: 'Of arms and the man': Thersites in Early Modern English Drama, Claire Kenward
30: Classical Epic and the London Fairs, 1697-1734, Edith Hall
31: Classical Epic in Early Musical Theatre: The Case of Kane O'Hara's Midas, Henry Stead
32: Epic Transposed: The Real and the Hyper-Real during the Revolutionary Period in France, Fiona Macintosh
33: Sacrilegious Translation: The Epic Flop of François Ponsard's Ulysse (1852), Cécile Dudouyt
34: Epic Cassandras in Performance, 1795-1868, Laura Monrós-Gaspar
35: 'Of the rage, sing Goddess': Epic Opera, Margaret Reynolds
36: Fish, Firemen, and Prize Fighters: The Transformation of the Iliad and Aeneid on the London Burlesque Stage, Rachel Bryant Davies
Epilogue. Voices, Bodies, Silences, and Media: Heightened Receptivity in Epic in Performance, Lorna Hardwick


1.   Staatsschauspiel*Dreseden Odyssee
2.   Cf. p. 7: Claudio Monteverdi Orfeo (1607) Henry Purcell Dido and Aeneas (1689), Georg Friedrich Händel Acis and Galatea (1739), cf. p. 7.
3.   "Einen Vorgang oder einen Charakter verfremden heißt zunächst einfach, dem Vorgang oder dem Charakter das Selbstverständliche, Einleuchtende zu nehmen und über ihn Staunen und Neugier zu erzeugen […] Verfremden heißt also Historisieren, heißt Vorgänge und Personen als vergänglich darzustellen" (B. Brecht: Das Prinzip der Verfremdung. In: Schriften zum Theater I, Gesammelte Werke in 20 Bänden. Frankfurt a. M. 1967, Band 15, S. 301).

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