The best books on Greek theatre for practitioners and audiences

Why am I passionate about this?

I am an Emeritus Professor of Drama at the University of Hull, translator of some twenty plays from Greek or Latin into English, a professional director, and a member of Equity for more than fifty years. I hope and believe that my own experience as a practitioner has blended with an educational background in Greek and Latin from St Andrews combined in my extensive list of publications on theatre history as author and editor to be found listed on my website.

I wrote...

Euripides Our Contemporary

By J. Michael Walton,

Book cover of Euripides Our Contemporary

What is my book about?

This study of all surviving plays by the most versatile and theatrically experimental playwright of fifth century BCE Athens identifies why each of the nineteen says something to attract modern audiences as well as modern directors, actors, and, hopefully, audiences. Euripides’ range of character and plot is explored thematically from dramatic situations revolving round families, the position of women - of the nineteen, twelve have women in their title - attitudes to fate and the gods, through passions of revenge, love, and insanity. 

Also highlighted is the often underestimated comic dimension to be found in so much of Euripides alongside his precocious and adventurous theatricality in even his most rarely considered plays. The concluding chapter considers seven subsequent playwrights from Shaw to Sondheim, who might most be deemed inheritors of his legacy.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Public and Performance in the Greek Theatre

J. Michael Walton Why did I love this book?

Choosing five books that might be the most useful for anyone contemplating a revival of plays that were created for a single performance nearly two and a half thousand years ago is a daunting task, one I could have undertaken many times over.

While no practitioner would be recommended to try to recreate the original production, all would be advised not to ignore the circumstances which have contributed to the plays’ survival as living dramas.

Peter Arnott was rare among classicists in that his approach was primarily from a performance perspective.

He was himself a director of note, but also a puppeteer whose solo productions of Greek tragedies and comedies were a good introduction to the reality of masked performance to players and audiences in the huge performance spaces where the Athenian festivals were celebrated and where the playwrights explored the potential of their new medium.

By Peter D. Arnott,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Public and Performance in the Greek Theatre as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Peter Arnott discusses Greek drama not as an antiquarian study but as a living art form. He removes the plays from the library and places them firmly in the theatre that gave them being. Invoking the practical realities of stagecraft, he illuminates the literary patterns of the plays, the performance disciplines, and the audience responses.
Each component of the productions - audience, chorus, actors, costume, speech - is examined in the context of its own society and of theatre practice in general, with examples from other cultures. Professor Arnott places great emphasis on the practical staging of Greek plays, and…

Book cover of The Greek Tragic Theatre

J. Michael Walton Why did I love this book?

If Arnott’s approach makes it easier to understand and appreciate how Greek drama and theatre were part of a performance culture in classical Athens, Baldry’s widens that perception to the much broader social and political climate of ancient Greece, from the likely ‘invention’ of tragedy and comedy in Athens at the end of the 6th Century BCE, to their development throughout the Greek world over the next two centuries and survival to our own time.

The whole sense of this new art form, a synthesis of storytelling, poetry, music, and dance, which developed as a kind of living and moving sculpture, is a hard one to take in all at once.

What Baldry offers is a brief but clear introduction to the background of both tragedy and comedy for anyone whose awareness of the potential of plays and players only begins with Shakespeare. He is both readable and a reliable historical authority.

By H.C. Baldry,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Greek Tragic Theatre as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Studies the nature of Greek tragedy during the fifth century B.C. focusing on the function of the actors and chorus, the organization of the theatre, and the audience

Book cover of Greek Tragedy and the British Theatre 1660-1914

J. Michael Walton Why did I love this book?

While the first two links are a good introduction to classical drama and theatre for the uninitiated, this third choice is different, a vast and unparalleled compendium covering productions of the whole corpus of direct and marginal translations of Greek tragedy on the English stage over some 250 years.

It is a work of reference rather than a ‘good read’, but it is a book into which I hope everyone would find reason to dip who believes in research as an essential feature of creative preparation for the new production of a ‘classic’.

The book is written by two of the most prominent and inspirational contemporary classical scholars whose prolific output in kindred areas of the classics and of theatre history has little rival.

Issues such as stage censorship, social and political change and translation bias show how the classical repertoire from Aeschylus through to Seneca has made it possible, perhaps inevitable, that classical plays can change their relevance according to all manner of contemporary issue, but that the originals are always likely to be more rewarding than any modern version.

By Edith Hall, Fiona Macintosh,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Greek Tragedy and the British Theatre 1660-1914 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This lavishly illustrated book offers the first full, interdisciplinary investigation of the historical evidence for the presence of ancient Greek tragedy in the post-Restoration British theatre, where it reached a much wider audience - including women - than had access to the original texts. Archival research has excavated substantial amounts of new material, both visual and literary, which is presented in chronological order. But the fundamental aim is to explain
why Greek tragedy, which played an elite role in the curricula of largely conservative schools and universities, was magnetically attractive to political radicals, progressive theatre professionals, and to the aesthetic…

Book cover of Aristophanic Comedy

J. Michael Walton Why did I love this book?

Despite a somewhat daunting front cover, this is a most engaging book.

It can be misleading to divorce an understanding of Greek comedy from that of tragedy. Both were performed on specific occasions and engaged their audiences through complementary approaches to dramatic performance.

Kenneth Dover, knighted in 1977 for ‘services to scholarship’, was a most inspiring of teachers and a writer on all aspects of the ancient world, never more so than this book on Aristophanes.

Here he confronts all aspects of Old Comedy from a playwright who, through a mixture of farce and fantasy, created an unparalleled portrait of daily life in ancient Athens, but whose works remained fully untranslated and unperformed in English right up to the later years of the 20th Century.

Dover shirks neither political impetus, nor the ribaldry, blatant sexism, and often wildly obscene behaviour of the characters.

By K. J. Dover,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Aristophanic Comedy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Professor Dover's newest book is designed for those who are interested in the history of comedy as an art form but who are not necessarily familiar with the Greek language. The eleven surviving plays of Aristophanes are treated as representative of a genre. "Old Attic Comedy", which was artistically and intellectually homogeneous and gave expression to the spirit of Athenian society in the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C. Aristophanes is regarded primarily not as a reformer or propagandist but as a dramatist who sought, in competition with his rivals, to win the esteem both of the general public…

Book cover of The Art of Ancient Greek Theater

J. Michael Walton Why did I love this book?

This may seem a rather strange nomination as it is the catalogue for a remarkable exhibition, curated by Mary Hart at the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2010.

The main justification is that this was probably the greatest collection of illustrations of dramatic performances in the classical world ever displayed together, in pots, paintings, and artefacts. Though hardly a reliable guide to how Greek comedies and tragedies were originally staged, the various artworks are given contexts and explanations in accompanying commentaries.

Above all, what the book validates is the belief that the earliest Greek theatre emerged as a visual art form, never initially to be preserved in print. Today, we do have some 46 more or less complete playtexts, including a couple from New Comedy, which there is no space to champion here, but which also features strongly throughout the catalogue.

By Mary Louise Hart,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Art of Ancient Greek Theater as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is an exploration of Greek theatre as seen through its many depictions in classical art. "The Art of Ancient Greek Theater" addresses the vibrant imprint that ancient Greek tragedy and comedy left on the visual arts of classical Greece. Theatrical performance as we know it originated in mid-sixth century BCE with choral dances held in honour of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and patron of the theatre. The great tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the comedies of Aristophanes and Menander are preserved as some of the world's most revered literature and have formed the basis for…

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Book cover of A School for Unusual Girls

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Why am I passionate about this?

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