• The perfect non-fiction book is one that tells you everything you really need to know about a given subject, be it large or small, in 250 pages or less, and does the job with style. That was the yardstick I used when writing my brief life of George Balanchine, which is 185 pages long. I leave it to you to judge whether I succeeded, but even if I didn’t, I know such books when I see them, and Simon Goldhill’s How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today (University of Chicago, 248 pp., $18 paper) fills the bill—perfectly.
One of the many disheartening things I’ve learned after four years as a drama critic is that most contemporary productions of Greek tragedy are exercises in theatrical futility. Why do they go wrong, and what makes the good ones good? Until I read How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today, I was unable to answer those questions save by way of guesswork and instinct, not having had the benefits of a classical education or seen very many stagings of the Greek classics in my wasted youth. Henceforth, though, I’ll know what I failed to learn in school, thanks entirely to this priceless little book.
Goldhill, a professor of Greek literature and culture at Cambridge, is realistic about the vast cultural distance that separates us from the plays of which he writes:
Greek drama is a wordy genre. Whenever any character says, “I have told the whole story,” that is always the beginning of more stories and a lot more laments. There is little action, at least for those brought up on action movies. There are few people who run in Greek tragedy, fewer explosions, and rarely even any physical contact onstage—though when people do touch, it is explosive.
How to reduce that distance? Though Goldhill is no literal-minded antiquarian, he understands that part of the paradoxical answer to this difficult question lies in paying close attention to the circumstances under which Greek tragedies were originally produced. As he explains in his introduction:
The book highlights what I regard as the six most pressing problems that face any company that chooses to produce a Greek tragedy. Each of the six chapters . . . looks first at whether we can learn anything from the ancient world, and then discusses how modern companies have tried to solve these difficulties in the theater, and analyzes their successes and failures.
Some of Goldhill’s problems will make immediate sense to most readers: what do you do with the chorus? Others are subtler: in what ways did the architectural design of Greek amphitheaters influence the way in which Greek tragedies were written? And how do you play those long, long speeches?
Finding the right level of expression is always an actor’s problem: but Greek tragedy poses this problem in the most acute form, because there is no small talk. It is because of this that so many actors fall back on “grandeur” or “magnificence,” although grandiloquence so rarely leads into the heart of any role.
Without minimizing the formidable difficulties posed by the genre, Goldhill shows how a modern production that pays no heed whatsoever to ancient precedents is likely to run into trouble, whereas a director who keeps those precedents firmly in mind will often find that his six problems have a way of solving themselves. Though he is not a “theater person,” he has looked closely at countless contemporary productions—some of which, like The Gospel at Colonus and Deborah Warner’s 2001 staging of Euripides’ Medea, will be familiar to American playgoers—and analyzes them with a shrewdness that no critic will fail to envy. His approach is at once deeply informed by the best academic scholarship and no less deeply rooted in a commonsense understanding of what works on stage. The result is one of the most instructive and lucidly written books about theater to have been published in recent years. No one whose interest in drama is more than merely casual should pass it by.