Euripides, Moderniste: Tragic Adaptation and Avant-Garde Classicism in the Twentieth Century
Since the late 18th century, classicists, literary critics, playwrights and poets have regularly named the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides a “modern” dramatist. This dissertation pursues the history, causes, consequences and stakes of this widespread structure of interpretation. This claim originated in German tragic criticism at the turn of the 19th century—in Friedrich Schiller’s Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, Friedrich Schlegel’s On The Study of Greek Poetry, and A.W. Schlegel’s Lectures on Dramatic Literature and Art. It is still in evidence, in explicit and implicit terms, both inside and outside the disciplinary practice of Classics; it has thoroughly mediated the translation, interpretation, and adaptation of Euripidean tragedy from the late 18th century to the present moment.
The dissertation argues that the claim of Euripides’ untimely modernity presents a way for a self-consciously modern cultural production to think about itself and its relationship to history, emplotted through the genre of tragedy and the cultural mode of adaptation. It therefore examines the history of Euripides’ modernity primarily through the adaptation of Euripidean drama in 20th-century modernism and the avant-garde. So dissatisfying to the critics of 18th- and 19th-century German classicism, Euripidean tragedy generates a uniquely enabling body of work for avant-garde adaptation: the bracing projection of a ruptural, anticipatory modernity onto Euripides produces a canon of tragedy in correspondence with a world characterized by revolutionary upheaval. Studying adaptations by H.D., Wole Soyinka, and Heiner Müller, I explore the possible modes of tragic adaptation as fellow traveler to political movements and revolutionary desires. Intervening in the study of both classical reception and the aesthetics of the avant-garde, I argue for understanding tragedy as a genre of revolutionary historiography, and that the adaptation, translation and detournement of classical texts and cultural forms represent some of the critical devices of an avant-garde poetics and theatre.