Interview History & Culture

What makes Greek classics relevant

Dr. Michael Scott in the theatre of Dionysus   | Photo Credit: Dr. Michael Scott

Dr. Michael C. Scott specialises in ancient Greek and Roman history, art and architecture. He is an Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick, the U.K. In the fascinating documentary, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ (BBC4 in conjunction with Open University), he traces the significance, growth and far reaching impact of Greek theatre. In an interview, Dr. Scott, who has written several books and presented a range of television programmes, talks about Greek theatre and his latest book which deals with ancient civilisations including India.

Why does ancient Greek theatre have such power and relevance — the plays continue to be staged in so many language and countries including India?

I think ancient Greek theatre continues to have such relevance because while their subject matter is rooted in the Greek mythology, the emotions generated and confronted within the storyline, and the dilemmas of judgment forced upon the characters, are timeless and integral parts of the human condition. Facing up to them, thinking about them, debating them and making decisions about them are part of what it means to be human. And as such these plays will always speak across cultures and across time.

How did you get so passionate about Greek theatre and culture?

I read my first Greek tragedy in school — it was Euripides Medea. I was stunned by the central questions of the play: what is justice? What kind of revenge can be described as just? Is it ever just to kill your own children in revenge for a wrong done to you? At the same time, the power of the lead female character, Medea, and the insight and delicacy with which her thought processes were articulated by the male playwright Euripides, seemed to me an incredible example of what we would now consider very modern thinking. I was hooked from then on, and have since been lucky enough to study a wide number of plays, see productions in locations ranging from surviving ancient Greek amphitheatres to modern film, and even act in several productions.

Your latest book, Ancient Worlds: An Epic History of East and West, explores the commonalities between ancient civilisations in the West and China and India. What did you find especially interesting and appealing about ancient Indian civilisation and the manner in which it influenced Western civilisations? Do you see resistance to the attention given to China and India because of old habits of Eurocentrism? Is Eurocentrism still a problem?

I think we too often study history as a series of segregated chunks — separated by chronology or geography. But that is not how the world developed or was experienced. Human kind has been interacting across cultural, community, ethnic and religious borders since its earliest days. And in fact we can, I argue, really understand a single community by understanding its interactions with others, and the impact that that interaction had on both participants. As such Ancient Worlds... sought to examine some of the earliest interactions between ancient civilisations from the Mediterranean to China, interactions that would continue into the thriving Silk Roads trade of later centuries. I think it is more important than ever that we highlight this ancient global connectivity right now, as, despite our global lifestyles, we are confronted with increasingly insular politics and national outlooks.

Dr. Michael Scott

Dr. Michael Scott   | Photo Credit: Dr. Michael Scott


India I think is absolutely crucial to that study. We know well that from the first century AD, Roman traders were regularly trading at ports along the West Coast of India, seeking out important goods produced in the area like Pepper and other spices; and that, at the same time, goods were pouring into India from central Asia and from the East, that were traded on, like silk. In the following centuries, this was coupled with the arrival of nomadic tribes from the East who came to settle and rule in parts of India, changing its political and territorial make-up and in turn affecting its interactions with the West. And at the same time, particularly during the 2-4 th centuries AD, we know that crucial religious ideas and indeed entire religions, like Buddhism, were spreading up from India throughout Asia and China.

Do you find ancient Greek comedies as fulfilling and impactful as the tragedies? Why are they not performed as frequently today as the latter?

Aristophanes’s scathing indictment of politics and personalities is so powerful. Ancient Greek comedy is much more culturally specific than its tragedy. Comedy was intended to be intense satire of current world events, peoples, and actions. And as such, while sometimes those comedic attacks have value across cultures and time (like the deriding of demagogues and concerns about the potency of democracy), often the spectator needs a detailed knowledge of Athenian history and politics to be able to understand the full meaning behind the play. This is coupled with the fact that Aristophanes’ comedies are also incredibly rude in the language they use — lots of swear words and vulgarities, etc., — that they are often considered too difficult to perform.

Which is your favourite among contemporary productions of Greek plays? Some are very modernistic adaptations

I don’t like performances of ancient plays, where they try to modernise the location of the drama (for example, I once saw a version of Sophocles’s Antigone ‘set’ in the former Yugoslavia). I much prefer when the plays are staged and set in their original ancient setting and when the words and ideas of the dramas are allowed to work their magic and offer their relevance all on their own.

Do you plan to deal with ancient Indian theatre — Sanskrit theatre — which like Greek theatre has a long history of survival and performance?

I think there is great potential for a study of the comparative ways in which ancient Greek and Indian drama constructed their plays and achieved their effects.

Also read: The greatest stage of them all

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Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 12:19:48 PM |

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