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Greek Tragedy Finds an American Audience

By the end of the nineteenth century, American commercial theater was becoming increasingly entrenched in stereotypical modes of production and a limited repertoire that was largely generated in New York before moving on established circuits to other parts of the country.Although twentieth-century scholarship on early American theater has defended a number of nineteenth-century plays and playwrights, Edgar Allan Poe, commenting as early as 1845 on one of the better new American plays, Mrs. Mowatt's Fashion, reflected a stream of later critical opinion when he remarked: "It is a good play-compared with most American drama it is a very good play"; in the United States "the intellect of an audience can never safely be fatigued by complexity." In any case, two developments began to liberate artists interested in performing a larger range of serious poetic drama from dependence on the theater syndicates that dominated the late nineteenth-century theater world and to invite new audiences to attend Greek tragedy: the growing success of Greek tragedy on college campuses from the 1880s to the 1930s and the establishment of new venues for performance that permitted theatrical experimentation in stagecraft with strong links to Greek theater in the minds of major theorists and practitioners. Outdoor performances across the country, including those in sports stadia and in new amphitheaters often built on college campuses, here complemented the founding of small, innovative regional theaters.

Part 1 of this chapter first considers why nineteenth-century native efforts at presenting Greek tragedy on the professional stage, and especially translations of the original plays, met with an uninspiring reception. It then looks at how a growing number of university productions, along with small touring Anglo-American and American professional groups who primarily performed on college campuses and at other local venues, paved the way for remarkably successful productions in the second decade of the twentieth century. In 1915, the prominent visiting British director H. Granville Barker took advantage of this trend by staging Euripides' Iphigeneia in Tauris and Trojan Women in eastern college stadia.

Part 2 focuses on four U.S. artists/theater groups that began to put a stronger American imprint on the reception of Greek tragedy, and to win audiences for the original plays in translation that were not merely respectful yet skeptical-often the standard critical reaction-but positively enthusiastic. As leader of the American branch of the International Theosophical Society, Katherine Tingley built the earliest important outdoor amphitheater in the country in San Diego, where she staged performances of Aeschylus's Eumenides in 1899-1927 in order to establish a new spiritual and cultura