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Dionysius, the Syracusan tyrant, was an aspirant playwright and was also said to have been the proud owner of the writing tablets, desks and lyres that in the previous century had belonged to the tragedians, Aeschylus and Euripides. Some two and a half millennia later, devotees of Noel Coward are being invited to bid for a lock of Coward’s hair, attached to an interview script dating from 1968. While many such objects have been cherished by fans over centuries, others have only survived on account of their neglect in public institutions: a random list might include a pair of Lydia Lopokova’s ballet shoes, David Garrick’s gloves, and, more bizarrely, the amputated leg of Sarah Bernhardt, which was recently rediscovered in the anatomical collection at the University of Bordeaux.
Collecting of all kinds has a long and fascinating history, and the desire to possess the relics of star performers, in particular, has resulted in a lucrative trade for dealers in recent years. Many observers have pointed to the erotic impulses behind collecting – Benjamin speaks of ‘the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition’ – and it is the ‘thrill’ of the chase, especially, that fuels the ardour of the collector. As Phillip Blom has noted, ‘The most important object of a collection is the next one.’ And when the object itself is sexually titillating – as is the case with much ancient sculpture – there has often been a self-conscious awareness on the male collector’s part of the interrelations between the sexual pursuit of a beautiful woman and the allure and ‘penetration’ of antiquity.
Greek tragedy has enjoyed a vigorous afterlife on the modern stage both in the original Greek and in translation. Yet whilst the production history of, say, Shakespeare has long been the subject of academic inquiry, it is only very recently that classical scholars have appreciated both the value and the importance of charting the fortunes of Greek drama in the modern period. It is not simply that classicists need to be aware of the extent to which their own area of study has shaped major dramatic trends in Europe from at least the 1880s onwards. It is not even that a general lack of interest in such matters has meant that classical scholars have remained unaware of the (by no means insignificant) fact that Sophocles' Oedipus the King was banned from the professional stage in Britain until 1910. What a survey of modern productions of Greek plays does, above all, is provide us with a salutary reminder that contemporary investigations into Greek drama are no less time-bound than those of previous periods. Indeed, every encounter with artworks of the past is really an exploration of current concerns and needs; and nowhere is this better illustrated than through a study of the performance histories of Greek tragedies.
Yet the tendency of classical scholarship to ignore the fortunes of Greek tragedy on the modern stage is somewhat surprising. For the production histories of these plays reveal that close ties have, in fact, existed between the professional theatre and the world of scholarship since at least the nineteenth century. The row that followed Nietzsche's capitulation to Wagner and Bayreuth at the end of the nineteenth century may well be notorious (cf. Ch. 12, pp. 324-5), but it is the exceptional nature of the episode that has guaranteed its notoriety.
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