Modern Productions of Ancient Plays at the University of Michigan

I.  A Brief History of Classical Drama in Performance at Michigan

Early playbills of the University Dramatic Club list no Greek or Roman plays, though an 1888 spoof by the U of M Minstrels called “Amaryllis or the Tale of Two Donkeys” with characters such as Chlorophyll, Wordycus, Sillycus, Windycus, The Roman Emperor, Exercitus(one F.L. Smith who impersonated the entire Roman army) and Asinus (the donkey) suggests that some fun was had out of the classical education of the day.  Fairly early on, moreover, the department of Classics seems to have gained a reputation for performing Plautus. [1]    

           In the first decades of the 20th century, productions of ancient plays were mounted by university groups.  The Senior Girls' play of 1917 was the "Iphigenia among the Taurians" performed in Greek with specially commissioned music for the choral odes.   Two professors from the Classics department, Herbert C. Kenyon and Campbell Bonner, collaborated in the music; the score, a detailed analysis of choral dances, and some general reflections on the production are in Albert Stanley’s Greek Themes in Modern Musical Settings of 1924.  Stylized costumes and sets evoked an ancient production, but, as Stanley notes, “the purpose was always kept in mind […] to re-create the Greek spirit rather than to copy meticulously features which would have been not only difficult with available stage equipment but probably bizarre in their effect had they been carried out.” [2] Thus the director dispensed with masks and chose Hill Auditorium as the acting area.  As happens surprisingly often, however, in choosing dramatic appropriateness over accepted views on ancient performance, the director made at least one staging decision that accords with what is now widely thought to have been ancient practice.  Stanley writes apologetically that “the altar, instead of being located in the centre of a lower level as would have been historically correct, was placed at the left of the stage, in order to give the space necessary for chorus evolution.” [3]   Recent studies, however, leave serious doubt as to whether there was a permanent altar in the center of the orchestra, or indeed anywhere else on the acting area. [4]   The most that can be safely concluded is that there was an altar of some sort, likely portable, placed at convenient locations in the orchestra.  All of which suggests that the 1917 production of Iphigenia among the Taurians was, at least in this respect, more historically accurate than they thought.

           According to Domis Plugge’s 1938 listing of Greek plays at American colleges, the “Iphigenia among the Taurians” was a favorite, performed at least 17 times in various colleges between 1897 and 1917.  Only the “Antigone” seems to have been staged more often in the same twenty-year period (Plugge lists 20 times at different colleges). [5]    Although the choice of play corresponds to the general tastes of the day, the decision to perform it in Greek was fairly original.  According to Plugge, only two other universities presented a play in Greek in the ten year period between 1915 and 1925, Randolph-Macon Women’s College, and Smith College.

In 1930 Robert Henderson founded the Drama Season, a series of five plays produced each spring with a cast of professional actors.  Two years later, he earned his Masters degree from the University of Michigan.   “I think you have a FOUL university,” he wrote to Professor Bredfold in September 1932, “for being so precise on a poor laboring actor; but I do want the degree.  And I am sure I can give you a worthy paper for this extra hour…”  Frequent letters to his mentor, Prof. Campbell, suggest the passionate energy that brought the Drama Season into existence. “My dear Professor Campbell,” he wrote in 1931, “Really you have no idea what a thrilling season it is to be.  Miss Yurka says she is more interested in doing the ‘Electra’ than anything she has done for years; and Martha Graham is going to be superb in it.  We are having Louis Horst (the famous dance accompanist) as musical director of the production.  He will accompany all the performances of the ‘Electra’ and also COMPOSE the music.  Miss Graham’s program of solo dances is thrilling and will include the “Primitive Mysteries” which have been such a sensation this winter in New York.

The “Electra” of 1931 was a tremendous success, as the “Antigone” starring Margaret Anglin had been in the first Drama Season the year before.  John Anderson of the New York Post wrote of the “Electra,” “Blanche Yurka plunges this correspondent into adjectival poverty by the richness and surety of her performances.”  Henderson gloated to Campbell in 1932, “Now as to what the festival could be this year: what COULDN’T it be, I suppose, for after the “Electra” I can get practically anyone we want.”  Despite the success of these two classics, the Drama Season does not seem to have mounted another ancient play, though the festival itself continued to thrive apart from a brief lapse during the war years.

University productions filled the gap in the early 1930s with “Trojan Women” in 1932 and 1934 and “Hippolytus” in 1933.  There followed 16 years without any production of ancient plays large enough to leave a record until a third production of “Trojan Women,” outdoors on the steps of the Clements library in 1949.  The plays in the intervening years seem, in general, to be lighthearted modern comedies.  Even Giraudoux’s “No War in Troy,” which was the closest thing to a classical play in these years, seems to have been too heavy for the Michigan audiences of 1939.  “From ‘No War In Troy’ we learn, as its cardinal message, that the Trojans were the most talkative race ever to inhabit the earth.  Nobody has ever seen a talky play until he has beheld ‘No War in Troy.’  Mostly it’s a meeting of the Trojan Debating Society, with Ulysses as guest and defending champion, which lasts all evening.” (Russel McLauchlin, Detroit News, Tues. May 15, 1939)

The 1950s Department of Speech, i.e. Theater Department, performances of Aristophanes culminated in an extraordinary rendition of “Frogs” in the Varsity swimming pool in 1960.  This massive production employed seven huge choruses, including the “Lily Pads” performed by the Varsity swimming team.  Synchronized swimmers, dancers, singers, and actors all collaborated in a varied and mammoth spectacle which heralded a proliferation of Greek and Roman plays in the 1960s.

The only production of an Aeschylean play for which I have found a reference was the 1962 “Prometheus Bound” by the Student Laboratory Theater, whose programs warn that, “we are endeavouring to free ourselves from the necessity of producing only those plays which pay their way because of momentary popular appeal” -- a far cry from the jubilant tone with which Henderson announced his popular  productions of “Antigone” and “Electra” in the 1930s.  Nevertheless, to this mandate we no doubt owe the Student Laboratory’s string of rarely performed pieces in 1963, Plautus’ “The Pot of Gold,” Hrosuitha of Gandersheim’s “Callimachus” (10th century), and Menander’s “The Girl from Samos.”

In the 70s, classical plays were mounted predominantly by smaller divisions of the University: the Student Laboratory Theater, and the Residential College.  Perhaps because of the educational aims of these groups, the plays chosen were more rarely performed Euripides, though a Terence comedy (the only one in the history of the University as far as I have been able to determine) was requested by students who persuaded Martin Walsh, new to the University that year, to direct it.  He chose a 17th century translation in order to encourage careful diction, but added slapstick and a Plautine salami to enliven the performance.

To him and another director from the Residential College, Kate Mendeloff, we owe many of the classical productions of the 1990s.   The titles of the latter two productions, “Philoctetes in Vietnam,” and “Survivors:  the Trojan Women in Bosnia,” formally recognize our modern preoccupation with war and peace in the plays, an aspect of the ancient tragedies which has fascinated directors at least since the late 30s. After many excerpted performances and much workshopping, Professors Walsh and Mendeloff gave up the idea of mounting a full production of “Philoctetes” because they could not resolve the anti-war message they wanted to convey with Sophocles’ own ending.

A university Drama Department production of Antigone of 1998 infused the play with new concerns by dividing the characters along color lines.  This treatment of the play complemented a visiting production of Athol Fugard’s “The Island” of 2001 which addressed similar problems of racial injustice and freedom using the “Antigone” as its touchstone.


II. Chronological List of Classical Drama Productions at Michigan




Alcestis, Senior Girls' Play


Menaechmi,  Classical Club


Iphigenia among the Taurians, Classical Club, Hill Auditorium


Antigone, Drama Season, Play Production, Lydia Mendelssohn Theater


Electra (Sophocles), Drama Season, Lydia Mendelssohn Theater


The Trojan Women, Play Production, summer session, Speech Department


Hippolytus, University Players


The Trojan Women, Speech Department Summer Plays, The Clements Library


The Birds, Speech Department, Lydia Mendelssohn Theater

Medea (scenes), Speech Department, Student Laboratory Theater, Lydia Mendelssohn Theater


Frogs (scenes), Speech Department, Lydia Mendelssohn Theater


Lysistrata (scenes), Speech Department


Electra (Sophocles), Speech Department


The Frogs, University Players, Varsity Swimming Pool


The Twin Menaechmi (scenes), University Players


Prometheus Bound, Student Laboratory Theater, Arena Theater, Frieze Building


Medea, Professional Theater Program (PTP), Hill Auditorium


The Pot of Gold (Plautus), Student Laboratory Theater

Callimachus (Hrosuitha of Gandersheim), Student Laboratory Theater

The Girl from Samos (Menander), Student Laboratory Theater


The Trojan Women, PTP

Lysistrata, Student Laboratory Theater, Arena Theater, Frieze Building


The Curmudgeon (scenes), (Menander), Student Laboratory Theater, Arena Theater, Frieze Building

Casina (scenes), Student Laboratory Theater, Arena Theater, Frieze Building

Lysistrata, Student Laboratory Theater, Arena Theater, Frieze Building


Bacchae, Speech Department

Antigone, University Players and Speech Department, Lydia Mendelssohn Theater

Oedipus the King (scenes), PTP and University Players


Lysistrata, Trueblood Theater

The Magic of the Stage: Oedipus the King, PTP and University Players


The Magic of the Stage: Antigone, PTP and University Players


Iphigenia in Aulis, Student Laboratory Theater


Iphigeneia in Aulis, Student Laboratory Theater, Frieze Arena Theater


Eunuch (Terence), Residential College


Cyclops (Euripides), Residential College


The Trojan Women, University Player’s Showcase, The New Trueblood Arena, Frieze Building


Lysistrata, University Players

Oedipus, Project Theater, Lydia Mendelssohn Theater


The Trojan Women, The University Players, Department of Theater and Drama


Lysistrata, from a Play Production Seminar, Residential College


Bacchae, Trueblood Theater


Easy Virtue Plautus’ Cistellaria, Residential College


Philoctetes in Vietnam, Residential College


Antigone, Uof M School of Music; Department of Theater and Drama

Survivors:  The Trojan Women in Bosnia, Residential College


Lysistrata, Department of Theater and Drama, Lydia Mendelssohn Theater


Medea, Abbey Theater, Power Center Theater


III. Patterns and Problems in Modern Productions

In recent decades at the University of Michigan, the sheer number of performances of “Trojan Women” and “Lysistrata” attest to the popularity of anti-war plays.  Program notes to the University Player’s showcase production of “Trojan Women” in 1982 outline a typical approach to making the play relevant to the modern audience: “Euripides shows us the waste of all wars and what happens when political necessity is used to justify murder and oppression.  Political necessity stalks the world today as it did in Troy.  It is found in Poland, Lebanon, The Falkland Islands and in the nuclear arm’s contest.” 

Though the themes of Greek drama often resonate with a modern audience, the style of writing, with its long speeches and choral odes, can sometimes be irritating.  A reviewer of this 1982 production of “Trojan Women” did not think that the performance overcame the problems of style:  “The Trojan women should be shot.  They rail and moan for almost two hours in Trueblood theatre this week as they await slavery at the hands of the victorious Greek army and I find - paradoxically - that this anti-war play has raised my basic level of murderousness to an uncomfortable degree.” (Rachel Urist, Ann Arbor News, 11 Nov. 1982)

Choruses, too, generally pose a problem to the modern director attempting to adapt the play to suit a modern audience.  Martin Walsh suggests that the boom in classical theater of the 60s might be due to an increasing identification with the “group:” choral dances and the emphasis on the collective rather than the individual appealed to that generation, more than it did to the audiences of earlier and later decades.  Certainly, Richard Schechner’s famous “Bacchae” production of ‘69 took full advantage of the spirit of the 60s. [6]

Intrinsic difficulties of form, language and themes aside, producers of ancient theater face an insidious enemy: the modern conception of what a classical play was, or rather, should be.  Harmen Mitchell’s review of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” entitled, “Traditionalists beware! U-M company’s Lysistrata isn’t for you.” demonstrates the strong hold these preconceptions have on us, “it hardly seems worth it to note that anyone with any sense of how Greek theater should be presented will be appalled by this fast, loose, and noisy adaptation.  But if you’re looking for a good time, and you don’t mind being dazzled, you couldn’t ask for a better time.  This is, beneath the bluster and the snickers, fine theater.” (Ann Arbor News, 28 March 1986)  One wonders how Harmen Mitchell thought Aristophanes’ bawdy, outrageous comedy about women refusing sex to their husbands and lovers until they agree to stop the war, and then rewarding them with “Peace,” that is, a naked woman to be divided among them, “should be presented.”  It is true that director Philip Kerr’s introduction of a roaring motorcycle brings the play sharply into modern focus; but the ancient habit of flying gods onto the stage with enormous machinery was hardly less sensational.

But these are old debates which trouble modern audiences everywhere.  Some try to solve the problem by writing modern versions of ancient myths and stories; I did not attempt to include the many modern plays and musicals inspired by ancient themes which have been performed in Ann Arbor (for example, “Antigone” by Anouilh (1984), “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1987), “Andromache” by Racine (1993) among many others). We can take some comfort in the experience of Kerriann Tupac of the University Drama Productions who believes that though ancient plays are harder to sell, audiences do like them when they come. [7]  Martin Walsh at the Residential College is quick with names of ancient plays he would like to produce here, including the “Rhesus” of Euripides and Aristophanes’  “Wealth.”

Most recently, in the fall of 2002, the Abbey Theater brought its brilliant and controversial production of the “Medea” to the University’s largest theater, the Power Center.  Dispensing with the magical elements of the play (there was, for instance, no dragon-drawn chariot to sweep Medea off to safety at the end, though the director said she toyed with the idea of using a helicopter), the production brought out the psychological and emotional bonds between the characters.  Medea’s helpless desire for and love of Jason, despite her anger at his betrayal, made Jason’s famous claim that “Aphrodite made Medea help him out of Chalkis” absolutely believable.  But, in this production, Aphrodite was no divinity, she was simply a name for the mystery of Medea’s very human love.  Aware of the many ironies of her situation, Medea played some of her lines for laughs with a dry and cutting intelligence which often had the audience laughing uproariously.  Though some objected to this unexpected humor in the tragedy, for most of us it was an excellent foil for the bitter suffering of a Medea more human than witch, and more hurt than vengeful.

IV.  Bibliography and Links

Arnott, Peter D.  1987.  “North America” in ed. J. Michael Walton, Living Greek Theatre: A Handbook of Classical Performance and Modern Production.

Hartigan, Karelisa. 1995.  Greek Tragedy on the American Stage.

Plugge, Domis.  1938.  History of Greek Play Production in American Colleges and Universities from 1881 to 1936.

Schechner, Richard.  1970. Dionysus in 69.

Stanley, Albert A.  1924.  Greek Themes in Modern Musical Settings.

Classical Journal (1905-1917), Terre Haute, Indiana.

This brief summary of productions of classical theater at the University of Michigan is based on program notes and records kept by various departments of the University.  It is certainly incomplete.  I welcome any additions or comments by visitors to this site.  Many thanks to Martin Walsh of the Residential College, Kerriann Tupac and Joel Aalberts of the University Productions Office, the staff of the Bentley Library, Professor Yopie Prins, Meilee Bridges, Katia and Sandra Koelle, and K. Cecil Bosher.

[1]   Cf. Arnott (1987) 356. The performances of the “Menaechmi” (1890 and 1916) were probably just two in a string of productions of Plautus.  Unfortunately, there do not seem to be records in any official place (the department, or the university libraries) and research would probably have to be done on private papers if they could be tracked down.  Professor Don Cameron also remembered the tradition continuing, or revived, in more recent years, but I have not yet been able to track down the specifics.

[2] Stanley (1924) 191.

[3] Stanley (1924) 191-192.

[4] Cf. J.P. Poe (1989) “The Altar in the Fifth Century Theater,” CA 8, p. 116-139, on the likelihood that altars were placed to one side in order to leave a clear view of the chorus and actors in the orchestra. For a re-evaluation of the assumption that there was an altar in the theater of Dionysos at Athens, cf. C. Ashby, (1999) Classical Greek Theater, p. 43. On the lack of sufficient evidence for an altar at Epidauros, cf. Gerkan and Muller-Wiener (1961) Das Theater von Epidauros, 8.  For discussion of some evidence for an altar at Philippi, cf. Collart, Paul. (1928) BCH. vol. 52, p. 96-97, and at Isthmia, cf. Gebhard (1973) The Theater at Isthmia, p. 13.  For a discussion of the altar at Thorikos, which is wedged up close to the seats at the side of the orchestra, cf. T. Hackens (1965) “Le Théâtre.”  Thorikos. vol. 3, p. 93-95 and Gebhard (1973) n. 10. 

[5] Plugge (1936) pp. 16-21.  In fact, Plugge lists the “Iphigeneia among the Taurians” as the second most frequently performed in all the years between 1881 to 1936.  His method of collecting data, however, which was to mail questionnaires to universities and colleges, though it received enough replies to represent a fair sample, is by no means comprehensive.  The University of Michigan, for example, didn’t reply to his questionnaire, and only the 1917 production of the “Iphigeneia among the Taurians,” which he learnt from another source, is listed in the book.

[6] On this production of the Bacchae, see Dionysus in 69, ed. Richard Schechner (1970).  For a history of this and other professional productions of Greek theater in the United States, see Karelisa V. Hartigan (1995) Greek Tragedy on the American Stage, passim.

[7] Cf. Hartigan’s observation that audiences are attracted by professional productions of classical plays, though they do not always enjoy them in the end (supra n.1, p. 1).