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Banging the lyre : the classical plays of Tony Harrison Marshall, Hallie Rebecca

Abstract

British poet Tony Harrison (b. 1937) is the most significant English verse playwright of the second half of the twentieth century and an important figure in the reception of classical literature on the British stage. This dissertation explores Harrison’s classical plays in relationship to their Greek and Latin models, positioning them amidst his other poetic works, and examining their cultural and historical contexts. The intent of this study is to examine these plays from a number of perspectives: intertexuality, exploring the ways in which Harrison engages with both classical literature and his own non-dramatic poetry; genre, arguing that Harrison uses not only Greek tragedy as a model, but also the other fifth-century dramatic genres of satyr play and Old Comedy, as well as nondramatic poetry, such as Latin epigrams; social and political contexts, establishing the importance of Harrison’s socio-economic and educational background in understanding the form and content of his dramatic verse, and exploring the ways in which he engages with a range of modern political issues, from the British class system to historical and contemporary military conflicts; performance, discussing Harrison’s interpretation and appropriation of fifth-century Athenian performance conventions, such as masks, as well as the influence that collaborators have had on the development of his unique theatrical style; and reception, articulating Harrison’s place within the history of the performance of English verse translations on the twentieth-century British stage, associating his work with the productions of translations by Gilbert Murray, differentiating his work from the classical adaptations of T.S. Eliot, and arguing that he is directly responsible for the recent forays into classical drama by other prominent poets, such as Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. Conclusions are drawn that what Harrison finds of value within the extant corpus of ancient literature is not the elite values of high culture in which a knowledge of Latin and ancient Greek functions as a shibboleth separating the classes (as had been the case until the post-World War II era in Britain), but a model for creating public poetry for the late-twentieth century.

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