Greek & Roman Studies 260: Poetry & Performance (2019)


This course will examine examples of Athenian tragedy and comedy and their performative contexts as reflections of the cultural, economic, and political concerns and conflicts within the Athenian polis and between Athens and other communities of Greek-speaking world. It will then study how artists of the African Diaspora have translated, adapted, and re-envisioned these works as vehicles to represent aspects of their cultures and similarly comment on the concerns and conflicts within their communities and between their communities and external forces.

In collaboration with the Program of Interdisciplinary Humanities: Ancient and Modern at Howard University, this course will be linked with Classics 720: Greek Drama and Africana Receptions at Howard, so students will participate in combined class sessions, share their observations in written form with students and faculty members from both of the participating institutions, and collaboratively develop dramatic pieces. Students at both locations will also meet separately once or twice a week. Students will also work collaboratively with students, dancers, and performers affiliated with New Ballet Ensemble on a production of the dramatic pieces, which NBE will perform at the National Civil Rights Museum.

This course fulfills the F4 (“Read and interpret literary texts”) requirement for graduation. The ability to read and interpret literary texts constitutes a central element of a liberal education and provides the basis for learning beyond your undergraduate experience. Courses that fulfill this requirement aim to “refine” your “analytical skills” and develop your “awareness of the power of language” by helping you read significant works of literature critically and sensitively. “Significant works” in this case refers to those that are crucial for an understanding of a particular culture or have influenced subsequent creative activity within that culture or beyond. In particular, we will focus on the work of verbal artists in performance. At the conclusion of this course  through ,”a sustained and substantive study of literature” you should have developed an understanding of these works of verbal art and be able to describe and discuss the following:

• How verbal artists, i.e., poets, writers, and playwrights use language to articulate their ideas, normal speech (although the plays can embed such speech) or other forms of verbal art.

• How they situated themselves in a creative tradition by appropriating and transforming traditional narratives and the work of earlier artists.

• How they made their compositions available to specific audiences and responded to the various performative contexts.

• How they addressed artistic expectations and worked within the political and social frameworks of their patrons and audiences.

This course also fulfills the F9 (“View the world from more than one cultural perspective”) requirement for graduation. In order to live and work effectively in a culturally diverse world, liberally educated individuals cultivate the ability to view and understand issues and events from cultural perspectives that differ from their own. This ability requires in-depth analysis of issues that bring to the forefront similarities and differences in cultural values, beliefs, worldviews and identities. This course will provide students with an opportunity to explore contemporary cultural artifacts from African and African-American contexts through comparisons with works that have survived from ancient Greece, not only illuminating the values, beliefs, and world views found in their respective cultures, but inviting students, regardless of their cultural background, to consider the bases for their own cultural identities, values, beliefs, and worldviews. Examples of how this course will explore various cultural perspectives include:

• Establishing parallels and identifying contrasts between events and ideas in different historical and cultural contexts, for example between the context of choral performances in the Athenian Greater Dionysia, for example the production of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus in 401 BCE and the production of The Gospel of Colonus, an adaptation of Sophocles’ play by Lee Breuer and Bob Telson, set in a black Pentacostal service.

• Exploring how the culture of ancient Greece provided models for appropriation and transformation by subsequent cultures, for example how Euripides’ Medea provides an archetype for There Are Women Waiting: The Tragedy of Medea Jackson by Edris Cooper.

• Developing a sense of caution toward generalizations and categorical explanations given the nature of the material that has survived from antiquity and the vastly different cultural perspectives of people who lived 2500 years ago compared with those of diverse contemporary societies.

• Situating this particular study of drama within the interdisciplinary context of modern institutions of higher education by highlighting the way approaches grounded in different disciplines such as anthropology, theater, art, and archaeology inform how we work with these texts and contribute to the objective of understanding what they tell us about the human condition.

Materials for this course are available by following the links below: