Ancient Greek Plays for the Classroom

Antigone and the body of Polynices,
Print Collector/Getty Images

I was first introduced to Readers Theater plays, or script-stories, when I became a Latin teacher in 2014. They were appropriately aged for my high school classroom, they were short enough that most could be read in a class period, and they served well in both my Latin classes and in the Classical Mythology classes I taught later. The first I encountered were written, illustrated, and sold by Zachary Hamby, a fellow teacher in the Missouri Ozarks, who, from what I could tell as a newbie, had made quite the side business from his creations.

And this was enough for me to try my hand at it as well. This was an ingenious way to get my students to inhabit the mindset of the characters I had been parading in front of them at a rapid pace. Some stories, like that of Atreus and Thyestes, were too much like an episode of Jerry Springer not to be interesting, what with their incest, murder, doubled-crossing, and gritty, emotional draw. But, then, such is the nature of Greek drama. Yet some seemed to be slipping by the wayside of curricular centrality without much ado. Writing these Readers Theater plays was one way of creating some ado.

Sophocles’ Antigone

Polish theater poster for Antigone

The first one I decided to write was Antigone since I had noticed that the English department in my school no longer even taught the classic work in their 10th grade English classes. I’m not even sure what replaced it, but it certainly wasn’t Euripides or even Homer, for God’s sake. The classics, whether Greek or Roman, had been trashed, and the most likely reason was that the translation our school had was done in the late 19th or early 20th century. You know, when Harvard’s entrance exam included a question which simply inquired, “Pericles: the Man and his Policy.”

This was a call to action, but how to ingratiate Antigone to my students? At first, I had considered having the district purchase updated translations. But then I thought better of this. Even with contemporary translations, I needed to make the leap between the work itself and the students, where they were in this day and age. Enter the script-story.

I have to say – with a great group of kids, the first Readers Theater I wrote went over perfectly. They understood the nuance I had written into the characters, they were elated or driven into the ground by the outcome of the story, and, along, the way, I had been able to show them a classic structure for story-writing: Freytag’s Pyramid, otherwise known as dramatic structure.

Euripides’ Medea

Medea by Euripides, Hackett Publishing

No, not Tyler Perry’s Madea. This was the requisite question asked, every time. When I was in college and read Medea for the first time, I was struck both by the stark brutality of the ending and by the triteness of the Deus Ex Machina that the ending employs. I wanted to engage my students in this work and see what they experienced when first reading the script-story. And, after we read though my script-story in class, I was not disappointed in the reactions. Some were shocked by the ceaseless violence. Some were angered by Jason’s betrayal. Some were grossed out by Medea’s fratricide, then by her filicide. These reactions, to me, in this age of viral videos, memes, reality television, leaked information, and clickbait; were the hook that I needed to get my students’ invested in a character, in the story, in the author. These classroom plays allowed me to get their attention long enough to tell them that the story they had just read was written 2,500 years ago.

And to those students with enough imagination, that made them wonder just what else was out there. What else had been written between then and now that could move me like this Greek story had? Why did it take rape, murder, incest, and black magic to move me? Why not love, redemption, romance, and the miracle of everyday happenstance? Why not come up with these questions, with better questions, and maybe some answers on my own?

But that’s when the bell rings.

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