Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Classics at Leeds under threat

The UK government recently imposed cuts on the overall grants given out to universities, making education shoulder its part of the UK government's need to cut costs. In a time of such cuts, arts and humanities subjects are vulnerable, as short-sighted utilitarians (wrongly) see them as economically unproductive. In that context, Classics is particularly vulnerable, as it is seen as elitist, old-fashioned, irrelevant and boring (all of which are wholly untrue).

We're already seeing the effects of the recession on Classics, even before this latest round of cuts was announced. The Open University has cut its intermediate Greek course, the University of Glasgow advertised for a post in Classics and then cancelled the search, and proposals were made at King's College London that included the loss of the Chair in Palaeography and two posts in Classical Art/Archaeology.

But the biggest threat so far is at Leeds, where one of the proposals being considered is to abolish the department altogether. I am absolutely flabbergasted that a long-standing institution such as Leeds could consider such a closure. On a personal note, when I was a postgraduate in Manchester, I used to visit Leeds regularly for seminars. I found the staff there to be amongst the most welcoming of departments I've ever encountered; I still enjoy catching up with them at conferences.

Members of staff at Leeds have set up a blog that explains the current situation, and there's a petition. If you care at all about Classics in the UK, and tertiary education in general, I urge you to sign it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

An open letter to Ed Balls

Rt Hon Ed Balls MP
Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families
Sanctuary Buildings
Great Smith Street
sw1p 3bt

Dear Mr Balls

I am writing concerning your comments on BBC Radio concerning the teaching of Latin. Unfortunately I did not hear these when broadcast, and am only able to judge them as reported in the media. But I gather that you stated that few businesses are asking for Latin, and that you have never been shown an inspiring Latin class, whereas you have been shown inspiring classes in dance, technology or sport.

I am not surprised that businesses are not asking for Latin, but I doubt many are asking for sport or dance either. In any case, our educational needs should not be geared solely to the needs of business. To do so would reduce our educational establishment to business schools and technology colleges, with only English and foreign languages surviving from the humanities (and even then clearly only for commercial use, and not for reading Voltaire or Tolstoy in the original). Of course we need business schools and technology colleges, but a nation that had nothing else would be intellectually and culturally impoverished.

It does not surprise me that you have never been shown an inspirational Latin lesson. But it is illogical to assume that, because you have not seen any, they do not exist. There is no subject so inherently dull that it cannot be presented to a class in an inspiring fashion by an enthusiastic and motivated teacher. Many, if not most, students able to study Latin will recognise that inspirational Latin lessons certainly exist.

I would suggest two reasons why you have not been shown any. First, the vast majority of state schools, due a number of factors, of which lack of government support is one of the more important, have dropped Latin from the syllabus. So they are not in a positio0n to show you an inspiring Latin lesson, even if they wanted to.

The second reason is that when a government minister comes to visit, a school wants to make a good impression, and so will gear what they present around what they think will contribute to that. For at least twenty years, education ministers from both parties have given the impression, explicitly or implicitly, that they do not look with favour upon Latin as a subject. Hence the school will show the minister a lesson in a subject (such as dance, technology or sport) that the minister does look upon with favour. In other words, you are not shown inspirational Latin lessons because you and most of your predecessors have given the impression that you do not want to be shown inspirational Latin lessons.

So, Mr Balls, I offer you a challenge. Next time you are in a school where Latin is taught, ask to see a Latin lesson. I think you may be surprised.

Monday, March 08, 2010

KCL and UCL Greek Plays 2010

Aeschylus, Persians
2010 King’s Greek Play, Greenwood Theatre
Performance seen: 11 February 2010

It is, as the programme notes, quite surprising that the King's Greek Play has never tackled Aeschylus' Persians before. It's a regularly studied text, because of its uniqueness as the only surviving tragedy based on historical events (indeed, events within the lifetime of the audience, featuring onstage depiction of at least one person who was still alive when the play premiered in 472 BCE). So this year, King's took on the challenge of that work.

As is often the case with King's productions, it was okay, though nothing that enormously impressed me. One potential problem with Persians is that it can end up looking very static, and in fairness, this was well-dealt with. The Chorus was used to add movement, and to underline the dialogue through their actions. There are some nods towards tradition, notably in the half-masks worn by the cast.

Other aspects were less successful. Breaking the Messenger down into two roles was innovative, but I thought they were rather aggressive towards Atossa, who is, after all, supposed to be their Queen. And having Xerxes come on stage dressed a bloodied armed soldier misses Aeschylus' point, which is made pretty explicitly in the text: Xerxes has run away from the fight before actually seeing combat, has torn his own rich oriental dress, as a woman would do, and has nothing manly about him at all.

The best performer was Petros Boutros-Vallinatos as Darius, who confidently delivered his dialogue. Charlotte Maskell as Atossa, the Persian Queen, was rather more muted, though hers is the largest part, and therefore the hardest to learn in Greek.

As with last year's Lysistrata one felt that a little more rehearsal was needed. Atossa forgot some of her lines, the Chorus were not always in unison, and the surtitles were often badly out of sync with what was actually being said. But, as ever, one must make allowances for student productions - these are not professionals, and delivering a play in a language that is not your own is difficult.

Aeschylus' Oresteia Parts II and III: Choephori and Eumenides
2010 UCL Greek and Latin Classical Play, UCL Bloomsbury Theatre
Performance seen: 12 February 2010

I would extend the same allowances to the UCL Classical Play, if they ever showed any sign of needing them. Not every UCL production is first-rate - Acharnians in 2007 was a bit weak - but it's been a long time since there was a terrible production, and more often than not, the UCL productions get it right. Of course, they do have some advantages. The need to deliver the text in Greek restricts the pool of performers from which King's can draw - UCL, in contrast, can throw a wider net, which brings in people with considerable experience of the amateur, and in some cases professional, stage. And the benefits show. (Tonight I'm off to see a performance by King's students in English, which may be a fairer comparison.)

Following on from the successful Agamemnon of 2008, in 2010 UCL decided to stage the remaining two plays from the Oresteia trilogy. The burden was eased by giving the two plays to different directors.* This ambitious scheme pays off.

Despite featuring the killing of Clytemnestra, Choephori can easily get slightly lost as the middle play, between Agamemnon and Eumenides. This production brings it into focus. Where Lisa Gosbee's Agamemnon had used masks, here she takes a more naturalistic approach (though still not entirely naturalistic). Highlights of this were the opening entrance of the Chorus, to the sound of a single clear, beautiful voice, and a strong Electra. (Though unfortunately there were a couple of times when members of the Chorus forgot their lines.)

Eumenides was done very differently, in a far more stylized approach. The ghost of Clytemnestra is projected on a screen. The Furies are whiteface goths in tutus. But it works, and doesn't jar with the approach in Choephori. I might have hoped for a more menacing Athena when she speaks to the Furies (underneath Athena's consoling words, I always feel, is an implicit message that in any fight, Athena will not be the loser), but that's a personal bee in my bonnet.

Overall then, two different, complementary and both well-done plays from UCL. I look forward to next year's performance.

* Unfortunately, I have mislaid my programme, so can give no names. I will rectify this as soon as I can.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

K.J. Dover, RIP

News reaches me of the death of Sir Kenneth Dover, one of the great Hellenists of the latter part of the twentieth century. Coincidentally, I was reading one of his books, Aristophanic Comedy, a couple of days ago, as part of my own work on Aristophanes' Frogs (yes, it's a link to Wikipedia), and wondering if he was still alive. I only met him once, very briefly, and he was quite old then.

Dover is, unfortunately, perhaps best known for some slightly silly remarks he wrote in his autobiography, Marginal Comment, about driving his Oxford colleague Trevor Aston to suicide, comments that got blown further out of proportion by the media. Within the Classics community, it is his writings that will be remembered. Greek Homosexuality was a - erm - seminal work, that set the terms of the debate on the subject, projecting a view in which male-male sexual relations were power relations between older and younger men, and not ones of mutual desire. In recent years people have been deconstructing his model of same-sex relations in the Greek world, notably James Davidson in The Greeks and Greek Love. But Dover cannot be discarded.

I've probably in recent years made most use of his work on Aristophanes - the aforementioned Aristophanic Comedy, commentaries on Frogs and Clouds, and the section on Clouds from a companion to the Penguin translation of Acharnians, Lysistrata and Clouds (the writing on Clouds, okay, I haven't used, but may well in the future). I don't always agree with Dover - like many Aristophanic scholars, I sometimes feel he gives more attention to strict philological interpretations of the text, and not enough to what actually works as comic theatre (this is why one of my academic heroes is Gilbert Murray, who knew not just how to go through a text with a fine-toothed comb, but also how to write for the stage, and allowed the latter practice to inform the former). But, again, his contributions remain of major significance. With the death earlier this year of Douglas MacDowell, another scholar whose work I respected but did not always agree with (though I think I have amended some of my opinions since I wrote that review), it's been a bad few months for Aristophanic scholarship.

Dover also made major contributions to scholarship on Thucydides. He wrote school/undergraduate commentaries on Books VI and VII, and, with Anthony Andrewes (not the Brideshead Revisited actor, who doesn't spell his name like that), completed Gomme's classic historical commentary on Thucydides. It was in these works that I first encountered Dover, as a young schoolboy setting out on what would turn out to be an erratic career in the Classics. (Inevitably, the wags at school referred to him as 'Ben' Dover. I suspect this happened in many schools.)

It was also about this time that I saw Dover on television, as part of a BBC series on the Greeks. Dover was sat talking to the documentary maker, Christopher Burstall, in a small boat off the Piraeus. I never quite understood the reason for this seemingly unnecessarily dangerous activity, but a scholar off this importance is allowed his eccentricities. And, though it's sad that he's died, at 89 he had a good and fulfilled life.