Why bother reading or watching plays written 2,500 years ago?

Dr Michael Scott goes in search of the answer in new BBC4 series Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth


Why bother reading or watching plays written 2,500 years ago? How can they possibly be of any relevance or interest to our world today?


These are questions often asked about the tragedies and comedies of ancient Greece and Rome. But I think there are three key reasons why it is absolutely worth our while.

First – the tragedies of ancient Greece speak to some of the most fundamental aspects of our human nature, which has changed little since the time of the ancient world. Emotions like love and hate as well as issues like duty, justice, revenge, right and wrong, are the stuff of tragedy. The first time I saw Euripides ‘Trojan Women’ – about what happens to those left behind when war has ravaged a society – I was moved to tears.

Second – Greek tragedy puts people into impossible situations and plays with how they – and the audience watching – should react. Like any good piece of theatre modern or ancient, the tragedies of ancient Greece don’t let the audience walk away, but demand that you keep chewing it over. Equally, the comedies of the playwright Aristophanes kept the democracy of ancient Athens on its toes, not allowing itself to get complacent. And those plays continue to do their work today. Performances of Aeschylus ‘Persians’ have been put on recently to reflect the difficulties of conquest, and Greek tragedies have recently been performed as far away as the favellas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to act as a focus for community discussion and cohesion. And my favourite: Aristophanes’ Lysistrata – the comedy in which all the women of Athens went on a sex strike to force their husbands to stop fighting – was apparently recently put on in Columbia to try and discourage drug cartels from killing one another!

Third – the tragedies and comedies of ancient Greece and Rome stand at the font of our own traditions of drama. The architecture, language and style of our theatrical world owe much to theirs. One of the best examples of this is the comedy writer Menander. He was writing in the last part of the 4th century BC and his comedy is situation comedy, with titles like ‘The Grumpy Old Man’. It’s about caricature personalities, domestic bliss and torment. Menander was a huge influence on Roman comedians like Plautus and Terence, but also on Shakespeare, and Menander’s influence can even be felt in more modern sit-coms like One Foot in the Grave, Men Behaving Badly, Friends, Frasier –  all of them owe something to Menander. The irony is, however, that we have so few of his original plays surviving to us today (they occasionally appear on papyri in the desert in Egypt when we find ancient rubbish dumps!). He was a massive influence and yet we can’t know as much about his writing as we would like!

This series – Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth follows the story of the development of theatre in ancient Greece and charts its changing place in Greek and Roman society, as well as its importance for us today.

Michael will be tweeting during the shows – use the hashtag #greektheatre2013 to send in your questions and comments.

Find out more about Dr Michael Scott here.

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth starts tonight at 9:00pm on BBC4.