Classically Inclined

July 29, 2014

Medea at the National Theatre

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 12:24 pm
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The National Theatre’s new production of Medea has been getting positive reviews, including a considerable spread in the Evening Standard (although I think the comment about Creon being under-used misses the point of how Greek tragedy works). The script is a new version by Ben Power – unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much out there about how he’s worked with the text, although he’s doing a Platform talk on the process that I’m going to try to get to. It’s not entirely faithful to the original Greek – the nurse becomes conflated with the pedagogue and says a closing epilogue, for instance – but after teaching the play in the autumn , I could hear plenty of echoes of the original Greek in there. The language is powerful and imaginative, although quite terse and quickly paced, and keeps ancient elements like calling on the gods without trying to modernise them.

The production has an interesting approach to music – it is accompanied by new compositions from Goldfrapp, which manage to be compelling and eerie at the same time. The chorus actually sing their choral interludes, which is rather wonderful and very effective; they also dance, although I have to say that while I can see the spasmodic choreography as mirroring the emotional and psychological convulsions of the plot, it was a bit difficult to take it entirely seriously. The dance of the princess as she tried to remove the poisoned dress worked much better from that perspective. I think the musical soundtrack was one of the strongest elements of the production – it underlays everything, very much like a film score (I shall come back to that point), and so intertwines in the audience’s consciousness to very strong effect. It’s a very subtle score, enhancing emotional response without dictating it too obviously; I noticed it with a jolt in the closing scenes, not because it did anything differently, but because my brain suddenly noticed it was there! This might have more to do with my immersive attitude to theatre-going, but I can’t remember a recent production that’s handled its music this well that hasn’t been musical theatre or opera.

The chorus themselves wear dresses covered in a shabby-chic floral print that echo the woods which are presented at the back of the stage (hypothetically ‘outside’ the house in which the action takes place); it’s not until the end of the play that it becomes clear that the patterns of flowers on their dresses echo the bloodstains on Medea’s dress after she has murdered her children. The handling of the chorus is one of those particularly difficult challenges for modern productions; here, the director has them fade on and off stage, meaning they can be read either as ‘real’ characters or as figments of Medea’s imagination, which was a convincing approach. They also made good use of a boxed-off room at mezzanine level, in which the wedding of Jason and Creusa was played out – that let the audience see the progress of the party (and Creusa’s eventual death-dance) without detracting from the action in the ‘main’ house.

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July 24, 2014

On the road – upcoming schedule

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:40 pm
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I have spent most of the last few months running around conferences like billy-o – and it’s not over yet! I’m around for some things in August and September, and if you’re interested, you may want to come along…

15th August 2014: ‘A common thread: Representations of the Minotaur in London’, Diversity in Speculative Fiction, LonCon3 Academic Track, London.

19th August 2014: ‘Fathers, be good to your daughters: Seneca, Augustus and familial ethics’, Commemorating Augustus: A Bimillennial Re-evaluation, Leeds.

16th September 2014: ‘Avoiding the master’s house: Representing women’s space on the Roman comic stage’, Is Gender Still Relevant? Examining The State of Play in the Historical Disciplines, Bradford.

These are all papers that have seen the light of day in one form or another, but I’m looking forward to getting the ideas out to some new audiences and to getting some new feedback. Hope to see some of you there!

July 21, 2014

The vexed question of the departmental photocopier, circa 1903

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:45 pm
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One of the things I discovered when I was traipsing through the Newnham College archives, more specifically through the minutes of the Education Committee, was a set of exchanges that demonstrated how very little changes in academia. These days, it’s quite common for departments to debate what to do about the departmental photocopier – can we afford a new one? If we can, are we going to get one of those whizzy ones that can scan, and if so, how whizzy do we want to go? Most importantly, who is going to understand how to work the blessed thing once we’ve got it?

The women on the staff of Newnham College in 1903 did not need to worry about creating PDFs and having paperless offices, but they did have produce printed material for various teaching purposes – the classicists, for instance, needed stocks of passages for translation from English into Latin and Greek, as well as ‘fair copies’ of what the passage could look like for students to consult after they had made their own attempts. Given the problems we moderns encounter in setting Greek font, I can only imagine the trouble that my foremothers had. It’s quite telling that in one of Winnie Seebohm’s letters home in October 1885, she mentions that Edith Sharpley was “teaching a printer-boy Greek, so that he can set up Greek types and so gain a higher salary” – I suspect that Edith’s motives may have been driven by a touch of self-interest so she had somebody she could rely on to produce the materials she needed.

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June 6, 2014

The rara avis of research

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:09 am
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I realised a month or so ago that there had been very little content on here about my research lately, so this post is an attempt to fill in that gap. There are several reasons for the sudden hiatus – as I mentioned in my end of year round-up, the spring term was full with teaching preparation, which didn’t leave a lot of time for doing much else. The other main reason for there not being much to say is that the biggest chunk of my work over the last year has been editing three of my dissertation chapters and writing a new chapter, beginning the process of putting together a book manuscript; there are still two chapters left to edit before the whole thing is done (or at least, done until I get more peer review feedback). While this is important and serious work, it’s not terribly bloggable – I’m not thinking out new ideas, I’m making sure that I’m communicating existing ideas as efficiently as I could be. Similarly, there’s been quite a bit of editing/finessing work on other projects, like the Ad Polybium article, which is again all very important but not as exciting as classical reception at Eurovision. However, alongside this worthy stuff, there have been a couple of new projects quietly bubbling away – here are the highlights.

Grants, grants, grants: yes, in the new and exciting world of academia, even those of us in humanities have to bring in grant money. Thankfully, the AHRC has a scheme that makes that seem sensible rather than daft, namely their Early Career Researcher grant linked to their ‘Care For The Future’ subtheme. The lovely thing about these grants is that they are designed to be collaborative projects between ECRs which have grown out of a workshop that took place earlier in the year – it’s an example of coming up with new interdisciplinary ideas that fit people rather than trying to squeeze something you already want to do into guidelines and claim it’s interdisciplinary really. I’ve been involved with developing two proposals as a result of the workshop, which were submitted today. I’ve been doing quite a bit of work on both of them one way or another, so I hope that they will do well in the funding call; whatever happens, it’s been a very useful learning experience even to get this far.

Women as Classical Scholars: I wrote a little about the early stages of this project back in November; it’s an investigation of the women who taught Classics at Newnham College between 1882 and 1922. Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have been seeing the occasional burst of archive-related tweets as I’ve been working through the data gathering stage of the project. I’ve got a first draft written which needs quite a bit of work, but the archive work is done. There is far more research to be done here, but this will be a beneficial first stage for a bigger project.

Public speaking: I may have overdone this a bit this year – I’ve committed myself to five academic talks or seminars in as many months, plus an outreach talk at the end of this month. Which means they all need writing. (Incidentally, if anyone fancies coming to RHUL’s School Teachers’ Colloquium on Roman culture on 20th June, there are more details here.) In fairness, most of these are either projects I’ve been mulling over for a while or spin-offs of existing work, and I’m giving one of the talks twice in two very different venues. However, I think I’ve paid my conference dues for this year and the next, and unless someone offers me something absolutely irresistible, I think I get 2014-15 off from submitting abstracts.

So that’s what I’ve been doing – quite bitty, quite difficult to pin down in any coherent way, but all adding up to a not-at-all bad picture. I’m wondering whether doing a summer goals post this year is actually a helpful thing or not – quite honestly, meeting all my deadlines and getting on with editing the final two book chapters would be more than enough for me.

May 29, 2014

Lily Allen’s Imperial Ambitions

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:52 am
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Lily AllenFor the last couple of weeks, when I’ve jumped out of the tube on my commute into work, I’ve been greeted by the poster which I’ve photographed here. I should point out that I know very little about Lily Allen’s music, and have no particular interest in commenting on it, but here was a really interesting use of Latin that I wanted to mull over.

The Latin in question is, as you will see, the motto Divide Et Impera, or ‘Divide And Rule’. Grammatically, three points occur. First, it’s a convenient fact that divide and the English divide look the same, so that anyone without a Latin background will probably get the general ‘divide and conquer’ gist.  Second, divide and impera are in the singular imperative – that is, they are only ordering one person to do something (and, it has to be said, ordering them very directly rather than politely using the hortatory subjunctive, but that’s less by the by). Third, both divide and impera are transitive verbs – that is, they take direct objects, things to be divided and conquered. Those things are not specified here. So the grammar of the motto leaves us asking who is being ordered, and what is to be divided and conquered?

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May 20, 2014

Julian Anderson’s Thebans at the ENO

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 3:27 pm
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Anyone thinking that classical reception has had its day in anything except cheesy cinema should take a look at Julian Anderson’s new opera Thebans, having its premier run at the English National Opera at the moment. Regular readers will know that there is quite a lot of classical reception knocking around in opera, so Anderson is following a well-established inspirational route (as indeed was Harrison Birtwhistle). It was very exciting to be in the audience for one of the earliest performances a couple of weeks ago – but, as you might have gathered, I have some thoughts on how this material was used and put together. I don’t have a great deal to say about the musical side, but here are a couple of reviews which do just that.

Anderson had set himself quite an ambitious task in getting the three Theban plays into one opera, and has fiddled around with the order – he starts with Oedipus Rex, going to Antigone for the second act, and Oedipus Colonus for the finale. Anderson argues in his program notes that his reason for doing this was to create more dramatic unity. Each act begins with a chronological subtitle (‘past’, ‘future’ and ‘present’) so we know where we are in the arc; this adds to a sense of inevitability about the plot’s movement, but does take a bit of the bite out of the bleak dead end which closes Antigone. In order to get everything in, Anderson has also done some rigorous pruning – Oedipus Rex takes up the hour or so of the first act, but Antigone is given twenty minutes, and Oedipus at Colonus has half an hour. Again, this is probably favourable to slavishly following the structure of the originals, especially since they were not originally written as a trilogy. However, those choices to cut have consequences.

At first, I was quite keen on the Antigone being trimmed that much – I think it’s a difficult play to produce well, because the plot’s reliance on an audience understanding the tension between honouring your state and honouring your gods tends to flummox modern directors (see my thoughts on the National’s recent Antigone). However, the problem that Anderson’s trimming of the play creates is that Antigone herself is more or less side-lined – her great agon with Creon is all but gone, and instead the emphasis lies on the relationship between Creon and his son Haemon. Antigone’s probing challenge to the state is replaced by Creon’s suffering at his calamitous parenting; Antigone’s death becomes tragic because of the action it causes for Haemon rather than her sacrifice and commitment to principles. She also becomes almost silent. As you may imagine, I have Issues with adaptations that silence women’s voices, particularly those from the ancient world (even if they are voices enacted by men).

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May 12, 2014

Classical reception at Eurovision 2014

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:55 am
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As anyone who follows my Twitter feed will know, I spent Saturday night curled up in front of Eurovision. Because, frankly, we finally have a proper television, and I am fully in favour of anything that lets me watch great big showcase cheesiness. Of course, the problem with watching anything this pop-culture-y is that there is a fair chance that something related to classical reception will turn up on the screen, and my wee analytical brain will jump into action.

This year, the most sustained offering came from Italy:

This is La Mia Città performed by Emma Marrone. If you look at a translation of the lyrics, you will see it is a paean to modern city living, presumably in Rome – commuting, finding a parking space, urban narcissism, getting high heels stuck in manhole covers, the lot. Fine. However, the costume stylists clearly decided that urban commuter was not a look they were going for this season, so they tapped into the ancestral heritage of the country instead. Emma is given a marvellous white tunic with gold spangling that looks, certainly from the waist up, very reminiscent of a Roman military breastplate; a big white cape with a rather nice jewelled neck clasp, just in case we weren’t getting the military allusion, particularly at the start of the sequence; and a golden laurel wreath in her hair, the symbol of the military victor and holder of imperium. In fact, the whole band get to have golden laurels, even the keytar player. (I couldn’t get a good enough look at Emma’s shoes in the footage to establish their design beyond the fact they have very high heels, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some element of sandal straps in there.)

However, as far as classical reception goes, that’s it. From what I could see in the footage of the big stage screens, no ancient imagery turns up, although there were one or two glyphs that you might have argued were vaguely ancient if you felt like pushing it, and a bit of circling Greek keys pattern. The lyrics had no particular classical interest; they don’t even specify that the city under discussion is Rome, clearly aiming to have general appeal for metropolitan voters. The staging was not particularly interesting and didn’t make any use of the classical possibilities – the band stood still whilst Emma strode around (a time-honoured Eurovision pattern). Which raises the question – why bother going classical in the first place?

It’s not as if you can’t use classical reception in a really interesting way in musical performances – Madonna’s Superbowl half-time show in 2012 showed us that it’s possible to take the theme and do conceptually clever and witty things with it. Unfortunately, Italy this year haven’t gone in that direction. Instead, they’ve chosen to essentially run with a stripped-down basic visual semantics that says ‘ancient Roman imperialism’ that we’re all just supposed to get. Apart from a few suggestions that Emma was channelling She-Ra, in the main all the responses on Twitter seem to have happily gone along with it. Nobody’s saying ‘what the hell? Why? What does this mean? What are we meant to make of this visual combination of white and gold? What’s with the head-pieces?’ – because everybody knows how to read this stuff.

Sadly, the Italian team didn’t decide to do anything beyond telling us they know their own heritage, and know we know it. The only possible interpretation I can come up with is that it was a subliminal attempt to influence the voters at home by suggesting that the group had authority over Eurovision and were the only possible victors – not an angle supported either by the song or the staging. A wasted opportunity, methinks.

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April 30, 2014

Good news from Classics at Leeds

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:13 am
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The threat to the department of Classics at Leeds mainly took place during 2010 and 2011, before this blog really got off the ground. Since then, the department have been working behind the scenes to agree a solution which would provide long-term stability for them. It was thus with great pleasure that I saw the latest announcement about that conversation, from which I provide the incipit here:

As followers of this blog will know, the Department of Classics at Leeds has been under university review since August 2010, and its future has been subject to varying degrees of uncertainty ever since.

Today, however, the University has formally approved a plan for Classics to exit the review process. From 1st August 2014 the Department is to be integrated into our School of Modern Languages and Cultures: the School is to be renamed ‘of Languages, Cultures and Societies’, the better to reflect the wide range of its research specialisms; within the School, Classics will be administratively partnered with Italian.

This means that the threat to job security has been lifted, and we are now in a position to plan positively for the future. Indeed, we will shortly be advertising at least one new permanent post. We look forward to benefiting from the economies of scale in administrative and support structures which integration into the larger unit will bring, and to exploring the exciting potential for collaborative research and teaching with our new modern-linguist colleagues.

You can read the full post, with more details, here.

April 25, 2014

The Classical Association Conference 2014 – Nottingham

Filed under: Uncategorized — lizgloyn @ 9:49 am
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Last week classicists from around the country were hosted by the University of Nottingham for the annual Classical Association conference; long-time readers may remember my conference report from the 2012 event. I had been referring in jest to my break in sunny Nottingham, but the weather took me at my word – we had glorious sunshine, and were able to enjoy the beauties of University Park campus, including a wonderful lake for strolling around. For the academic side of things, those of you who follow me on Twitter will have seen that the hashtag #CA14 was getting good traffic, and not just from me – we’ve been praised from many different quarters for the quality of our livetweeting. (This may or may not have anything to do with the fact that on Wednesday evening I decided we probably needed a livetweeting protocol, and lo, by Friday we had a livetweeting protocol.)

From a social point of view, the difference between my 2012 experience and last week’s was huge. It seemed I could hardly turn a corner without seeing somebody I wanted to say hello to, somebody whose work I knew and I wanted to introduce myself to, somebody I’d heard speak, somebody I’d sat with during dinner, somebody I knew from the States… it felt good to feel as if I have now got enough of a UK network to be able to feel as if three and a half days isn’t enough to talk to all the interesting people I know. There was also a good chance to meet new people, created by the CA’s policy of sitting everyone on communal tables for dinner; you can sit with friends on one side and new friends on the other, which is a great way of breaking down all sorts of unhelpful hierarchies. Nobody can think about hierarchies while there is dessert on offer.

And what of the academic side? (more…)

April 12, 2014

Top ten blog posts – year three

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 12:29 pm
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Well, I did it for the first two anniversaries, so I think that means it’s a tradition… yes, this is the blog’s third birthday! I know that the last year has been a little bit less active because of the new job and a lot of general upheaval, but thank you for those who are still here and still reading; I hope that as things settle down over the coming year, I’ll be able to post a bit more frequently and include a few more thoughts about my research. So here are the top ten posts for the past year – enjoy!

  1. How to write a thesis introduction – an ever popular post still here at the top; overall, this one post counts for about half of the blog’s annual traffic. All I can say is that I hope that it helps a good number of the people who find it.
  2. How to write a conference abstract – this one has started to get institutionalised and various official conferences point people to it, so it’s no surprise that it’s still getting a good number of hits.
  3. The Shield of Achilles – classical reception thoughts on W.H. Auden’s poem that seems to get a lot of interest – I have no idea whether English teachers are setting it as an assignment, but at least it’s proving popular.
  4. Freud, the uncanny and monsters – my thoughts on Freud, the uncanny and where classical monsters which aren’t Medusa fit into a psychoanalytic model. Written after reading his essay on the unheimlich.
  5. Tips For Conferences, or “Don’t Wear Pearls  – my tips on going to conferences, or what happens after you’ve had your abstract accepted.
  6. Film Review: Quo Vadis (1951) – classical reception observations on one of the influential films in the field.
  7. Film Review: The 300 Spartans (1962) – more of the same, thinking about the film in a classical reception framework.
  8. Book review: Becoming a critically reflective teacher – Stephen D. Brookfield – when I wrote this review, I had no idea how influential Brookfield would become in my general model for generating student feedback. I hope other people find themselves drawn to the book by my review.
  9. Classicist Women on Twitter – very pleased that this has made it into the top ten! My post paralleling the Twitter list that curates a list of women doing classics on Twitter. Always open for nominations.
  10. The classical pedagogy of trigger warnings – thoughts on how to flag up sensitive material (in this case poems dealing with abusive relationships and sexual assault) in a class syllabus without removing students’ agency or failing in my duty of care towards vulnerable students.
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