Classically Inclined

September 2, 2014

Classics on television: Plebs

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:07 am
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I wrote this post last year and then forgot to post it… as the second season has been announced, I thought now was as good a time as any to post it. Enjoy!

I’m sure most of you picked up on the ITV2 show Plebs that finished its first season recently. I’m not planning to say a great deal about individual episodes – Juliette Harrison has done that much more eloquently and systematically already – but I did want to make a few observations, not least because this is the first Roman-based television series to be done for a while in UK television. It’s playing with a couple of traditions of British comedy – when the series was first announced, parallels were drawn with Chelmsford 123, while in execution it definitely acknowledges its debt to a particular form of British awkward comedy serials like Gavin and Stacey and The IT Crowd. So, how successful was it?

plebs-itvTime to invoke the first rule of classical reception – this is not about accuracy and whether the slum hovel that the boys rent is an accurate representation of slum hovels in ancient Rome. Plebs made no secret of the fact that it saw itself as primarily being about what would happen if you took modern people and stuck them in Rome – it’s not interested in doing the sort of thing that even Spartacus: Blood and Sand does in exploring the life of a gladiator, sex, brutality and all (and also far fewer intentional laughs, but I digress). It’s not particularly interested in getting historical accuracy – but it does capture some very Roman attitudes, and once the series gets going it starts to engage with some elements of historical fact in interesting ways.

That ‘once the series gets going’ is quite important, to me at least – I found that I enjoyed the series a lot more once the pace had settled down and the writers had got the bodily function stuff out of the way. Humour is one of those very personal things, I know, and I don’t mean to seem prudish, but scatological jokes have always been a negative for me, and I did get perilously close to not finishing the series after That Scene With The Togas. However, it seems as if the writers were having a bit of an insecurity moment, and once they’d got past that phase, the jokes started to feel funnier.

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August 11, 2014

Film review: Hercules (2014)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:32 am

We’re quite fond of Dwayne Johnson in our house. He’s got good form on historical-ish fantasy films (see The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King), plus he played a tooth fairy opposite Julie Andrews – what’s not to like? So we were looking forward to the new Hercules - Ian McShane as Amphiaraus, Rufus Sewell as Autolycus and John Hurt as Lord Cotys basically have far too much fun chewing the scenery, which is in and of itself utterly glorious. It’s a film that’s having fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously, which immediately makes it more enjoyable to watch. But I’ve watched plenty of atrocious cinema in the name of classical reception in my time – so why did this not only feel like a more fun viewing experience than Immortals, but also a more successful one from the classical reception perspective?

One thing strongly in its favour is its choice of theme. Some recent films have got, frankly, a bit overawed with the idea of Family as a unifying concept for classical reception films, normally in terms of sorting out questions of Male Identity and Man’s Place In This World, and it gets a bit superficial after a while. (I wrote about this a bit in terms of the Clash of the Titans remake if you’re interested – link to PDF.) Hercules couldn’t care less – we’re not dealing with an identity crisis here, or at least, not one that springs out of a contested identity. What the movie is far more interested in are questions of deception and appearance – how do we know what is true? How do we know what really happened?

This attitude first reveals itself in a wonderful meta-awareness of how ancient myth actually worked, and allows the movie to wear that heritage lightly. Hercules, it turns out, isn’t a one-man show – he comes with a team. One of that team is his nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), whose job is to sing the tales of Hercules and thus put fear into his enemies. Except the tales he sings are, shall we say, massaged. They are explicitly not the truth. In them, Hercules becomes the son of Zeus rather than an orphan; he alone slays fantastic enemies, without the help of his team; his skin becomes invulnerable and his lion skin becomes impenetrable. We see the creation of a myth happen in front of us, but as a deliberate choice on the part of the characters who are mainly interested in getting the next paid commission – which is easier if you have good PR. Sure, Hercules is strong and performs feats of strength, but isn’t it more sellable if he’s also a son of Zeus? That lightness of touch means the ‘myth is all created, innit’ feels freer than, for instance, Immortals‘ rather clunky True Origins of the Minotaur story.

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August 6, 2014

New publication: My family tree goes back to the Romans

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:57 pm
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As those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, at the minute I am elbow-deep in assessing the revisions needed for chapter six of the book manuscript. I have just realised that I haven’t officially announced that a version of that chapter is already out in publication, as of a few months ago!

“My family tree goes back to the Romans: Seneca’s approach to the family in the Epistulae Morales” appears in Seneca Philosophus, a volume that came out of a conference in Paris about Seneca as a philosopher which I was unable to attend because – cheerful irony of ironies – it took place on the weekend of PhD graduation, so I kind of needed to be on another continent. However, I wrote to the conference organiser because I wanted sight of the paper she’d given, explaining what my interest was – and, lo and behold, she asked whether my book would be finished in time for consultation for the conference volume. As that was totally out of the range of possibility, I said so and sent her my Epistulae Morales chapter in PDF form instead. She then invited me to contribute it to the conference volume as it would make a good addition to the range of pieces talking about the letter collection.

Given that I had no idea how long it would take me to get the PhD into a book manuscript shape, I jumped at the chance to get some of my research out, and in a volume that contains some of the most significant scholars currently writing on Seneca, no less. So it’s out there, and in a book! Which is very exciting.

Of course, this now leaves me in a slightly perplexing place with what is now chapter six of the book manuscript. There are several discussions that didn’t make it into the Family Tree chapter, not least because of reasons of length, and because the argument that chapter makes had to stand alone rather than finish off the dissertation as a whole. I got some very good feedback on the Family Tree chapter as a stand-alone piece that I’m incorporating into the revised chapter six, but I’m also realising just how much I need to do in order to make sure that it does what I need it to do in terms of the overall book’s direction. It says a lot about the progress I’ve made over the last few years that I’m seeing so many different things I want to change and improve compared to the first time that I revised it – the only downside is that I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. Never mind – the chapter is out there, if anyone wants to read it and get a head-start on the book!

August 4, 2014

On social media and impact – a reflection

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 2:30 pm
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I mentioned a while ago that I’d been asked to co-facilitate an event run by the Classical Reception Studies Network about impact and social media. Now that event has taken place, I thought I’d put a couple of thoughts down about it. The event was sort-of-livetweeted by others using the hashtag #csrn, but I don’t think any of us got around to archiving those tweets (ironic, given that one of the things we discussed was the use of Storify).

The afternoon was essentially an opportunity for people who were using social media in various ways to talk about how we used it and what platforms worked, and for people who were interested in using social media in the future or who wanted to know how they might improve their usage to learn, ask for ideas and so forth. Nobody acted as an expert, although the experiences of Emma Bridges (who moderates Classics International over on Facebook) and myself provided a starting-off point for discussions.  I have to admit that my decision to come onto various social media platforms was horribly calculated – my very first post provided a rationale for why I was doing this, although as my post a year later showed, my manifesto shifted and indeed continues to shift depending on how much energy I’ve got spare. Before I got onto Twitter I even (horror of horrors) got out a book from the university library about how to manage one’s brand on-line to work out what I was doing. But oddly enough, that deliberate approach has saved me from a lot of the pitfalls and confusions that I’ve encountered on other platforms, like Facebook (which I got onto because some old students told me I really should be, and now is an odd space full of friends, family, old students and senior colleagues). This sense of needing to work out boundaries and what you are actually doing was something everyone shared – having a clear aim definitely seemed to work better than just sort of hoping.

Another point that came up was the importance of accepting that you can’t control the internet – there’s no point in defining success in metrics about how many people  read or engage with things, because online space can’t be controlled in that way. (See, for instance, the fact that the post with the most hits on here is about writing a thesis introduction, not anything to do with my research or teaching.) Another point that emerged in the conversation was about community – many people commented on how good it was to speak to others in the field, build networks with people in other countries, and cross the interdisciplinary boundaries through the more informal engagement possible on something like Twitter.

I learned things myself – for instance, Silvie Kilgallon gave us a great explanation of how Tumblr works through her various sites, including the Stitched Iliad project and Aristotelian Complacency. I now understand how Tumblr functions, although I have to admit that it’s not for me – it doesn’t really fit with what I’m doing or how I tend to communicate my work. But this was another important thing that I wanted to say, and I think did get said, which was that there wasn’t any point in Doing Stuff on social media unless it worked for you. In the days of graduate training enthusiastically telling every graduate to set up a blog, I think it’s worth pausing to ask why you are doing these things and what it achieves. Without a clear sense of what you are about, it becomes very easy to lose focus and thus lose motivation. And, as we all agreed, there’s nothing sadder than discovering a dead blog that hasn’t been updated in months with no farewell post.

The final important point that came out of the workshop was that social media has a particularly helpful role to play when it comes to classical reception studies. Those of us (like me) who talk a lot about books, films and other forms of cultural production can reach out to the people consuming this material, and indeed in some cases to the people producing it. That means our scholarship has the chance of reaching beyond the walls of the academy and to a general interest audience – some of whom will be reading this post now. And if you are, thank you. Having the chance to talk about my research and my general thoughts about the subject I love to people who aren’t colleagues or students is precious, and I’m glad that you all stick around to listen.

There is an official report on the workshop written by Carol Atack available in PDF form.

Edit: We also seem to have spawned a blog.

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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