Forgetful old history has left us only 32 Ancient Greek tragedies, seven each from Aeschylus and Sophocles, and 18 from Euripides. That's 32 out of more than 1000 written in fifth-century Athens. You may wonder whether that's really fair. After all, at least 20 of Plautus's comedies survive, and what have they given us? Frankie Howerd in a toga?
But still, we make a lot from what we've got, for it seems that not a month goes by in Melbourne without a theatrical resurrection of the Ancient Greeks.
Speaking with Time Out earlier this year, in between workshopping a devised version of Antigone and a staging an adaptation of Philoctetes, director and dramaturge Anne-Louise Sarks said, "This is probably not the thing to say right before we begin rehearsals, but we were pretty sick of the Greeks."
Many might agree, and yet, just like Oedipus unto Thebes, something always draws us back. In October, Sarks will be directing Euripides's Medea at Belvoir in Sydney, while The Hayloft Project, of which she is artistic director, will be workshopping Sophocles' Oedipus The King at Theatre Works.
This month, however, we're looking at a different Oedipus, On the Misconception of Oedipus. It's being billed as a prequel, looking the events that came before the horrific denouement described by Sophocles, particularly the decision of Jocasta and Laius to conceive a child, in spite of the oracular warning that Laius will die at the hands of his own son.
According to director and co-devisor of the work, Matthew Lutton, ancient tragedians provide an unusually robust structure within which to discuss difficult moral and philosophical problems. "There's no preciousness associated with the writing. That's what, for instance, Freud saw in them."
Lutton is also an associate director at the Malthouse, a venue which over the last seven years has seen its share of Greek revivals. "It's a place where people are endlessly interested in bringing together those explorations of form, which is what these plays allow," he says. "A lot of people at the Malthouse are real gatherers of these ancient materials."
As Lutton points out, the plays do not seem naturalistic in the sense of being rooted in a particular time or place. It's more a kind of gestural writing that closely illustrates the form of the drama, allowing for a lot of different material to be laid over the top.
"We see reinterpretations of Shakespeare's text, but rarely see new translations," he says. "With Sophocles, the text is often just a springboard into something else."
It's a little like the statues from the Parthenon. They come down to us stripped of all their paint, their topical colour. What we have are austere, highly resilient forms, carved from marmoreal myth: clean surfaces that we re-colour with our imagination, like an ancient, ever renewing colouring book.