Greek fire

The Cambridge Greek Play, a triennial event, will be staged next week. In 2019, it tells the tragic story of Oedipus at Colonus. There will also be a Greek play symposium, taking place on Sunday 20th October. The performance of Greek plays, in their original tongue, has had a long and distinguished history at Cambridge, not least as the springboard for many a talented composer, and actor.

Famous names who have been involved in the sequence include composers, Vaughan Williams, Parry, Stanford, and Mervyn Cooke, ghost-story writer and Provost of King’s, M.R. James, poet, Rupert Brooke, actors James Mason and Tom Hiddlestone, designer, Gwen Raverat (grand-daughter of Charles Darwin), and musicians, Simon Preston, and Roger Vignoles.

Here at the UL, we’re staging a small exhibition in the Anderson Room to celebrate another performance.

The first of the triennial series, Ajax, was staged in 1882 at St. Andrew’s Hall, which later became the Theatre Royal, Cambridge (now part of the Buddhist Centre on Newmarket Road). Virginia Woolf’s first cousin, J.H.K. Stephens, played the lead role, while A.C. Benson, poet and writer of the lyrics to Land of Hope and Glory, was the Chorus-leader, (he achieved first class honours in Classics in 1884), while George Macfarren, then Professor of Music, at Cambridge composed the music. A young Charles Villiers Stanford, at the time conductor of CUMS, was Musical Director.

Stanford had been a big supporter of Hubert Parry, who wrote the score for the second Greek play, Aristophanes’ The Birds, which was performed in 1883. The score was popular, and Parry must presumably have enjoyed his Greek play experience, as he went on to write more music to accompany Aristophanes. This time, for three performances in Oxford: The Frogs, The Clouds, and The Achamaians (1892-1914).

The scores for The Birds and The Frogs, both proved popular, and were published. The Bridal march from The Birds seems to have been a particular favourite, appearing in several different arrangements, most notably for organ.

One of our nicest sources on information about the Greek plays between the wars is from the archive of composer, Geoffrey Wright. Geoffrey came up to Cambridge in 1931. He attended Corpus Christi, where he was an organ scholar, and quickly became involved in Footlights, and other musical and dramatic enterprises. In 1936, he designed the sets, costumes and wigs for a production of The Frogs.

The Frogs was an especially ambitious production with a much larger budget than was usual for Greek plays. As has previously been mentioned on here, Walter Leigh composed the music, with Gwen Raverat providing the woodcuts for the programme. The menu for the after-play dinner is great fun.

A menu for the celebratory “Frogs” dinner. 1936.

The set design itself must have been quite something, with silver gilt used extensively and expensively for the back drop, as can be seen here in a press cutting from the Cambridge Daily News.

Geoffrey Wright was also involved in the last Greek play to be staged before the Second World War – Antigone, in February 1939. This time, Patrick Hadley, composed the music. The original parts may still be viewed in the Fitzwilliam Museum (MU.MS.959), while a vocal score is at the UL (item no. 3 in volume M260.a.95.8). (Oddly, and entirely accidentally, Robin Orr’s score for the 1950 production of Oedipus at Colonus is in the same volume).

Post-war, The Frogs was the first Greek play to be staged, in 1947. This must have been a bitter-sweet performance, as it used Walter Leigh‘s music once more; a tribute to the young composer, who had been killed at Tobruk.

Since then the Greek play has flourished – women have become regular cast members since the 1950 production of Oedipus at Colonus, the music, played by the orchestra of CUMS, has been recorded (Bacchae, 1956), it has celebrated its centenary (Women of Trachis, 1983), and has even toured Greece (The Birds, 1995)

Illustration by Gwen Raverat, for the programme for the 1933 production of the Oresteia.

In the exhibition in the Anderson Room, you can admire the music of Vaughan Williams and Walter Leigh, and the delicacy of Gwen Raverat’s woodcuts; as well as enjoy the changing face of Greek play programmes, from the austere programmes of the early productions to the colourful and exotic ones of the 20th century.

More information on the history of the Greek play can be found here.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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2 Responses to Greek fire

  1. Tom Roper says:

    Is the exhibition open to the public, please?


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