Written by Caitlin Smith
This past week, managing editor Julia Schoos and I had the opportunity to sit down with David Kornhaber, an Associate Professor in the English Department and Comparative Literature graduate advisor, to talk about his current research.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a project called Tragedy in Post-Modernity—a very fancy title—which looks at connections between Ancient Greek tragedy and plays that premiered in London or New York between the 1960s and the 1990s. So, the kind of end of the Cold War, arguing that there is a connection where there doesn’t seem to be between late twentieth-century Anglo-American drama and certain thematic interests in the Greek tragic tradition.
What would some of those be?
[laughter] The playwrights that I’m looking at are Harold Pinter, Sam Shepherd, Susan Lori Parks, Tony Kushner, Caryl Churchill, and Tom Stoppard. The work of the book is going to be these over-ambitious pairings of contemporary plays and classical plays. So, I’m just spanning 2,500 years and saying, “No! It’s the same!” [laughter] The connection that started this all was Angels in America and Sophocles’ last play, Oedipus at Colonus—the little known sequel to Oedipus Rex—and other connections: between Churchill’s Top Girls and Medea; the America Play and Iphigenia in Aulis; the Homecoming and Buried Child with Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (which is also about a sort of homecoming that goes terribly wrong) and Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers with the Bacchae. With each of those there’s a thematic parallel—it’s not about direct influence, per se. There are a lot of similarities between the late Classical period when these Greek tragedies were written and the late Cold War period. Greek tragedy as we know it is kind of synonymous with and extends through the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta—this kind of existential conflict in the Greek world. The Cold War has a similar resonance in the twentieth century on a global scale. It’s a really interesting parallel that’s yet to be explored.
What do you think or hope the impact of something like this would be?
I hope people will read it, which is not always a given when one is writing academic books. [laughter] I hope it opens the idea that tragedy is something that is still with us and that as a genre it’s something that playwrights still engage in. It’s not just something that happened in Ancient Greece, or in Shakespeare’s London. It’s an evergreen tradition that gives us ways of exploring moments of uncertainty, and we need to think of it as a tradition that lives and breathes.