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Et iucunda et idonea dicere vitae… et scholae: A Teacher’s Case for Performing Classical Drama in Greek and Latin

Matthew McGowan

This paper draws on my personal experience as a teacher of Greek and Latin and an actor in classical plays to argue for introducing into the classroom the performance of ancient drama in the original language. In the paper’s first part, I shall present three reasons why performing plays in Greek and Latin can be an effective tool in the language classroom, to wit: it aids instruction, is entertaining and, quite literally, brings the ancient languages back to life. In the paper’s second part, I intend to perform two speeches—one in Greek, one in Latin—from the plays of Euripides and Seneca in order to demonstrate the points above and to elicit feedback from the audience.

            What are the educational benefits of performing classical drama in Greek and Latin? First, it’s an excellent way to improve students’ knowledge of the languages themselves by adding to their store of vocabulary and giving them greater familiarity with morphology and syntax. Memorizing texts—however large or small—in any language leads to a more intimate knowledge of the text itself and of the language in which it is written; for it frees learners from having to concentrate on forms and syntax and allows them to internalize whole passages based on their meaning. This is especially true in the context of performance, where participants have to interact with one another and respond to cues in each other’s words. This leads directly to the second reason why performing in Greek and Latin can be an effective teaching tool: it’s entertaining and a notable diversion to which many students—even those who are otherwise reticent—respond with energy and enthusiasm. Finally, the performance of ancient drama in Greek and Latin brings the ancient languages back to life and provides an auditory and visual experience not otherwise available via traditional instruction. This has the potential to move and inspire students in unpredictable ways. Indeed, if incorporated into the general language curriculum—as a project, say, for the end of the year with the participation of a good number of students from the advanced classes—performing plays in Greek and Latin has the potential to reach beyond the school and to provide the larger community with a genuine and meaningful encounter with the Classics.

            To demonstrate the points sketched above and to provide a reference point for subsequent conversation, I shall perform a speech of Pheres from Euripides’ Alcestis and the monologue of Tantalus from the opening of Seneca’s Thyestes, words perhaps not pleasing in life (iucunda vitae) but surely suitable for school (idonea scholae)! Dixi.

Session/Panel Title

Talking Back to Teacher: Orality and Prosody in the Secondary and University Classroom

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