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The Education of a Cosmopolitan City: Immigrant Theater and the Ajax at Hull House.

Caitlin Miller

University of Chicago

Within the capacious landscape of modern performances of Greek drama, the Ajax was rarely produced before the twentieth—and indeed, the twenty-first—century. Its 1903 performance at Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago, featuring ‘the Greeks of Chicago’ as actors, was the first recorded in the United States. Set in Hull House’s newly constructed theater and following on the 1899 The Return of Odysseus, it advanced Addams’ explicit plan for a ‘conscientious drama’ of ‘moral truths’ rather than commercial ambition (Rich 1981, 200).

With so few precedents, why did Hull House choose the Ajax? Its nationally known director, Mabel Hay Barrows, researched the play extensively and adopted the Odysseus actors’ suggestion for performance in Modern, rather than Ancient, Greek (Chicago Daily Tribune, December 7th, 1899, p. 5). It was staged without set or elaborate costumes; an article on the play in the Hull-House Bulletin suggests that Barrows pursued the ‘consummate grace and harmony’ of classical Sophoclean tragedy. The Bulletin also highlights Tecmessa, the play’s lone female character, as well as Ajax’s ‘loyal comrades,’ the chorus of Salaminian sailors (Hull-House Bulletin v. 5-7, 1903, p. 18).

In the scholarship of the nineteenth century, the Ajax was not so favorably viewed as an example of Sophoclean harmony (see Jebb 1869, xxx-xxxii), and its ‘unity’ was already being questioned in the early 1800s (see e.g. Welcker 1829, Tyrell 1985 on unity in general). But the Ajax does explicitly foreground problems of collective action, class, and ethnicity. It stages searing portraits of economic and political dependency (particularly in relation to Tecmessa, Eurysaces, and the chorus), as well as bitter, ethnically-charged disputes over the right to public speech in the wake of political breakdown (Teucer, Menelaus, and Agamemnon’s double agon in the play’s second half).

I argue that Barrows’ unprecedented choice of the Ajax was an integral component of Addams’ vision for an American art theater. This problematic play was not staged in pursuit of a rigidly classicizing objective, nor as part of a primarily assimilationist social project. Instead, it offered the opportunity for a reformist, collaborative aesthetics that foregrounded the actors themselves in their status as immigrants and as Modern Greeks. It highlighted the play’s pervasive, complex themes of political efficacy and community-building, and its ambitions were outward-looking: Addams imagined the play as ‘not small contribution to the education of a cosmopolitan city’ (Addams 1904). Staging Ajax was a conscious, progressive intervention into the scholarly and popular conversation about the place of tragedy between stage and spectator, as well as between antiquity and the present.

Barrows took the Hull House Ajax to New York and California, to positive reviews (Foley 2012, 146-7). Begun in Chicago, the production pointed towards a larger vision: a uniquely American immigrant theater that was modernist in form and integrative in execution. Ahead of its time, the 1903 production shared remarkable similarities in its ethical orientation with the veteran- and community-centered, trauma-informed adaptations of the Ajax that would be staged in the 1980s and early 2000s. In its deliberate engagement with the immigrant community of Chicago, Barrows’ production not only reflected back onto the persistent problems raised by Sophocles’ text, but prefigured the modern reception and performance history of the Ajax.

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Ancient Theater in Chicagoland

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