A Day in the Life of a Classicist

This fortnight, Philippa speaks with two doctoral students from University College London. The first is EMMA COLE, who is engaged on research in Greco Roman tragedy in postdramatic theatre.






 Emma tells Iris about discovering Classics at summer school, her involvement in the world of theatre and why Euripides has been an influence.


What is the subject of your thesis?


My PhD thesis is about the reception of Greco-Roman tragedy in postdramatic theatre. Postdramatic productions are noted for an absence of formal narrative structure, and experimental and avant-garde qualities. In these works meaning is constructed primarily through image, sound, and effect, rather than the conventional means of character and plot. I’m interested in exploring the obvious tensions inherent in postdramatic productions of the classics, and drawing attention to a type of radical theatre often overlooked in classical reception studies scholarship. The practitioners I’m looking at, such as Sarah Kane, Martin Crimp, and Punchdrunk, are significant figures within the contemporary theatre industry, and I believe studying their innovative re-workings of the classics can provide numerous insights into the classical texts themselves.


What made you choose this subject?


I have been combining my love of theatre and Classics for several years. My interest in this particular subject arose from my undergraduate dissertation on representations of the sacrifice of Iphigenia in classical and contemporary theatre, in which I discussed a number of playwrights, including Tom Holloway and Charles Mee, who utilise postdramatic techniques. I chose this specific topic as I was excited by its uniqueness and the fact that this type of theatre is underrepresented in current scholarship. It also allows me to stay involved in the theatre industry while I write my thesis, and gives me the opportunity to educate theatre practitioners about the classics.


When did you begin learning Latin and/or Greek?


I began learning Latin during a summer school programme when I was an undergraduate student at Sydney University. This was shortly followed by an ancient Greek course, and since then I have never looked back! I continue to audit classes as part of my PhD to further develop my language skills.


Did you find a particular aspect of Classics difficult at any point during your studies?


I found amassing vocabulary to be particularly difficult, especially as my undergraduate university did not allow the use of dictionaries in exams. I also found the jump from working with textbooks to working with entire ancient texts to be particularly challenging. Although this was quite overwhelming at first, the feeling you get after finishing a course and telling someone that you translated something like a book of the Odyssey is quite special and makes the process very worthwhile.


What methods of research do you employ in working for your PhD?


I utilise a whole range of research methods in my PhD, meaning that every week sees me working with different practices. My research often consists of what would be considered traditional scholarly work: reading texts and the academic scholarship written about them, summarising arguments and developing my own response. This involves spending lots of time in the library, or working at my desk at home, and has made me fast and efficient at searching for information and identifying key concepts. Due to my topic this type of work is often supplemented with things like archival research and even interviews with theatre practitioners. I particularly enjoy these aspects as I get to deal with primary source material and can develop my own ideas from the insights gained from practitioners and the performance documentation.


Would you recommend a PhD in Classics to others?


I’ve found undertaking a PhD in Classics to be (so far!) an enriching experience, and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in classical languages and civilizations. It is hard work and requires motivation and discipline, but is also a fun and enormously satisfying programme that allows one to develop knowledge greatly. There is a vast range of topics which can be studied under the banner of a PhD in Classics, and future candidates not only have the opportunity to produce a piece of high quality research but will also become part of a supportive and enthusiastic community of postgraduates.


What do you hope to do following completion of your PhD?


When I finish my PhD, ideally I will begin a post-doctoral fellowship, either at a UK university or elsewhere, during which I will publish my thesis in order to share my research with a wider audience. I also intend to begin a new project that will again combine ideas of performance with the classics, for which I’ve already got a number of ideas bubbling away. I am interested in public engagement and outreach and would like to take part in this more actively at the conclusion of my PhD. I’m currently working on the Communicating Ancient Greece and Rome programme at the Oxford Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama, and would like to capitalise on the relationships and skills I’m developing through this to share my love of the classics with wider audiences.


People are always wondering about the use of 'dead' languages in the modern world. What would be your response?


The benefits of learning Latin and Greek really are innumerable, and so many aspects of these languages are pertinent to modern language use meaning that in many ways they are not ‘dead’, but still alive and kicking in one form or another. It was only through my study of these languages that I began to understand English grammar and developed the ability to analyse my own use of language. Understanding the grammatical principles behind things like sentence structure and verb usage is essential to improving one’s own writing, meaning that having even a limited understanding of Latin or Greek is beneficial for almost any student or professional. The number of English words which have their root in Latin or Greek vocabulary also helps students to comprehend the history and meaning of their own language. The grammar and vocabulary also provides an ideal introduction for students wishing to study modern languages; for example, when I began to study German in 2012 I was certainly at an advantage coming to class already understanding the concept of things such as declensions and the subjunctive mood.


Would you like to see Classics made more widely available to young people?


Certainly! I wish that I had been able to study Classics prior to attending university and believe that certain aspects of language study, such as accumulating vocabulary, are easier to master at younger age.  When I did begin to study Greek and Latin I was initially intimidated by the language and apprehensive due to its perceived difficulty. If I had started at a younger age I wouldn’t have had these preconceptions. I would love to see more young people be given the opportunity to study Classics and reap the literacy rewards this work entails. I’m sure that many would enjoy studying Latin and Greek and gaining a more comprehensive understanding of the ancient world.


Is there a character, personage or author from the ancient world who has especially inspired you in your Classics career?


Euripides has been a prominent figure throughout my work to date. His Iphigenia at Aulis inspired my undergraduate dissertation, and my MA dissertation focused on his Women of Troy. As I am currently working on experimental receptions of tragedy I also somewhat identify with Euripides’ image as an innovative and radical dramatist. I can only hope my work will generate as much interest as his!


From October, Emma will be co-ordinating a seminar series on theatre translation: