IAS Fellowship and stage reading of Carthaginian Queen Dido

Jan 9, 2024 | Fellows, Transformations (Issue 11)

IAS Fellowship and stage reading of Carthaginian Queen Dido

Image courtesy of Magdalena Zira

Dr Magdalena Zira, Theatre Director, Fantastico Theotro

My fellowship project was essentially about stories: their power, who tells them, who controls them, how they change and why that matters. The river-hugged peninsula of ancient towers surrounded by woodland was therefore an ideal setting: Durham is steeped in stories. Every corner and alley, every bridge, pub and monastic relic tells of myths, legends, religious lore and British history. Not only is it beautiful, tranquil and conducive to productivity, but it’s also been a constant inspiration. Admittedly, it was quite an extreme lifestyle change for a family from Cyprus (my husband and son joined me here). But as the Fellowship is coming to a close, I am already missing these magical three months. Part of the magic was our dwelling: tucked away among in the trees up on the hill, in Collingwood College, we experienced an enchanting autumn and winter. The morning walk to my son’s school, endlessly photogenic, even if a little challenging, will be unforgettable. Many writers know that walking is directly linked to inspiration and this is one of the reasons why I will miss Durham’s many beautiful footpaths.

I will also miss this rare opportunity of being part of a diverse cohort of Fellows. One of the most precious aspects of the IAS Fellowship is that it brings together, in a structured and simultaneously relaxed way, academics—and practitioners—from a wide variety of disciplines. This fertile interdisciplinary environment in which genuine interest in each other’s work was the main agenda, during a welcome break from professional and administrative duties, was a rare gift. In this exchange of knowledge and in the discovery of surprising commonalities across fields, but also during discussions about politics, books and films, new relationships were forged.

The specific nature of my project, which was very hands-on and resulted in a theatre performance by students, meant that my fellowship also brought me in daily contact with Classics undergraduates—and that was especially rewarding. It renewed my faith in new generations of classicists who come to this field out of passion and often with a strong creative streak in their arsenal.

My fellowship focused on the literary character of Carthaginian Queen Dido. This is a beloved figure known in the West primarily through Virgil’s Aeneid, a Roman epic that has been hugely influential in European cultural history because it was the central work in the education of young men for centuries (and later of young women), while it continues to be essential in the study of Latin, both in secondary school and in undergraduate degrees.

I am a Classics scholar but primarily a theatre director and playwright. Classics frequently informs my theatre work and my Durham collaborator, Professor Edith Hall, and I have worked together on several theatre projects on which she consulted. And it was through her discovery of an alternative version of Dido’s story, preserved in lesser-known historiographical sources, that a new play was born. This play, of which I wrote a first draft before coming to Durham, was workshopped and further developed during the fellowship. In terms of the theoretical context, this act of re-writing a well-known literary heroine aimed to be part of the decades-long feminist and post-colonial project of artists and writers revising canonical literature and works of art. The version of the story that we used as inspiration is overlooked and all but erased in the Western imagination, and contains a Dido who is a quest heroine and a feminist role model. This heroic, noble and brave queen is part of a Carthaginian myth which, although unknown to most Europeans, today is still preserved by the Lebanese and the Tunisians, the two nations connected to Dido’s mythical journey. She is not at all like her Roman version, who has all the negative traits of the Oriental ‘other’, a construct so crucial in the definition of European identities for centuries.

In this respect the genesis of this play is a natural continuation of the work of my theatre company: we create plays that give a platform to marginalized voices, including dramatizing oral or lost histories that we want to preserve and bring to the mainstream; we always ask the questions “What stories are we telling? Whose stories are we telling? How do the stories we tell shape us?”

But here in Durham the combination of research, rehearsal and collaboration with students gave this project an additional dimension: at its core was a practical application—and testament to the importance—of classical reception as a tool for enriching and expanding the scope of Classics in education. For a few weeks, I workshopped the text with a group of sixteen students, all of them classics undergraduates or taking classics modules, all with an interest in creatively exploring feminist and decolonizing narratives in the retellings of the canon. The rehearsals/workshop culminated in a performance of a staged reading of the play. Seven students were in the cast, four worked as dramaturgs and five were in the design and technical team. Over a period of a few weeks this group was researching, rewriting and rehearsing. They engaged with canonical works in the spirit of revision, taking a critical stance on the content and deepening their understanding of the context. They applied their knowledge of the ancient sources creatively and in a collaborative spirit. Their work has been amazing and the play warmly received by a big audience. The conversations I have had with them about what brought them to Classics have taught me a lot. In short, it is very good news for those of us who believe that the exchange of ideas between artists, students, researchers and academics can lead to inspired new artistic work as well as new interpretations of culturally influential stories; and hence that bringing together the creative field, scholarship and the teaching of classics in universities is always a good idea. It can re-shape our relationship with the classical world in a way that speaks to contemporary issues. We can discover that the stories we are experiencing today, the big issues of our times, are not new stories, but old stories repeating themselves, and thus we can begin to understand our condition and begin to find solutions. But for that to happen we have to pay attention to marginalized voices as well as to the culturally dominant ones. And if their voices are harder to discover, that’s part of the work. Sometimes it’s not so hard: we just have to be observant, to listen, to ask questions and challenge our certainties.

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