Date of Award

2004

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts Honours

Faculty

Faculty of Community Services, Education and Social Sciences

First Advisor

Dr Susan Ash

Abstract

Our humanity is bound to perennial themes in drama, so when a classic play is adapted to 'suit' contemporary audiences, the revised version will often reflect the zeitgeist of the times in which it was produced. The magic of retrospection then allows us to examine the social and political particulars that influence the adapted as well as the original work. Indeed, Steven Berkoff's reworkings of both Aeschylus' Agamemnon and Sophocles' Oedipus Rex reflect an unsettled and divided British context in the throes of ideological upheaval during the 1970's and early 1980's. While consistent criticism of leadership and political strife in Berkoff's Literature suggests a commitment to socialist ideals, I will also argue that images of death and destruction promote the playwright's didactic humanitarian ends. Allegorical themes of plague and pestilence in Berkoff's plays suggest images of humanity in the thrall of forces assumed to be beyond its control. At the same time, these texts work to empower the audience with the belief that their resistant action has the potential to change the course of history. Similarly, as the polluted and decaying British environment is presented as an antecedent to disease and disorder, Berkoff suggests that localised activity is the basis for positive change. While a thematic focus on curse and the idea of fate illustrates the concept of an individual being 'polluted' through 'no real fault of their own', his work suggests that within the microcosm of individual agency lies the answer to the problems of the macrocosm of society. Hence in Chapter 1 I will argue that pollution creates an environment conducive to plague and pestilence. As opposed to other forms of literature, theatre is a living entity capable of communicating via the physical senses; a key principle upon which Berkoff builds his Aesthetic. Following in the footsteps of Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht and Jacques Le Coq, Berkoff taps into the power of the theatre to reach beyond logical thought into the deepest recesses of the mind and will. Consequently, I argue that Berkoff's theatrical predecessors in the field of physical theatre inform his attempts to move beyond traditional notions of what theatre should be, what it should say and how it should say it. In Chapter 2 I will examine Artaud's idea that theatre is like plague in their mutual powers of revelation, transformation and the fact that both are potentially refining social phenomena. Berkoff's collision with Aeschylus and Sophocles works to purge audiences of the festering sores of their apathy and ignorance by challenging the idea that the conditions of their existence are in some way predetermined and thus immutable. Therefore in Chapter 3 I will look to the historical context and specific political agenda of Berkoff's rewritings as well as his radical treatment of persistent dramatic themes in an attempt to gauge their potential for durability. Ultimately, I argue that Berkoff as auteur director, actor and playwright is committed to transcending crippling assumptions and patterns of thought in art as in life.

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