In your book Utopian Drama: In Search of a Genre, you distinguish two wellsprings of utopian thought. There is the early prose tradition, which includes texts like Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies,Thomas More’s Utopia, and perhaps also Plato’s Republic. Your research focuses on the second tradition — the theatrical tradition. This is something you trace back to the Old Comedy of Ancient Greece, and something that has been comparatively less studied. How do you think that the priority on prose has shaped Utopian Studies?
The frameworks of Utopian Studies, as they have developed over recent decades, have typically assumed the object of study to be prose fiction. So features of this early prose tradition have of course informed how interpretation has operated within Utopian Studies. Utopia, at least by default, is something described. It also generally gets constructed by a gaze that is located outside of that utopia. Thomas More’s Utopia, for example, needs to be set within the context of early modern travel narratives, and the whole range of colonial encounters which these describe.
Right, the traveller who visits a far away place or time, sees strange things, and learns just to rethink the institutions back home. Presumably that has played into the high regard with which defamiliarization is held, certainly within adjacent fields like Science Fiction Studies? But then, does it need to be that way? Couldn’t we get to know utopia through the experiences of characters who have always lived there and are deeply familiar with different aspects of utopia?
Another feature of the early prose tradition is that assumption of anonymity. More’s Utopia is again a good example. There’s a striking shift between Book One, where there is a conversation of sorts among various real and fictional people, and what happens in Book Two. In Book Two, Raphael recounts his travels on the island of Utopia, and suddenly all sense of character disappears!
So I think that’s very much a feature of the early prose fictional examples of utopia, and absolutely not in the case of dramas. In More’s Utopia,you don’t get to know individual Utopians. In later prose utopias, that does change, partly due to the emergence and development of the novel, but also as a response to accusations of the genre being boring — but even in the later utopias, there isn’t very much character interiority, or much of a sense of agency, et cetera.
You do sometimes get defences of a utopian rhetoric of generality, abstraction, anonymity. Like the idea that a wide range of readers will identify with an Everyman narrator. But of course, every ‘Everyman’ is really an ‘Actually Pretty Specificman.’ He is a particular subject position, elevated in a way that rejects the reality of other subject positions, or suggests that such differences are negligible. On stage, I suppose that Everyman myth might be even harder to sustain? Simply because there is always a very specific voice, face, body, occupying that role?
Yes, absolutely. The particularity. But also just the fact of a body on stage at all!— people on stage, humans, rather than a kind of distant description, a kind of external gaze. Another feature of the early prose fiction tradition is using setting as foreground. So in More’s Utopia you have long descriptions of the number of districts and the way that towns are laid out, housing, agriculture, et cetera. What’s usually registered as background setting in the novel becomes part of the foregrounded narrative in utopian prose. Character, if it figures at all, is there as background. So again, this is something that’s immediately reversed when you’re looking at a play, when you’re looking at stage drama.
This article is a brief introduction to science fiction theatre by Greek artists based in Greece and the UK. I’m happy to have been asked to also discuss the theatre company I co-founded, Cyborphic, as the main case study. One would hope that science fiction theatre hardly requires an introduction: the genre has been on stage for at least a hundred and one years, since Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which premiered in 1921 in Hradec Králové. However, science fiction theatre has been present as a largely invisible and underexplored category. In the 20th century, it not only included stage adaptations of Mary Shelley’s and H.G. Wells’s novels, or musicals such as Little Shop of Horrors or the Rocky Horror Show; it also included plays by Samuel Beckett, Caryl Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Alan Ayckbourn, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. A foundational text by Ralph Willingham, Science Fiction and the Theatre (1993), remains one of the few studies that demonstrate the strength of the science fictional imagination in 20th century theatre.
The genre has proliferated in the 21st century, most notably in experimental and fringe productions. More and more artists and theatre companies appear happy to label their work ‘science fiction theatre,’ marking a change from the last century, in which dystopian and post-apocalyptic settings such as that of Beckett’s Endgame, or devices such as time travel or alternate history, could often appear on stage without terms like “sci-fi” appearing anywhere in the accompanying marketing. Notable exceptions to this included the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool (founded in 1976), and Ray Bradbury’s theatrical adventures in Los Angeles, where he led the Pandemonium Theatre Company and adapted several of his well-known science fiction stories for the stage.
More recently, Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, a crime/science fiction thriller set in a virtual realm, had its world premiere in California in 2013. Plays by Alistair McDowall, such as Pomona (2014), X (2016), and The Glow (2022), featured genre elements, from Lovecraftian horror to science fiction and the supernatural, and have been staged in the National Theatre and the Royal Court. Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, later adapted into a 2017 film. The first theatre festival to focus on science fiction was Sci-Fest LA in 2014; it included theatrical adaptations of works by Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker. California seems to be particularly friendly to the genre, as does New York, where the Untitled Theater Company #61 has staged new science fiction plays by Edward Einhorn and his adaptations of Ursula K. Le Guin’s and Philip K Dick’s work. Also in New York, Mac Rogers has presented his Honeycomb Trilogy (2012), a trilogy of science fiction plays based on R.U.R. Meanwhile, in the UK, science fiction plays and performances have been populating fringe festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe, Vault Festival and others — including the Talos Science Fiction Theatre Festival since 2015. On that note, and to begin discussing where contemporary Greek theatre-making fits into this world, I will next reflect on a company and a festival dedicated to science fiction on stage.
I. On Cyborphic — or do Orphics dream of Cyber sheep?
Cyborphic is a London-based Greek and Science Fiction theatre company, founded in 2017, producing ancient and contemporary Greek theatre. The company is run by playwright and lecturer Dr Christos Callow Jr. and dramaturg and classicist Dr Andriana Domouzi. Its projects have included a reconstruction of Euripides’ fragmentary tragedy Melanippe Wise, and the solo performances Mayuri and Posthuman Meditation. Cyborphic has also run the TalosScience Fiction Theatre Festival of London (which predates the company, being founded in 2015). The festival has featured contemporary science fiction plays, including work by Greek theatremakers, such as Superhero by Andreas Flourakis. Cyborphic also organised the Performing Greece conferences on contemporary Greek theatre (including papers on Greek science fiction theatre) and the latest Stage the Future conference on science fiction theatre. The company runs a small network for science fiction theatre artists and academics, SF Theatre Network, and organised a network of Greek artists in London.
Of these projects, the most ambitious is Melanippe Wise. The completed text included Domouzi’s translation of the play’s surviving fragments and is based on Domouzi’s doctoral research into Euripides’ two lost Melanippe tragedies, Melanippe Wise (c.418-411 BC) and Melanippe Captive (c. 413-412 BC). It was first presented at the Hope Theatre in London in November 2019, funded by the Institute of Classical Studies and the University of Derby. The process for researching and reconstructing the play was explored in a workshop series titled “Lost Greek Tragedy: Staging the Fragmented and the Fantastic” (Domouzi 2020), and will be further explored in a chapter of Domouzi’s forthcoming edited volume Tragedy Resurrected. Reconstructing, Adapting and Staging Lost Greek Tragedy, to be published by De Gruyter.
Finally, Cyborphic aims to bring interdisciplinary research to theatre-making. Cyborphic’s website features an online database of 21st century science fiction theatre plays and performances, chronicling more than 100 plays with sci-fi elements, including Afrofuturist, contemporary fantasy, horror, and others. Currently, Cyborphic are planning TalosV, and a full production of Melanippe Wise.
II. On Greek Science Fiction Theatre; Live or Leave your Myth in Greece
If we’re happy to consider proto-science fiction when discussing the underexplored Greek science fiction theatre, one may start as early as the fragmentary play Daedalus by Sophocles (likely a satyr drama) where the fragments “160 and 161 testify that the play contained something about Talos” (Sophocles, 1996), the artificial man of bronze. If we were to maintain this flexible approach to genre, we could consider several Greek adaptations of classical Greek drama that have used science fictional, futuristic and/or dystopian elements across the 20th century. One of the most interesting such texts is Medea by Vasilis Ziogas, written in 1995, which features a chorus of metahumans in addition to three goddesses, and blends ideas from Greek philosophy, Christianity and astronomy along with a posthuman take on Medea. The play is unpublished but there’s a copy in the library of the Department of Theatre Studies of the University of Athens. The following quote demonstrates well the style and attitude of the play:
And you Metahumans, that the wisdom you achieved while you were living, rewarded you with the fourth level of galactic life. It is not Jason that elevated himself to the meadow of the fourth dimension, but it was me who descended to meet him. (Ziogas, cited in Domouzi, 2016)
What is of particular interest here — and this is an important theme that science fiction and ancient Greek theatre share — is the struggle of the individual with the cosmos, a struggle which takes mythical proportions. Domouzi argues that at the heart of the play is “the dual substance of Medea,” who is presented here as “some kind of human goddess,” and that the “meaning of the universe and the purpose of existence are central to the text, positioning the characters and the myth against a cosmic problem” (Domouzi, 2016).
Besides such adaptations of classical Greek plays, there have been in Greece — as is the case everywhere — several theatrical adaptations of science fiction films and novels, including quite a few takes on Clockwork Orange as well as We ; an adaptation of The Man from Earth was at Theatre Alkmini from 2013 to 2014, and theatre director Katerina Evangelatos had presented a new adaptation of 1984 in 2016.
But what of Greek science fiction on stage? The first co-production of the Greek National Theatre with the Greek National Opera, Galaxy, also premiered in 2016. The show combined ambitious visual effects, dance and performance, and explored, among other things, cosmic topics from the Big Bang to hopes of alien life elsewhere in the universe. Other examples include another production at Alkmini, Mars 1, by the theatre company “θεατρικό σωματίδιο πΟδήλατρΟν” (which might best be translated to “theatrical particle bIcycle”) and the dystopian drama 3% by Vily Sotiropoulou — set in 2040 — which first ran from 2016 -2017, and was presented again in early 2021. Even its pre-pandemic edition featured Skype connections with actors based in other countries. There was also Mission to Planet Earth by Sakis Serefas, produced by the National Theatre of Northern Greece in 2010 and concerning two alien beings that visit Earth. Home Greco by Vaggelis Alexandris and Odysseas Androutsos, which ran from December 2018 to March 2019 at Theatre Stathmos, was an intergalactic sci-fi comedy exploring the history of Greece through aliens. Another surreal but sf-relevant play is Blood Enemies by Arkas, published in 2007 and performed in 2008 at Neos Kosmos Theatre in Athens; the play features anthropomorphised organs in the body of a dying alcoholic shortly after an accident — the dialogue between the Small Intestine and the Colon is meant to be both funny and existential, as they’re stuck in a Beckettian scenario, with no luck being transplanted and thus surviving in another body, unlike other organs.
It is safe to assume that if Greek science fiction theatre is influenced by anything, it’d primarily be the Theatre of the Absurd and subsequently Science Fiction Cinema and Literature, rather than the lesser known tradition of science fiction on stage, such as in American or British theatre. I doubt that Alistair McDowall or Anne Washburn are well-known in Greek or Greek-Cypriot theatre; however there was a staging of Caryl Churchill’s A Number in Athens at 2005 and a staged reading of a Jennifer Haley’s The Nether directed by Evita Ioannou in October 2020 in Lefkosia, Cyprus.
Many of the performances mentioned above rely more heavily on surreal and absurdist elements than science fiction; what is exciting from an interdisciplinary perspective is how Greek theatre aesthetics can influence the exploration of science fiction in Greece, Cyprus and European theatre more broadly. Some of these plays explore what it means to be Greek, or to exist in modern Greece, from an alien or dystopian perspective. But what of Greeks abroad?
When it comes to thinking about science fiction theatre and performance of the Greek diaspora, especially in the UK, identity issues related to immigration and isolation may be more dominant, alongside general concerns about the state of the world and/or of the planet.
An Ice Thing to Say by London-based Vertebra Theatre and directed by Mayra Stergiou, has involved several Greek artists in its production and has participated at several festivals (in London, Melbourne, Reykjavik, Stockholm and elsewhere), having had both digital versions for online events (that blended live and recorded performance) and live, in-person shows. The performance, blending elements of physical theatre and ice installation, explores the encounter between a human being and a polar bear, and engages with issues of the Anthropocene Era and anthropocentrism. It also featured in one of the Talos theatre festivals (at the Cockpit Theatre in November 2020) alongside another theatre project by Greek creatives, Genome Theatre’s Genesis 37, an immersive performance that involved audience participation both in-venue and online (via Zoom and thanks to a projector and live-streaming from a camera-person on stage), in a feminist story exploring the ethics of cloning.
My own science fiction play, Mayuri; or, The New Human, was performed as part of the Kensington + Chelsea Festival and online for Edinburgh Fringe in August 2021, and explored issues of robotics, posthumanism and immigration. I’d rather not talk about it in my own words here; but according to Geraint D’Arcy in a lovely review in Foundation 140 (Winter 2021 issue), the play is centred “on the triumph and anguish of abandoning the body in favour of a technological and philosophical unknown.”
III. A Conclusion; or, perhaps, a Cliffhanger
One of the challenges of science fiction theatre-making is the creation of work that succeeds both as theatre and as science fiction. Willingham noted that most of the science fiction plays he catalogued in Science Fiction and the Theatre “are the work not of science fiction writers, but of independent dramatists schooled in the old playwriting formulas” (Willingham, 1994, 3). The ideal perhaps here is that, as the cultures of science fiction and theatre continue to explore each other, we have in the 21st Century more plays that build on both traditions. My hope for the future of Greek science fiction theatre is that it engages with both the more-developed science fiction theatre traditions beyond Greece, and with contemporary science fiction literature by Greek writers — rather than operating in a vacuum or reacting mainly to classic dystopian texts. Another hope is that it interacts more with the speculative fiction — and proto-sci-fi themes — of Greek myth and classical theatre.
In any case, I hope that this article has demonstrated that — for better or worse — Greek science fiction theatre exists, and that it has a growing (and perhaps a glowing) presence.
D’Arcy, G, 2021, “Review of Mayuri, or the New Human,” Foundation, vol. 140, no. 50.3, pp.130-132.
Domouzi, A, 2016, “The Metahuman in Modern Greek Theatre: science fiction motifs in Medea by Vasilis Ziogas.” Performing Greece II: Conference on Contemporary Greek Theatre, 3 December, London.
Domouzi, A. (2020) “New life for lost Greek drama: reflections on reconstructing and staging Euripides’ Melanippe Wise.” Institute of Classical Studies blog. July 2020. Available from: ics.blogs.sas.ac.uk/2020/07/09/new-life-for-lost-greek-drama-reflections-on-reconstructing-and-staging-euripides-melanippe-wise. Last accessed 2 February 2022.
Sophocles (1996). Fragments. Edited by Hugh Lloyd-Jones. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. P.64
Willingham, R. (1994). Science Fiction and the Theatre. London: Greenwood Press.
Christos Callow Jr is a Greek British Playwright and Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Derby. He has founded the Talos: Science Fiction Theatre Festival and has written several science fiction plays which have been presented at Being Human Festival 2021, Kensington + Chelsea Festival and Edinburgh Fringe.