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Penn Seeks to Popularize Greek Drama
David Ghitelman -- 9/29/97
If Homer is a hit, can Euripides be far behind?
The current Greek revival finds Robert Fagles's highly regarded new translation of The Odyssey hitting bestseller lists and NBC receiving an Emmy for its miniseries about the crafty sailor's voyage over the wine-dark sea back home to Ithaca.

With the decorum befitting a Philadelphia-based publisher, however, University of Pennsylvania Press director Eric Halpern insisted that he is in no way attempting to jump on a bandwagon with his new Penn Greek Drama Series, although he admitted there is "a large and receptive lay audience" for the classics.

The 12-volume set, scheduled to be released three books per publishing season between fall 1997 and spring 1999, will offer readers new verse translations by contemporary p ts of the complete surviving tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, as well as the surviving comedies of Aristophanes and Menander. This December's offering will be Aeschylus's Orestia and the first two volumes (out of a total of four) of the tragedies of Euripides.

The idea for the series dates back to 1995, according Halpern. With the two editors of the Penn Series, p t David Slavitt and classics professor Palmer Bovie, he had just completed issuing a seven-volume Roman Drama Series for Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University Press. Doing the entire body of Greek plays seemed a natural sequel to the trio. Among the p ts they enlisted are Pulitzer Prize-winners Carolyn Kizer and Henry Taylor, as well as such younger writers as Alfred Corn, Mark Rudman and Rachel Hadas. In all, 40 translators worked on the 49-play series.

Halpern, Slavitt and Bovie embarked on their Herculean task not merely because the dramas were there, but because they were there gathering dust. The complete line of Greek theater classics had not been offered to readers since 1938, in a long out-of-print Random House effort co-edited by Eugene O'Neill Jr., a Yale classics professor and son of the playwright who, in Mourning Becomes Electra, reset the Orestia in post-Civil War America.

The complete Greek tragedies -- minus the frequently raunchy comedies -- were issued by the University of Chicago Press in the 1950s, and Oxford University Press has been issuing the tragedies one at a time in new verse translations that are the product of collaborations between a contemporary p t and classicist.

The Penn series is not an academic exercise, Halpern remarked. He said that press is looking "largely to general readers, particularly people interested in contemporary p try." Still, he would be pleased to see some of the new versions popping up on college reading lists, but admitted that "no one is going to assign the whole series."

To get the word out to the professoriate, Halpern plans to make the rounds of various professional gatherings, including the annual convention of the American Philological Society. To get the word out to the large and responsive public, the press is organizing several readings/discussions featuring the series' translators. The kickoff for this road show will be an evening at Christie's, the New York City fine arts auction house, with other events planned for Philadelphia and Boston.

The p t-translators may well be the series' best salespeople. For them, "it was a labor of love," said Halpern. He noted that most waived advances to work solely for royalties, allowing Penn to complete the series at an editorial cost of roughly $50,000. Slavitt said his only advice to the p ts involved was to have fun: "I told them if you don't have fun doing the translations, no one else will have fun reading them." The results -- some from p ts who read ancient Greek fluently, some from p ts who can't and worked from previous translations -- range in style from free verse to rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter.
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