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Drama and democracy: from Ancient Greece to SUDS

“The people's voice, once angered, can create dissent, ratifying a curse which now must have its way” - Chorus, 'Agamemnon' by Aeschylus

Theatre and democracy are inextricably linked — most notably by their origin. In the heart of the ancient city of Athens, the theatre was not simply a form of entertainment. Plays were highly politicised, often tackling the concept of democracy through the accommodation of their audience: the Athenian citizens. 

Playwrights like Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides would often shape the stories of kings of old so that they would relate to Athenian society. Theatre was used to provoke thought and explore the then-pressing concern of what it meant to be a ‘democratic citizen’. 

Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, now mostly mis-remembered by the Freudian Oedipus complex, was originally written as a portrayal of the dangers of tyrannical power. The play begins by an oracle reading out Oedipus’ fate – to marry his mother and kill his father, as retribution for his tyrannical rule. The play follows the tyrant, Oedipus, as he attempts to thwart this fate, but ultimately ends up committing several divinely-foretold crimes. Through this narrative, Sophocles asks his Athenian audience whether Oedipus is guilty and deserving of his fate — and in Athenian democracy, interrogating what the nature of guilt may be for individual citizens. 

Aeschylus’ Agamemnon portrays another powerful king against a backdrop of continual war and violence. Trapped in a seemingly inescapable, vicious cycle of bloodshed, the play grapples with vengeance and justice, using political debate as a theatrical device. The chorus behaves somewhat like a proxy for the Athenian audience within the play, at times acting in an almost democratic fashion in debating the next course of political action; though, at the end of the play, they ultimately submit to another dictatorship under Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife and murderer. 

It is here that we may marry the Elysian fields of Ancient Greece with the sandstone of Sydney University. Agamemnon is also the first production of SUDS, the Sydney University Dramatic Society. Current SUDS president, Kimmi Tonkin, commented on the uniqueness of the legacy of SUDS as highly diverse and democratic. 

“Everything in SUDS is so unpredictable . . . directors and cast members bring their different experiences when getting involved. Everyone is supporting each other, keeping theatre alive.”

Executives within SUDS take on a more administrative role, leaving the majority of decisions in the hands of directors and SUDS members. Before each slot, potential ideas for plays are proposed by anyone with at least a singular SUDS member on the pitching team. Then, pitches are voted on by SUDS members that are present, deciding on which production should run.

The democratic function of theatre extends beyond the ancient world, permeating USyd’s theatre practice. Production and cast member callouts are done on Facebook, leaving all creative decisions to show directors. Tonkin herself recalls her first production involving numerous non-SUDS members, stating that the society “is very open, meaning that anyone can become involved”.

“I really think it’s quite phenomenal that people continue to want to put on, not only contemporary plays, but also Shakespeare and Ancient Greek plays and tragedies,” she said. 

In 2015, the 125th anniversary of SUDS, a production of Agamemnon was performed to celebrate the continued history of the society. Earlier this year in March, Euripides’ Medea was also performed, and just last month in August, SUDS produced Shakespeare’s The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus.

Tonkin reflected on the growth of SUDS as a society from the running of its first play: “It’s really quite beautiful in how it is run. Maybe theatre will change over time, but I don’t see [SUDS] changing anytime soon.”

Theatrical performances continue to be written, produced, and performed as they have been throughout history, even as society changes. Shakespearean comedies and Ancient Greek tragedies are still returned to, centuries after their first performance, indicating their ability to serve the renewed needs of a modern context. And, perhaps, they serve too as a reminder of the power of democratic voices within theatre, and the importance of fusing creativity and play with personal autonomy and self-determination.