What is Ancient Fragments

What is Ancient Fragments

Most people have heard of Greek tragedy. Plays like ‘Oedipus’ or ‘Medea’ are regularly performed today, and Greek tragedy as a genre was the wellspring of the Western theatrical tradition. But the plays that survive today are a tiny fraction of what once existed, and of the total number of plays that we know were performed in ancient Greece. For example, we have seven plays by Sophocles, but we know that he wrote 120 plays over his career, a survival rate of only just over 5%. The picture is similar with Aeschylus and Euripides, the two other major playwrights of classical Athens, and we have no surviving plays at all from any other tragedians (with the exception of a couple of plays that scholars now think were wrongly attributed to Aeschylus and Euripides respectively, but were probably written by someone else).

But the other hundreds of plays aren’t entirely lost, since fragments survive, especially from the main three authors. These may take the form of a whole scene, an isolated speech, or just of a run of disconnected words, but along with ancient hypotheses (plot summaries), and information from other ancient sources, they can often help us to piece together a significant amount of information about the plays. But tragic fragments aren’t easy to stage or work with, and even within the world of professional Classics, scholarship on fragments tends to focus on technical issues or in reconstructing the plays. But fragments also provoke our imaginations. An isolated image or phrase takes on a quality of special vividness, while the gaps in our knowledge prompt us to engage and ask questions more than we might do if we had the whole picture.

Ancient Fragments is a collaboration between academics and theatre-makers to explore the creative possibilities of working with these texts. We aren’t interested in simply reconstructing an ancient play, or in writing faux-Greek dialogue to fill in the gaps. Rather, we want to use the fragments and research on them as a starting point to explore broader issues to do with how we experience the world in fragments in our own lives.


Ancient Fragments is one of many events bringing cutting-edge research in the humanities to a broader audience during the Being Human festival. For updates on that programme and on the festival follow us on Twitter @BeingHumanFest,and on Pinterest. Don’t forget to sign up to our e-newsletter too!