The name of Oxyrhynchus meant little or nothing to most people (myself included) until 1990 and the production at London's National Theatre of Tony Harrison's The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus. One of the best things I've ever seen in the theatre, I went with some students of mine — and then returned very quickly, with another group, for a second serving. Time Out described it as "total theatre" (see Faber's Trackers page — click on thumbnail) and the nearest I've come to experiencing anything as visceral since was in the (quite different) Tropicana production currently running in London (which my students also enjoyed …).
In the programme for the 1990 production, Professor Parsons (at the time, Regius Professor of Greek, Oxford) noted that 'the traditional classical world has left us no books: all the contents, say, of the great Library of Alexandria, or of the 28 public libraries of imperial Rome, have disappeared without trace — fire and damp disposed of them. What we possess of the literature of the Greeks and Romans we possess because a selection of works were copied and recopied, first on papyrus and later on parchment, through the Roman Empire and then through the Middle Ages — Latin in the West, Greek in the East. In the Renaissance, the surviving manuscripts were hunted out; and the invention of printing meant that works which had survived up to then would go on surviving. But it was a chancy business; for example, just one copy of the poems of Catullus survived to this point … (and) even surviving authors survived only in part. Sophocles wrote 123 plays; of these seven were transmitted through the Middle Ages, because in the late Empire they were chosen as set books, and all the rest disappeared. … These losses seemed to be final — until the Egyptian rubbish (at Oxyrhynchus) came to the rescue, for the dumps included, sporadically and in fragments, books which were circulating before the great massacre of the Middle Ages.'
Harrison's takes the 400 lines of Sophocles' satyr play, Ichneutae, discovered in 1907 at Oxyrhynchus by Grenfell and Hunt (Oxford University) — the pioneers of a new branch of Classics, papyrology — and around them and through them, with the aid of be-clogged satyrs, weaves a play for our own times. Harrison, steeped in classical literature, finds in Greek culture a wholeness of imagination, an 'essential catholicity', a 'unity of tragedy and satyr play', which was subsequently betrayed — divided into 'high' and 'low'. This division perpetuates 'divided audiences, divided societies' (introduction to the Faber edition of Trackers).
With the loss of these plays we are lacking important clues to the wholeness of the Greek imagination, and its ability to absorb and yet not be defeated by the tragic. In the satyr play, that spirit of celebration, held in the dark solution of tragedy, is precipitated into release, and a release into the worship of the Dionysus who presided over the whole dramatic festival. (ibidem)
Teachers and "guardians of culture", beware. In a Daily Telegraph interview (February, 1990), Harrison said to Trevor Bates:
Barrie Rutter and Tony Harrison during rehearsals at Delphi. Photo Sandra Lousada*****
The play is part of my slow burning revenge against the teacher who denied me an opportunity to read poetry and take part in plays because of my accent. We chose Salts Mill [where the production visited in April 1990] because we needed a venue where the ghost images of the past were strong. Clogs are one of the principal expressions of the rhythm of life and they gear the satyrs into action.
The Independent recently ran a story (purchase necessary) about the reserach being done on Oxyrhyncus material by contemporary Oxford academics working alongside specialists from Brigham Young University (BYU), Utah. Hailed in The Independent as a collaboration 'likely to increase the number of great literary works fully or partially surviving from the ancient Greek world by up to a fifth', there was then a strange silence, and, finally, a sceptical posting on Ars technica. Dirk Obbink, papyrologist at Oxford and the academic at the heart of the new work on the Oxyrhynchus material, has attempted to clarify the picture, e-mailing by proxy on the papyrologists' discussion group (registration required), and some of what he had to say can also be read here, at the Oxford Papyrology site (POxy: Oxyrhynchus Online):
We scanned portions of the unrolled Herculaneum papyrus in the Bodleian Library and experimented on problematic carbonised and non-carbonised samples in the Oxyrhynchus collection in the Sackler Library (including documents), some of them for final checks in texts scheduled for publication in the next two volumes of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. The results … were of mixed success, revealing many new readings and confirmation of uncertain readings in some problem areas, none at all in others, depending on settings and surface type. In some ranges and surfaces even less writing could be read than with the eye or none at all. As usual with the Oxy. papyri a number of new identifications emerged of literary and documentary texts not previously made by the usual means, together with the isolation of four or five different types of surface and obscurity that respond well or not well to the BYU process. … The process seemed to work best on darkened, charred, or stained surfaces, and can image through some surface materials, but sees nothing through mud, clay, or silt. It produced excellent results on palimpsests, cancellations and damnationes memoriae, and on disintegrating surfaces where the ink has settled deep into the fibres. It was least successful on surfaces that were partially or entirely washed out. … Surprisingly, in one trial the process successfully imaged through painted gesso, revealing a previously unknown document … on the papyrus cartonage surface underneath. The London press got wind of this … and reported enthusiastically, if selectively.
More details about the processes involved and their results are available in Dirk Obbink's email and POxy posting, and also here.
Tally of extant & lost plays (using Professor Parsons' figures)
Aeschylus: 7 extant; 83 lost (including about 20 Satyr plays)
Sophocles: 7 extant; 116 lost (including about 30 Satyr plays)
Euripides: 19 extant (including 1 Satyr play, The Cyclops); 61 lost (including about 15 Satyr plays)