“I met a young girl and she had murdered her mother, who had put a hit notice out on her husband. I went into a bookshop and there were ten Greeks for $10. I picked up Electra. It was the story of a girl who murdered her mother. And so it went, oomph.”
This year, the annual Fagles lecture was delivered by theater director and MacArthur “genius” grant winner Luis Alfaro. Alfaro, one of the most inventive adapters of Greek tragedy for the modern stage, is known for plays and performances including Mojada, a retelling of Euripides’s Medea set in Los Angeles, Oedipus El Rey, a Chicano retelling of Oedipus Rex, and Electricidad, based on Sophocles’ Electra.
Alfaro’s lecture at Princeton was entitled ‘The Ancient Thread into Modern Dress: Using the Greek Classics to Tell Contemporary Stories.’ Students and faculty were engrossed by his account of the serendipity and inspiration that led to his signature combination of ancient Greek drama, modern stagecraft, and community participation.
Electricidad is a case in point. Alfaro told his rapt Princeton audience that he came up with the idea of adapting Electra after holding a poetry workshop at a correctional facility in Tucson, Arizona. There, he met a young girl who had killed her mother after discovering she had turned her father into a target for assassination. After Alfaro bought a cheap copy of Euripides at a local bookstore, he described experiencing a kind of epiphany: “I thought: could I connect the ancient and the modern?”
Alfaro’s work with ancient drama is motivated by a deep commitment to the communities with which he works. Having grown up “in absolute poverty” in Los Angeles, Alfaro said that his practice was governed by a desire to “do art, culture, community, [and] social work together”. He said that his plays “usually start with the community.” In his production of Electra, for example, the cast included people from the town, such as a local fishmonger and librarian: “I need the community to give me the language of the play,” he said. “I’d write the play and they’d come and give me the words for the play.”
Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey, meanwhile, sets Sophocles’s tragedy amongst gangs in Los Angeles. Alfaro told his audience that this idea emerged out of an encounter with a young man who had spent all his adult life in solitary confinement. According to Alfaro, the man told him that he had been released unexpectedly one day and, as he walked out of prison, had been hugged by his prison guard. “I cried and cried and cried,” the man told him, “I didn’t know touch.” Alfaro said he had been struck by this man’s loneliness, which helped him see Oedipus Rex as a play about life lived without family.
Alfaro’s lecture introduced his oeuvre through a disarmingly honest account of his personal journey. The audience chuckled, for example, as he described his creative practice: “I have a process, which is that I live in Korea Town [in Los Angeles], which is a very crowded place,” he said. “In the middle of the apartment I have a white table, which is empty and ready for work.”
He also passed on a word of advice to students contemplating giving away financial awards, as he did himself with his MacArthur grant. “Don’t do that,” he said. “Buy a house”.
Alfaro’s connection with the Princeton Classics department dates back several years. Rosa Andújar, a graduate alumnus of the department, is the editor of a compiled edition of his Greek dramas, which was published in 2020 by Bloomsbury. Department chair Professor Barbara Graziosi described Andújar’s edited volume of Alfaro’s plays as “a real work of scholarship”.
The talk was followed by a question and answer session led by Classics Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta.
The Fagles Lecture invites a distinguished writer or artist whose work engages with the Classics to Princeton each year. Support for this project has been provided in part by Princeton's Departments of Classics and Comparative Literature, the Humanities Council, the Lewis Center for the Arts, Princeton University Public Lectures Committee, the Program in Humanistic Studies, and the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies.