University of Cambridge > > Cambridge Classical Reception Seminar Series  > ‘The History of Authenticity: aka the 19th-century Western origins of the “original”'

‘The History of Authenticity: aka the 19th-century Western origins of the “original”'

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In so far as it implies a recognisable ‘original’ worth repeating, the concept of ‘adaptation’, as popularly understood, suggests a hierarchical view of textual relations. It operates as a paradox, invoking the assumptions of translation (‘as close to the original as possible’) while simultaneously functioning as the term of choice to announce its effective absence. This paradox has a fundamental relationship to the contested concept of theatre as the rendering of a ‘text’. According to Barabra Bell, the concept of adaptation as we think of it today begins with the first stage rendering of Scott’s Waverly novels. This paper explores how such a concept of adaptation/translation appears to be highly particular to the West and the nineteenth-century: ‘…concepts of originality, authorship…the translator’s subservience to the author, [and] closer adherence to the original…are western imports (Wakayabashi 2011:27). It looks at the advent of the authentic performance text in late nineteenth-century England (Greek drama and Shakespeare, 1880-90) drawing a distinction between this and earlier romantic ideas of the authentic or original, and suggests the links between this later concept and the mid-century advent of technologies of mass reproduction (cheap printing, tableaux vivants etc) and the massively expanded access to knowledge they, and urban industrialisation, made possible. This later scientific sense of the authentic, I argue, is briefly a democratising and progressive assertion of authority by newly educated and previously excluded middle-class groups. I suggest this may be a factor in its marked endurance in anglophone theatrical traditions, a hagiography of the original text which still operates as a (now conservatively-identified) force today. By tracing the links between the emergence of this sense of the authentic and the concept of ‘adaptation’, I attempt to shed light on confused contemporary criticisms of reperformed ‘classics’.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Classical Reception Seminar Series series.

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