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02/03/93

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A PLAY'S THE THING TO MARK FOUNDING OF DEMOCRACY

STANFORD - Americans, accustomed to lavish celebrations of centennials and bicentennials, can only contemplate with awe the festivities that might surround a 2,500th anniversary.

Rush Rehm, Stanford assistant professor of drama, considers it entirely appropriate to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of Athenian democracy by staging a play, Euripides' Suppliant Women.

"Democracy and drama developed in Greece hand in glove," Rehm said. "I think that's an important connection to make, not just for historical reasons but also to shed light on contemporary ideas about the theater and its role in democratic society."

With an anniversary of such antiquity, there is disagreement over dates, of course. But many scholars, Rehm said, date the founding of Athenian democracy to the reforms of a man named Cleisthenes in 508- 507 B.C.

A number of international events have been planned to mark "Democracy 2500," including conferences of historians in Washington and Athens and major art exchanges between the United States and Greece.

Rehm will direct Suppliant Women at Stanford Feb. 16-28 and will remount the production in April at the Folger Theater in Washington, D.C., and in late June at the Getty Museum in Malibu. If funding becomes available, he also will stage the play this summer at the Delphi Theater Festival in Greece.

Suppliant Women is a particularly appropriate work with which to celebrate Athenian democracy, Rehm said. For one thing, the play contains an extended debate about the merits of democracy versus those of oligarchy or monarchy.

The play, which dates from 423 B.C., was written "when Athenian democracy was undergoing tremendous stress, brought about by Athens' involvement in the Peloponnesian War," Rehm said. "A lot of people, including the historian Thucydides, observed that Athenian democracy suffered serious erosion under the pressures of war and a foreign policy of imperialism."

As Rehm sees it, the play "resonates with the modern situation of the United States. It reveals some of the pressures on our own democracy."

Suppliant Women also deals with gender questions, and Athenian theater in general was a forum for democracy. Although all the playwrights and actors were male, theater, Rehm said, "played an important role in giving voice to the concerns of marginal people - women and slaves - who were not represented in the more traditional political forums. Theater in many ways was subversive of reigning hierarchies."

The play contains a moving chorus of women lamenting for their dead sons.

"If this doesn't speak to a modern American audience, it ought to," Rehm said. "You don't have to go too far south of the border to find women who grieve for their disappeared sons, husbands and fathers, butchered by governments receiving aid from our 'democracy.'"

In addition, he said, it is a play that is rarely staged.

"There's a lot of interest now in opening up the canon to different voices, but that also should involve opening up the 'accepted' canon," Rehm said. "If by Greek tragedy you only mean the Oedipus plays, Medea, the Oresteia and the Bacchae, you've left out a lot.

"It seems to me that in a university environment, where the arts are somewhat free from commercial pressures, it makes sense to explore less well-known and more problematic works."

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