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Tony Harrison: The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus

Play Title


The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus

London: Faber, 1990

Length / Form Adapted satyr-play

Allusion to Classical figure Apollo, Hermes, Kyllene, Silenus, Satyrs, Marsyas

Allusion to Classical place Castalia, Delphi

Relationship to Classical text Based on the surviving 400-line fragment of Sophocles' Satyr play Ichneutae, discovered by papyrologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt at Oxyrhynchus in 1907. The play opens with the two scholars, who, in the process of unearthing the text are drawn into its narrative, taking on the parts of Apollo (Grenfell) and Silenus (Hunt). Near the beginning of the play the chorus sing Pindar’s Paean VI in the original Greek.

Close translation of words/phrases/excerpts The fragmented text of Sophocles’ Ichneutae first appears in the original Greek, later giving way to Harrison’s translation and adaptation (though sections of Greek text are used throughout).

Classical/post-Classical intertexts Re-evaluation of the Classical ‘canon’ following the discovery of lost texts. Harrison demonstrates his broader interest in distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture (e.g. tragedy versus satyr-play) via references to the Poet Laureateship, knighthoods and honours (p.26 in the 1990 edition). His poem Laureate’s Block, Penguin, 2000) is the republican poet’s scathing reaction to the suggestions he is ‘tipped’ for the post. The Satyrs speak in northern accents and use dialect, in sharp contrast to Kyllene’s ‘high’ Victorian-style verse. Later, the Satyrs become football hooligans.

Comment First performed at Delphi on 12 July 1988. The 1990 paperback contains the original Delphi script, whilst the second edition (1991) also includes a newer version, performed at the National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre (27 March 1990) and at Salts Mill, Bradford (18 April 1990), revived the following year and then toured across Europe.

Note Collected in Tony Harrison Plays 5, Faber, 2004.