Contact Us
Emily Balch Seminar Program
Gail Hemmeter, Director
English House
101 North Merion Ave
Bryn Mawr, PA 19010-2899

Phone: (610) 526-5306
Fax: (610) 526-7477
The Balch Seminars

Classical Myth and the Contemporary Imagination

Greek and Roman myths have proven themselves to be of enduring interest to the literary imagination, in part for the insight they offer into problems of contemporary history, politics, and sexuality, for example. Each generation has translated or adapted these myths for its own purposes. In this seminar, students consider a number of Greek and Roman myths, both in their “source” form (in translations of Greek drama, or the Metamorphoses of Ovid) and in various subsequent retellings, in poetry, prose, or drama. Various film adaptations of these plays (and myths) may also be considered, as well as some critical readings.

photo of Karl Kirchwey speaking

Associate Professor in the Arts and Director of Creative Writing

“Greco-Roman mythology is one of the major artistic expressions of Western culture, and I am fascinated by the perpetual resonance of these myths—they are constantly being re-imagined in multiple artistic disciplines, including literature.

“In this seminar, we explore the ways in which contemporary writers turn an original Greek myth into something new that resonates for their own time. One of my favorite myths is the story of Phaedra, an unlucky queen from Crete who falls in love with her stepson. My students love to discuss it, first of all, because everybody loves talking about forbidden passion. But we explore several other interesting angles.

For example, in the play, Phaedra Britannica, Phaedra is recast as an Englishwoman in 18th-century India, which gives us a unique perspective on colonialism. In Rodney's Wife, the contemporary American playwright, Richard Nelson, has turned the Phaedra myth into an exploration of traditional female roles in marriage and parenthood—and the possibility for liberation from these—in the early 1960s.

“As a teacher of literature and creative writing, my interest is in helping students become better close readers of literature—that is, to discover the multiple possible readings and resonances of a given text by looking at what the text is actually saying.

Before he joined the College in 2002, Karl Kirchwey directed the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center in New York City and taught creative writing and literature at Smith College and at Columbia, Yale, and Wesleyan Universities. An award-winning poet and the author of five books of poetry, Kirchwey received the College’s Rosalyn R. Schwartz Teaching Award in 2003. He earned an M.A. at Columbia University.

Photo of Sasha DeWitt

“In my seminar, we read both original Greek myths and modern adaptations, which was really cool because you could see how writers interpreted and applied these myths to the modern world.

“The class discussions were fun. When we’d discuss a reading, people would notice different things and we’d all build on those points. Also, Professor Kirchwey was fantastic—he’d bring out a lot of interesting points for us to think about. They were enjoyable afternoons.

“The volume of writing assignments was tough at first, but I learned that I was capable of writing a paper every week. The comments that Professor Kirchwey and my classmates made on my papers helped me grow as a writer. I’m a lot better at listening to other people’s opinions and taking them into account when I write. When I revise a paper, I may think, ‘If my peers were reading this, what might not be entirely clear?'"

Biology major with a concentration in neuroscience

“This seminar was my first choice because I had no exposure to Greek and Roman mythology at school in Kenya. I really liked the contemporary adaptations of original myths.

“Before, I was expected to show in my writing that I understood what an author was trying to say in a piece of literature, and not my own interpretation of it—but that is exactly what my seminar encouraged. Also, our papers were posted online so we could read our classmates’ interpretations, and that was really interesting.

“In class, Professor Kirchwey would initiate a discussion about a piece and relate it to a previous work. Then, often we would take a ‘U-turn’ and visit completely different issues! For example, one day I realized that a Kenyan play I had read stemmed from a Greek myth—I had a huge ‘aha!’ moment.”

Chemistry major

photo of June Mbae