Introducing Al Duncan

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Al DuncanDuncan
Assistant Professor

I was born and raised in the northwest suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, receiving joint bachelor’s degrees in Classical Languages and Literature and English at the nearby University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. From there I went on to pursue a PhD in Classics and the Humanities from Stanford University. After many sunny days amidst books and palm trees in Palo Alto, for three years I served as Assistant Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City—a very happy place for a beginning scholar and outdoor enthusiast. After this somewhat mobile itinerary, I hope that this move to Chapel Hill (the hometown of my wife, Lauren Jarvis, a new hire in UNC’s History department) will provide an opportunity to put down some deep roots.

Theater led me to study Classics. From my first building blocks through religiously poring over waiting-room copies of Architectural Digest at the orthodontist’s office, I had planned on becoming an architect or engineer. But an inspirational high-school English teacher and drama coach shifted my trajectory, tuning me into powerful voices broadcast from the past. Serving as a stage-hand for a high school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I remember standing behind the curtain, silently incanting Shakespeare’s verses as they repeated over and over in rehearsal. But it was the economy of Attic tragedy, which could tackle massive human issues in under 90 minutes, which immediately hooked me as a Freshman in Ann Arbor. Having staged an Acharnians and Bacchae at Michigan, I wanted to pursue graduate study where I could split my time between the library and the theater. At Stanford I found kindred spirits in the faculty and among my fellow graduate students; with several friends I helped to found Stanford Classics in Theater (abbreviated, almost elegantly, as SCIT) a troupe dedicated to innovative performances and original translations and adaptations of Greek and Roman drama.

My experience directing and producing student theater over the years required me to wear many hats: set-, program-, and poster-designer, properties master, publicist, etc. These roles inevitably took me away from the page and forced me to confront the visual, material, and generic aspects of these works. Although scholarship on ancient drama had been propelled forward in the 20th century by treating the texts as scripts for action in addition to poetry for inward contemplation, I found that the aesthetics of these works—how the works engaged with beauty and pleasure, both in and out of production—had garnered considerably less attention.

These interests and experiences are currently being distilled into a book on ugliness in fifth-century Athenian drama, as well as several shorter works dealing with the elusive aesthetic role of the ancient dramatic mask. As research from this area of study begins to see the public light of day, I am becoming increasingly interested in the social value, both ancient and modern, of Athenian drama. In particular, I’m interested in how the plays stage (and resolve) conflict. I consider, for example, whether such tragic stock-in-trade features as the deus ex machina, rather than being symptoms of artistic limitation, stage fanciful—but nevertheless divine—models for reconciliation. I look forward to a research trip to South Africa this summer, and a research leave from teaching this fall, to further both channels of this current work.

Though I am grateful for the upcoming time to read and write, I am already eager to get back in the classrooms in Murphey Hall. I’m particularly excited about my offerings in Spring 2016: an Honors course on Athletics in the Greek and Roman World, and a graduate seminar on ugliness in ancient thought. Teaching at Carolina the past two semesters has been a reinvigorating experience, surrounded by the friendly staff, bright students, and inspiring colleagues in the Classics department. These include, among many others I could name, the polymathic sophomore Philip Wilson, who has helped me in track the vestiges of Greek gods in Afrikaans literature and, of course, the irreplaceable Bill Race, with whom I feel so lucky to have spent a year on this faculty. And to all that have made my first year at Carolina a success: eucharistó!