Kathryn Bosher studied very old things and died at a very young age.
An accomplished, respected scholar of ancient Greek theatre, especially as it was performed outside ancient Greece, Prof. Bosher had also been a world-class rower for Canada. She packed much into a life that metastatic lung cancer cut short at the age of 38 on March 23, just five months after the disease was diagnosed.
Very unlike the popular image of the tweeded geezer who pores over dusty, half-forgotten tomes, Prof. Bosher was a vibrant, energetic young woman who could make the Greek classics crackle. Among a handful of scholars to research the ancient origins of comedy in Sicily and southern Italy, then western outposts of the Greek empire, she was equally at home with the raunchy, sexually charged humour of Aristophanes as with the crystalline melodies of Sappho’s poems.
“She combined a good critical sense of her field with a tremendously positive disposition,” Robert Wallace, who worked with her in the department of classics and theatre at Northwestern University in the Chicago area, where Prof. Bosher began teaching Greek and Latin in 2006, told the campus newspaper.
“Students were just blown away by her knowledge and passion,” noted another colleague.
“Tragedy grew up in Athens but comedy grew up in Sicily,” explained her husband, LaDale Winling, an American history professor at Virginia Tech. “She documented this process by looking at theatres that have been excavated, and clay fragments, to illustrate that as great as Athens was, it wasn’t the birthplace of everything. There were cultural products coming from Sicily.”
Prof. Bosher preferred the drama and tragedy of the ancients to their comedy, which, by today’s measure, tended to be laced with crude bathroom humour. “She was faced with these jokes about bodily fluids and excreta, but she was much more highbrow and enjoyed a lofty plotline,” her husband said. “Some of the jokes we just don’t get anymore; they speak to a time and place and set of issues that no longer resonate or apply. She thought comedy could offer compelling and unique insights into a society.”
But a social and political history of theatre in Sicily from around 500 to 200 BC had not been examined in great detail because the evidence seemed too sparse and fragmentary, Prof. Bosher wrote in her doctoral thesis, Theater on the Periphery.
“In recent years, however,” she wrote, “significant discoveries have been made by archaeologists, papyrologists and philologists, and, by drawing on all these kinds of evidence, it is possible to piece together the outlines of the development of western theatre [in early Sicily].”
Whereas, for example, the playwright Epicharmus was the first to make the cultural and political elite of the Greek Heroic Age the butts of ridicule, Sicily was ruled by local tyrants, who would stage bawdy comedies to poke fun at themselves as a way of cooling civil unrest, Prof. Winling explained. “It was a very flexible genre.”
Born in Toronto on Sept. 14, 1974, Kathryn Grace Bosher wrote and performed plays from the age of five or six, her mother, Cecil Bosher, recounted. Inspired by a Latin teacher at Toronto’s Branksome Hall school, young Kate travelled through Greece and studied Classics at the University of Toronto, earning bachelor and master’s degrees there, and a doctorate from the University of Michigan.
A lithe frame of just under six feet made her a natural rower. As a teen, she rowed with Canada’s junior national team, participating in the 1991 World Junior Championships in Spain in the women’s eight (they finished seventh).
A competitive sculler in graduate school, she won both the senior women’s single and the championship women’s single for the Ann Arbor Rowing Club at the 2004 Royal Canadian Henley Regatta. The same year, she won three gold medals at the U.S. Rowing National Championship. “She was the story of that regatta, for sure,” said Brett Johnson of USRowing.
Even in graduate school in Michigan, she was driven in her sport. She would get up at about 5:45 a.m. and row for 90 minutes. That was followed by a breakfast of raw oats, yogurt, bananas and raisins, then time spent on the Web reading message boards on rowing, sandwiched around a few hours of research and scholarly reading. Then came a healthy lunch, more research and another hour-and-a-half of rowing. During winters, the same regimen was completed on indoor rowing machines.
“Research and graduate school were a way of recovering between workouts,” her husband said. “True, Classics was why she was in [school], but rowing was what sustained her.”
Prof. Bosher loved to direct plays. As a grad student, she helmed Euripides’s Orestes, while “nobody who saw the production of Aristophanes’s Assemblywomen that she directed for the 2008 Feminism and Classics conference will forget it,” the American Philological Association noted in its tribute to her.
Her mother recalls “a romantic, sensitive, poetic person, filling her bedroom with dead roses. She said her best ideas came while staring out of a library window. As a child surrounded with 136 dolls, she grew into the fantasy world of play performance.”
Conscious of her peers’ criticism, she moved from such sensitive themes as love, death and the unconscious in classical Greek literature, to the more ribald works.
“She believed in being tough,” Cecil Bosher added. “Although she never was, and thought doing things which were unfamiliar or unpleasant purely for the experience of them was valuable.”
In 2009, Prof. Bosher helped win a Mellon Foundation grant for a two-year series of conferences called Theater Outside Athens, focusing on new research and bringing together scholars of theatre and antiquity. A resulting book of the same title she edited sought to produce a wide-ranging study of “this hitherto neglected history,” she wrote in the introduction.
She was sometimes called on to comment on what seemed a greater trend toward ancient Greek culture, as seen in the movies 300, Troy and the Clash of the Titans remake. “It seems people are using Greek myth to think about the modern world, as people have always done,” she told the Orlando Sentinel in 2010, “but there seems to be an extra swing toward Greekness.”
Most recently, she directed a project called Classicizing Chicago, a website and archive that intends to investigate and document a wide range of aspects of Chicago’s engagement with Greco-Roman antiquity from 1830 until the present day.
Unfinished business included editing, with three colleagues, the Oxford Handbook of Greek Drama. “Kate was very much the driving force behind this volume and we will complete it very much in her honour,” relayed Prof. Justine McConnell of Oxford University.
Prof. Bosher started getting headaches and feeling neck pain last summer. The pain worsened. In October, it was diagnosed as lung cancer that had metastasized to several bone sites, including her cervical spine. The elite athlete had never smoked. She fought to the very end, a stoic like so many of her study subjects.
“When doctors at Ohio State University indicated there was nothing more they could do, she said to me, ‘Screw them. I don’t plan on dying in the next few weeks,’” Prof. Winling recalled. “I still cannot believe that Kate could not beat cancer, because she was the toughest person I have ever met.”
She leaves her husband, Prof. LaDale Winling; an infant son, Ernest; parents John and Cecil Bosher; a brother, Hal; and half-sisters Sylvie and Lise Bosher.
A memorial service will take place May 4, 11 a.m. at Ennismore Cemetery in Ennismore, Ont.