The Greeks are everywhere. From Poseidon missiles to the Oedipus complex, from gamma rays to Gospel at Colonus, their potent traces permeate our culture. When we need an extra-strength cleaning agent, we invoke Ajax.
We have inherited these characters, these reverberating names, as part of our psychic baggage. They have entered our consciousness, burrowed deep, settled themselves somewhere below the level of sleep. What they did and how they lived we’ve forgotten. And yet Greek drama, the biography of these characters, continues in our time to be staged, restaged, mulled over, written about. Why? How many people can say in all sincerity that they sit through Sophocles or Aeschylus in that state of rapt forgetfulness that comes when one is totally absorbed by and identifying with a work of the imagination? When it is over, how many heave that sigh of relief at the accomplishment of a deep and satisfying journey that is evoked when a powerful film or some masterwork of the modern theatre has swept them away?
Whenever I spend time with the plays of Athens of the 5th century B.C., I always feel I want to get closer to the Greeks. I want to recognize them. I want to see them as fat, thin, tall, pimply, like the person who jostles me on the subway. I can’t believe that the Greek dramatists were less interested than I am in the quirks and oddities of human nature, and I keep looking for signs, squirreled away in the language, that they were trying to tell us something more about Electra or Agamemnon than those formal convoluted lines of the text can be made to yield.
But the language hangs across the thoughts and feelings of the characters like a curtain. Here and there one detects the rhythms of everyday speech; a staccato phrase will deliver a jolt; the orderly procession of trimeters will stumble and in that moment a human being can be glimpsed behind the mask. But for the most part, the language of these plays is a closed world. Even in its own day, it segregated the characters from the mundane, attributing to them words and grammatical forms that do not appear anywhere in the surviving prose of that time. Glorying in circumlocution, barren of metaphor and simile for the most part, hard-edged, whittled down, this language has no equivalent in English—and if it gives any clues to character, motive, individuality, they are almost all washed away by the centuries.
We do not know what nuances and associations clung to the words that Aeschylus gave to Clytemnestra. Scholars scrutinize and speculate and now and then come up with a comparison or parallel that, briefly, opens a window. But it is not enough. The words can be interpreted in too many ways; meanings overlap; a character’s speech sounds like a politician’s evasion, or a friend’s reassurance, or a lover’s complaint—how can we be sure? The compass points by which we measure the drift of a person’s speech are all gone.
As I think about the reasons actors, directors, writers and audiences keep coming back to the Greek theatre, the language and the characters seem to me to be the least of it. Something else is at work here.
What if these plays are dramas only by accident? What if their creators were after an effect of a kind that our theatre does not invoke?
For the sake of argument, try to look at the plays shorn of our expectations of an evening in the theatre: watching lifelike illusions of behavior that will be repeated night after night for profit and diversion, employing mimicry, artifice and the darkness of a closed building to put the audience into a kind of trance. Greek theatre, originally, was a far different affair.
The Greek dramas we possess were written by Athenians to be performed at Athens, a small but aggressive community, something between a tribe and a state, with its own economy, constitution, class system and traditions quite distinct from those of other Greek communities in the region. This little enclave called Athens was struggling to establish superiority in military preparedness and trade connections; alliances with the neighboring states shifted and changed; there were threats of revolution, coups and counter-coups, mob rule, juntas, military strongmen. The rivals were always fighting each other, haggling, chipping off pieces of each other’s territory. They only became reconciled in the face of a common enemy. During the time the plays we know were being written, such an enemy existed. It came from the east: the Persian peril.
For centuries Persia kept the Greek communities of the Turkish seaboard in a state of fear or dependency. Only a few years before The Oresteia was written, Persian forces, tired of the pesky Greeks’ attempts to assert their independence, tried to settle the matter once and for all by invading the mainland of Greece. They tried twice within 10 years. Twice they failed, and Athens took a major share of the credit for this David-and-Goliath victory. The Persian Wars entered into legend.
There were subsequent shifts of power, but Persia never ceased to be an obsession with the Greeks: whatever Persia was, Greeks were not. Greeks were free, Persians slaves; Greeks were austere; Persians decadent; Greeks were manly, Persians effeminate; Greeks were brave, Persians cowardly.
I’m dwelling on the politics of the time because it has a direct bearing on the themes of the plays: societies in turmoil, threat of foreign invasion, fear of an alien culture whose values both allure and annihilate, fierce pride in a self-created identity. In Athens, a community whose citizens felt themselves to be especially fortunate and blessed, there were national holidays, annual festivals at which the tribal heroes and ancestors were commemorated in patriotic songs, processions, dancing—and stage spectacles. In a sense, the greatest hero of all was the society itself, the miracle of its survival.
Because they had to arouse and hold the citizenry, these spectacles included earthquakes and supernatural visitations, monster costumes and exotic nymphs, demons and semi-satiric representations of the hated foreigners, the “barbarians” (which literally means “anybody who does not speak Greek”). Most of the real action took place offstage, but the audience was given a feast of description for the mind’s eye, the very latest music and scenic effects and a singing, dancing chorus. The overall intention of these activities—as with any parade, festival, gala, Mardi Gras today—was to project the image of the community outwards, give it form and life, color it, incarnate it.
This—the expression of one unusual state’s culture at a specific historical moment—is what we now call “Greek Drama.”
The plays smell of the market place, the town meeting. Characters air private grievances publicly, without modesty. They speak legalistically, rhetorically. They thrash things out in full view of interested or shocked bystanders, appealing to them for support while screaming insults at one another. The spectators, sometimes partisan, sometimes conspiratorial, often merely bemused, are in a strange way the real subject of the plays, an extension of the audience. It is as if their presence and reactions give validity to the feuds and passions being acted out in front of them.
The trilogy form allows the audience to participate in a saga full of ordeals for its heroes, but with a conclusion that is reassuring: the ordeals are over, the sickness healed. (Sometimes a fourth play is added, to bring up the rear with light relief.) In the elaborately written Oresteia, the only trilogy to survive in its entirety, Aeschylus gives his audience its fill of adultery, murder, hallucination, revolution and revenge; then, after the fail-safe trial scene pitting subterranean monsters against a Higher Being, he brings reconcilation to the stage for all to see—the city’s most joyful festival, the Panathenia, celebrates the unity of the state, the wholeness of Athens. No one can say for certain why the judges awarded their prize to a particular playwright, but there was clearly an incentive to praise and glorify the community. Presenting plays was a public service. A form of paying taxes. A thanksgiving, too.
What were the Greek audiences listening to when they heard the Oedipus story repeated yet again? Was it a code?
Here, then, is a situation in which writers from a privileged leisure class (Sophocles had patrician connections, and so did Aeschylus; people made fun of Euripides because of his bourgeois origins) would create scenarios for ceremonial occasions in which the famous deeds of the tribe’s heroes were rehearsed in all their terror and mystery and primal gore, with supernatural intervention when necessary. The stories were told over and over again, like the fairy tales a child insists on hearing repeated night after night, although he knows the Big Bad Wolf is always waiting in the cottage and that Cinderella will always get her Prince.
But the Greeks were not children, and their dramas were more than magnified fairy tales. What, then, were the audiences listening to when they heard the Oedipus story repeated yet again? Was it a code? Under the guise of the hoary fable, was Sophocles trying to say something revealing about his time? (Euripides, in particular, that perennial malcontent, seems to be juggling his material for effect. In Iphigenia at Aulis he presents an Achilles who is self-absorbed, impulsive, ineffectual, and his audiences must have been both shocked and amused by this departure from the heroic brooding figure of Homer. Over and over the characters from mythology come dressed in contemporary costume—like Odysseus, who talks in the smooth ambiguities of a practiced vote-getter whether he is appearing in Sophocles’ Philoctetes or Euripides’ Hecuba.)
Certainly we can hear echoes of public debates swirling about in these carefully modulated and codified representations of outlandish, far-off events: freedom versus subversion, the limits of human power, an agonized sense of the vicissitudes of life, enormous concern with good breeding, honor, proper behavior toward friend and foe, the passion for sex and money. But this in itself does not explain our own fascination with the plays.
The closer one tries to get to these characters and their individual lives, in fact, the more unsettling they become. Their humanity is there, but it is painted in primary colors. They play out their roles with so little of that quality we so prize in ourselves—the capacity for introspection. They seem driven, and it’s altogether too neat to say that the forces driving them, the Gods (though the word is misleading), are personifications of psychic states, or emotions, or passions.
Sometimes one can sense the playwright shifting uncomfortably amidst the contradictions of his material. A culture sophisticated enough to produce these dramatists, not to mention Thucydides or Plato, clearly had its share of skeptics and agnostics—and no society as argumentative as that of the Greeks would have buttoned its lips on such debatable matters as the nature of Zeus, or who Aphrodite was, or whether Artemis really existed. And yet, within the audience at large, there existed a feeling that life was haunted by other powers too large and mysterious to comprehend, that one could enter places where spirits were alive and present. A playwright could not disregard such a compelling sense of “the other,” the alien, the supernatural. So he incorporated the contradictions. In Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles retells the metamorphosis of Oedipus into a totemic figure of luck to the newly emergent power of Athens; the politics of the story are clear. But even as Oedipus is becoming an emblem, Sophocles writes for him lines that ring with impatience at the old tales and the freight of superstition and illogic. Oedipus looks back at that fateful moment at the crossroads when he fulfills the prophecy that he would kill his father and says, in effect, “No one told me I had to avoid every stranger who came along on the off chance that I might become a patricide. What would you do if your life were threatened—stop to inquire if the man were your father?” It is scathing, terse and hard-headed.
Somewhere in this contradiction, I think, lies a clue to the riddle of Greek drama—its intermittent power, its passionate aloofness, its sudden darts of immediacy. But there is one other important bit of background to be sketched in.
The Greek dramatists presented their work to an audience that was, even among the privileged classes, non-literate. The written word was not, for the Greeks, the principal means by which norms of behavior were passed from generation to generation, or for the enrichment of the imagination. It was the spoken word that counted: one’s word of honor, the oracular utterance, the folk saying, the message sworn by the messenger, the eyewitness report repeated verbatim and, above all, the words of the poet, memorized, sung, recited.
In such a society an educated man, and even the person with minimal claims to culture, would derive his sense of the past and of the continuity of his world from spoken tales, poetry, songs and proverbs. The epic sagas of Homer, with their store of information, standards of behavior and manners, were a major reference point.
The characters who remained most vivid, those who were the object of the most intense reveries of artists, were those who in some way incarnated the doubts, fears, hopes and despairs of the people as a whole in that time. The emphasis was not on private concerns—Athens had little respect for privacy, and a man who took no part in public affairs was idiotes (with connotations not far from those that attach to the modern descendant of the word). The concerns of the artists were the concerns of the People, an organism that lived and expressed itself through the City.
The plays sprout from collective dreams at a time of trouble. The fear of change, the need for change; what to do about power and freedom; the conflicts between generations; the old order breaking down and what will take its place; growing old, losing identity—the plays pulse with these conflicts. The myths and stories embedded in the memories of the audience by repetition since childhood provide all material necessary to incarnate these conflicts. And when a dramatist felt some adjustment was needed, he provided it—as a look at the three different versions of the Electra legend as told by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles demonstrates.
Out of all these conflicts that gripped the psyche of the Athenians, particular weight fell to the one posed by that looming, powerful, seductive, dangerous empire to the east. Persia periodically carried off the souls of some of the best of the Greeks. For in spite of their disgust with all things Persian, the Greeks were targets for Persian allure. Themistocles, the most brilliant patriot and diplomat of his day at Athens, ended his life a defector to the east. He was not the first, nor the last. Even Aeschylus’ celebration of the Athenian sea victory at Salamis, The Persians (the only play on a contemporary theme that survives from the 5th century), is less a drama than a glassy-eyed aria on the qualities attributed to the Persians which the Greeks must be sure to avoid in themselves.Seduced by that which you despise. Carried off to the east by the power you fear. Kidnapped. Raped. It is the subject matter of the Homerian sagas, the cornerstone of the Greek education: Greek Helen seduced by Trojan (read “Persian”) Paris. In The Trojan Women Euripides gives Hecuba a speech in which she contemptuously catalogs Helen’s motives for leaving her husband and sailing off to Troy with Paris—they are virtually a description of the effect a lavish and costly banquet might have on a goggling peasant. All the things the Greeks were supposed to reject—wealth, servants, exotic clothing, perfumes, luxury—are the things Helen wanted. And Themistocles, and, perhaps, secretly, every Greek in the audience. In the souls and memory of the Greeks, the Trojan War was being fought every day. The plays helped them to win it. If they did not win, they would cease to be Greeks. They would cease to be themselves.
The Greek plays are alive not because of their appeal as “works of theatre,” but for the shadow realm of mythic figures that lurks beneath the texts.
We are far from the Greek’s total immersion in a body of shared myth which solidifies our society. For this reason, the impact of Greek drama is immeasurably diluted; only a faint wisp of its tang survives. All the same, somewhere in the depths, the creatures of the Greek myths are alive within us. Even if we can no longer give the same names to the conflicts, psychic powers and supra-human forces they lived with, some twinge of recognition is touched when the tales of these plays are re-enacted. Something stirs, as it stirred in the minds of the technocrats who named a space program after Apollo and a cleansing agent after a Homeric hero.
For the Greek audiences, the plays were one item in a lengthy and uplifting annual program of self-affirmation and social purification. Roots, connections, identity and tradition were celebrated, just as they were at the Olympics and other games. But for us, I believe, the Greek plays are alive not because of their appeal as “works of theatre,” but for the shadow realm of mythic figures that lurks beneath the texts.
It comes down to survival, remembering who you are, and being true to that. For the Greek dramatists, daily concerns, the private neuroses that lead to divorce, family feuds and murder, are not so important as exorcising the demons that threaten to tear the body politic apart. Personal psychology is there, but it is used in a way unfamiliar in contemporary art—to animate the figures from the collective dream-world, to keep the audience listening while the real business, I am convinced, is being transacted on a different level altogether.
It’s a curious postscript that only a few years after Euripides wrote Iphigenia at Aulis, the power of Athens was broken. Its old enemy, Sparta, no friend of Athenian-style democracy, at last brought Athens, its erstwhile partner in the defense of Greece against the barbarian hordes, to its knees. And how was that accomplished? By military aid from, of all places, Persia.
Drama was never the same again. The next time a playwright of international renown is heard from he is writing situation comedies.
Kenneth Cavander has written, translated and adapted work for stage, film and television, both in England and the United States. His The Greeks, written in collaboration with John Barton, fuses works of Euripides, Aeschylus, Homer and Sophocles into a narrative history of the House of Agamemnon.
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