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May 2014 - On Greek Tragedy and Modern “Drama”

Perhaps it was because I was born into a Greek tragedy that I somehow managed to avoid reading any of those classic plays. I, however, think not. There is only so much time that one can devote to the study of any literature, and I devoted vast amounts of time to (in descending order) French, American, Russian, and British literatures. The Greeks escaped me or, rather, I escaped them.

I have long been aware of the huge hole, this massive gap in the range of my literary education. Whenever I came across references to classical Greek figures in Shakespeare or in French literature, I would confine my knowledge to the footnote or a dictionary entry. It was a less than gracious attitude to take toward a civilization to which Western culture owes an inestimable debt.

As an amateur linguist, I have long enjoyed the study of Greek and Latin roots. I thus was able to acquire a rudimentary understanding of how the Ancients spoke. (Greek terms are far more technical, whereas Latin terms are more for every-day usage.) I also studied Plato and Aristotle and a few other ancient Greek philosophers, but my solid grasp of literary greats and not-so-greats begins with Chaucer and Villon in the Middle Ages and ends with Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike in the 1970s.

I’m perfectly fine with leaving it at Joyce and John; but my (at times comical) lack of knowledge (dare I say, ignorance) of the Classics has become embarrassing for me, especially since Dear Daughter has now mastered so many of the Classics in Greek and in Latin. And I was the one who set her on her way with a classics education!

Because of home-schooling, I read portions of The Odyssey (The Oddity to some students) as well as the entire Cliff Notes on this ancient Greek epic that is attributed to Homer. And I did attempt to read The Aeneid, the Latin epic poem written by Vergil. The twelve books are composed of approximately 9,900 lines in dactylic hexameter.

The Aeneid (in fine English translation) was not for me. Oh, the epic is action-packed; and the Latin of Vergil has been lauded for its dignity, subtlety, and balanced flow. I understand its deservedly lofty place in the Western canon and in Western culture. I was simply too put off by the constant repetition of previous information at the beginning of each “section” within each book.

The oral tradition was explained thoroughly to me. I still could not help but feel that the redundancy was a waste of my time. The summary of already covered material reminded me of “Yesterday on As the World Turns . . .” I could not enjoy this work. Feeling somewhat crestfallen, I donated the tome to a charter school.

The ancient Greeks invented and perfected the theater. I turn now to this artistic medium to fully assimilate knowledge about the foundation of all literature and drama that followed after the 6th and 7th centuries before the birth of Christ. Oedipus the King (Oedipus Rex) by Sophocles is the first classic play on my reading list.

This classic Greek tragedy is generally deemed the classic Greek tragedy par excellence. It was written by Sophocles after Antigone but before Oedipus at Colonus. These three Theban plays are not a trilogy or even a “cycle,” but are independent units in an historic saga. The storyline, however, is Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone.

There are some very good reasons to read these plays in the order of composition: to gain insight into ancient Athenian history; to understand the plays as the Athenian audiences saw them; to study the development of Sophocles as a tragic poet and dramatist; and to analyze the changes in conflict and themes as ancient Athens moved from its height of greatness toward the disastrous, protracted Peloponnesian War and into defeat.

For someone not conversant with the history of ancient Athens, this approach would be most confusing and frustrating. Furthermore, the development of Sophocles from a literary perspective can be assessed by reading in any order any of the 7 plays out of 123 which have survived. Lastly, Aristotle referred to Oedipus the King as the most brilliant example of theatrical plot. The storyline trumps historical perspective (although the storyline is in itself part of that historical perspective).

I will therefore start with Oedipus the King and end with Antigone. I now have in my possession highly recommended translations by the very inspirational Robert Fagles. (The translation of any text is crucial to acquiring its true artistic meaning.) In Oedipus the King, Sophocles depicts the downfall of his tragic hero as the result of inner flaws and faults. The Fates, or fate, are not the sole cause of the downfall of Oedipus Rex. Tragically, but heroically, Oedipus destroys himself. It is because of his noble courage in his search for the truth that Oedipus has enthralled, and will continue to enthrall, generations of spectators and readers.

The ancient Greek spectators of this play could hardly have contemplated such divine gifts as free will, liberty, or freedom, and yet Oedipus is viewed as ultimately responsible for acting of his own free will. Sophocles chose to express in poetry a concept that was not philosophically posed until after his time. It appears that this ancient poet knew through art what thinkers in future eras would postulate in ever more complicated terms and treatises: the responsibility of man to accept the choices of his free will, even in the face of the tragic fate that he has brought about.

Sophocles was a master of the technique of dramatic irony. He was also a military leader. His experience in that arena must have granted to him the sights and insights into human nature which honed his creative skills. His work as a tragedian and his duties as a military leader were quite compatible: purportedly, it was his production of Antigone that led to his election as commander of armed forces in the Athenian campaign against Samos.

And so, of the “The Big Three” Athenian Tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides), I have chosen Sophocles and his masterpiece as the starting point of my odyssey of classic Greek drama.

Some research into classic Greek theater has commenced, and I have unavoidably drawn comparisons between the ancient tragic fare (to be performed in contests at festivals honoring Dionysus or some of the other Greek gods) and the “drama” or “tragedy” offered on the silver screen to modern audiences (the usual secular gods are honored).

In his Poetics, Aristotle stated that the true purpose or function of tragedy is to purge the spirit through pity or fear -- catharsis. The Greek term, catharsis (from the Greek κάθαρσις catharsis, meaning "purification" or "cleansing"), has become predictably overused in modern times. Aristotle originated the use of this word to describe the effects of tragedy on the spectator of Greek tragic plays.

The ancient Greek tragedians deemed death and violent action to be improper spectacles on the stage. Violent action always took place off-stage; it was later reported and described. Compare this restrained approach to the imploding, exploding, bloody, digitized, in-your-face spectacles of modern film.

Catharsis becomes impossible. A stress disorder is far more likely. There is too much of what should be restrained and not enough of what should be expressed. The spectator has not a hope of being moved, pleased, touched, or endeared to the tragic hero (a process otherwise known as “identifying with”) or to anyone in the plot. The developments of character are so utterly devoid within any current celluloid tale of “tragedy” that the film itself becomes a tragedy!

Human emotions and sensibilities are not moved by what the mind does not know and cannot understand. The inner secret of an unknown truth can be found within a vivid, vibrant instant of viewing real intrigue, the drama of absorbing action that entreats the mind to behold! The mind then beholds a sight that the heart can comprehend. Catharsis is then not only possible, but inevitable.

Rare are the moments in modern film when the heart can comprehend the unforeseen truth that unites us within the human condition and the human miracle. The fault for the paucity of true tragedy within film lies within the ignorance of the producers of such dreck masquerading as drama.

The French poet and critic Nicolas Boileau famously opined, “Ignorance is always ready to admire itself.” Nowadays, ignorance expects a standing ovation.


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