NOTES ON GREEK TRAGEDY, in response to Simon Critchley
Dramatic Tragedy was a central form of artistic expression in classical Athens (circa 550 to 400 BC) which had a mass audience and concentrated on themes of social and political relevance, chiefly warfare and its consequences, illustrated through tales based on Greek mythology.
Around 700 tragedies are believed to have been written over a period of about a century & a half, to be performed in competitions at the annual festival of Dionysus – the theatre dedicated to this carnival God was beside the Acropolis and held up to 17000 people – roughly a fifth of the city’s population. A theatre of a similar scale in Dublin today would hold 250000 or more. Theatre was a big deal in classical Athens – bigger than soccer and commercial pop & reality TV put together in our day!
Only 31 plays survive – by Aeschylus, Sophocles, & Euripedes. The most popular of these – the likes of Oedipus the King, Agamemnon, Antigone, & Orestes – have been in more or less continous production since and they continue to exert an influence on and provoke a response from leading contemporary writers and thinkers. Aside from the Epic Poems of Mesopotamia and even ancienter Greece as well as religious texts such as the Bible and the Tao Te Ching, the Greek Tragedies are the oldest still-relevant literary works in existence – their influence on ‘Western Civilisation’ is impossible to overestimate.
We dont know what ancient Greek audiences thought of the plays or how politically influential they were – but we do know that they had as least major cultural importance.
The plays had all male actors and they lines were sung or metrically enunciated. It is likely but not certain that the audience was also all male and all middle and upper class.
One of the remarkable things about tragedy is the central place it affords to marginal and victims such as women (albeit noblewomen), refugees, and enemies such as The Persians & The Trojans – thus potentially promoting empathy and identification. In fact all those who were excluded from power and representation offstage seem to gain such onstage.
The attitude of major philosophers to Tragedy takes up much of Critchleys time & attention in the book. Plato, speaking through his sock-puppet Socrates in The Republic believes poets (by which he means tragic dramatists) should be banned from the ideal city because their tragedies display and evoke overwhelming emotions which could spread among the citizens and destabilise the state. The most threatening emotions are rage & grief which overwhelm us and makes us incapable of normal or righteous or orderly living – according to the warlike mores of imperial Athens
Aristotle, who introduces the famous concept of catharsis, sees things differently – tragedies perform a vital, almost physiological function in allowing our excessive & potentially infectious emotions to be drained away harmlessly – thus contributing to the maintenance of social order. We go to the plays, engage with & are moved by the horrible events unfolding before us, and then get back to normal living relieved of our excess of compassion that might otherwise lead us to identify with the marginal or oppressed. The rulers of Athens agreed with Aristotle – they made annual performance of the major plays (and the Homeric and Hesodian epics) a legal obligation. There is no evidence whatsoever that the Greek Tragedians – part of the ruling class themselves – ever either intended or caused any kind of social upheaval or even mild reform as a result of their plays.
Why do Greek Tragedies continue to fascinate contemporary culture? First of all because of their literary quality – art is not like science or technology, i.e it does not ‘progress’ or improve over time. These plays remain the most eloquent & moving ever written (possibly excepting Shakespeare) 2500 years later and so they continue to attract the attention of and provoke responses from leading thinkers and artists. No contemporary playwright would claim to be anything like the literary equal of the major Greek tragedians.
But they also continue to speak to us for anthropological and political reasons. Today’s Humans are the exact same species as we were 2500 years ago and we react to the extreme situations depicted in Greek Tragedy in exactly the same way as our deep ancestry. And our social institutions are also different in degree but similar in kind to those of ancient Athens. We still have endemic injustice, hierarchy, division, inequality, warfare
According to Critchley, and counter to what the longstanding Aristotelian tradition says about the plays, Greek Tragedy does not say anything consoling about the Human Condition and it does not do us good to engage with it. Instead the plays depict an irredeemably fragmented world in which Life is impossible to comprehend or piece together as a unitary whole, in which we we are unfree beings who participate in our own unfreedom, in which suffering happens without reason, history offers no consolation or moral lessons, and the future will bring no redemption. Life is meaningless, full of suffering, incoherent, and teaches nothing.
Rage & grief and disapointment & finally annihalation are our unavoidable destinies as individuals & as societies – this is the tragic view of human existence in a nutshell.
Fascinatingly, Critchley goes on to argues that tragedy offers a counterargument to philosophy – which of course is the search for unitary comprehension of life, the universe, and everything. Great philosophers, starting with Plato but right throughout the history of philosophy, have sought to prove that life has a revealable meaning & a purpose and that individual life can line with a discoverable cosmic order up in expressing and reflecting this meaning. Plato and Marx share this belief in the possibility of ordered societies framing meaningful individual lives – although from opposite angles with Plato believing in dictatorship and Marx in a radically extended form of democracy.
Tragedy says nope, life is meaningless and inevitably chaotic and the individual is always at odds with the social and political. There is no way of fitting in because there is nothing stable to fit into. Not so much all that is solid melts into air, as there isn’t anything solid to melt in the first place.
Tragedy is the enemy of philosophy & vice versa. So what we see (or more likely read) in Tragedy is a mirror image of our own entrapment in a universe we cannot hope to understand or to change for the better.
Critchley’s is a bleak vision of bleak material, and although his theory is far more convincing and well-thought out and far more based upon the actual text of the plays then either Plato’s or Aristotle’s viewpoint, it has one huge blindspot which appears to affect the vast majority of classical scholars now and in past generations. It’s fallacious
in my view to see the plays as representing a universal human condition of any kind, whether that be a bleak fragmented one or an ideal and coherent one. Not all humans are represented in Greek Tragedy – the plays focus exclusively on ruling class figures and ruling class crises. Even the ‘marginal’ depicted in the plays are always drawn from the upper orders – queens not slave women, foreign rulers & generals not ordinary soldiers or citizens and so on. The plays show us how vicious, arrogant, & ultimately insane & socially destructive the 1% are and how they will do anything to maintain THEIR freedom and THEIR social power.
Greek Tragedy tells us nothing atall about the vast majority of Greek society and therefore it is a serious mistake – and something of an insult to those of us who don’t kill our mothers to get the keys to the palace – to see the plays as offering a theory of human life & society as a whole and for all times and places.
Aeschylus, Sophocles, & Euripides are not best seen as purveyors of totalising vision of humanity one way or the other, but as fifth columnists, as spies from within the ruling order who reveal the iniquity and instability of that ruling order and why it must be swept away!
Grief and rage – the emotions of Tragic Theatre – may be irrational in the sense that they overwhelm our ordinary sense of self and prevent us from carrying on in the ordinary way – but they are deeply rational & indeed profoundly progressive emotions in another sense.
What else should we feel about destruction of our individual lives, our communities, and our entire planetary habitat by a vicious ruling class – so much more dangerous and more vicious than that endured by the Athenian populacd – other than grief and rage? And if that grief and rage threatens to catch fire among the masses and lead them to overthrow the social order which makes us so angry and causes us so often to weep then is that not a good – nay a GREAT thing?
In fact, politicising that mass grief and rage is the ONLY thing that will save people and planet!
I think the task of today’s artists and intellectuals is to go beyond the Greek Tragedians, & beyond Critchley’s otherwise suberb reading of them. We must set out not only to depict the horror of the world’s rulers and the chaos, grief, and rage that flows from their rule, but also to try and channel that widespread & growing grief and rage into solidarity of the oppressed and exploited of all nations and revolution from below.
Simon Critchley’s just published Tragedy, The Greeks, & Us is widely available & highly recommended. Listen back to my RTE radio 1 review of it here, beginning at 24.00 https://www.rte.ie/radio/radioplayer/html5/#/radio1/11049973