You are on page 1of 9

Greek Drama; Life and Afterlife

By Nichlas Birns Greek drama has a paradoxical place in our literary culture. On the one hand, it is one of the most popular and widely known aspects of our literary heritage, constantly crossing temporal, linguistic, and cultural boundaries. This has been particularly true in recent years (roughly since 9/11) when revivals of Greek drama have proliferated on the New York stages, of all shapes, sizes, and manners, Greek drama is frequently taught in high schools and introductory literature courses; it is prized for its accessibility and its depth, for its concrete ability to speak to situations and feelings far removed from its specifics. Yet in many ways Greek drama is a very unlikely candidate for this role. Written in a language no longer spoken, whose modern descendant is a minor tongue in our world, Greek drama is not only two and a half millennia old but is written out of assumptions and basic beliefs and orientations that we do not share. Contemporary culture is heir to a Christian understanding of the world, whatever our personal beliefs. Greek drama is palpably endowed with a very different sense of spirituality, one that is known about by learned people today but not practiced for many centuries: there are no temples ot Zeus, sailors do not say a prayer to Poseidon before they embark on a voyage, Dionysian and Titanic are adjectives, but not animate forces. That what was essential for the ancient Greeks--their gods--are quaint, trivial, and archival to us, and yet that the literary impact of the drama still resonates is perhaps the greatest mystery.

The origins of Greek tragedy, indeed, lie in religious ritual devoted to the Greek pantheon. No one has quite been able to pin down just exactly where the first dramas occurred in Greece. And this is an important question, because for all that human beings seem to both naturally (as Aristotle (whom we will discuss in the next thread) might say, 'imitate' and also 'play' or 'make-believe', drama generally does not occur spontaneously; it has to be 'invented' in a deliberate way. Although drama manifested itself independently in other parts of the world--the Sanskrit drama of Kalidasa, for instance--drama is not universal; it does not occur in nearly every society the way poetry, of sort or another, does, pr painting. Generally, drama is associated with contexts where 1) There is a homogenous, urban, or concentrated society. 2) There is a tradition of high culture going back centuries 3) There is not only a religion but also a body of religious writing or lore 4) There is a strong sense of political unity, but also an aspect of pluralism, whatever it is the democracy of the Greeks or the equal space allotted to Brahmin and warrior castes--as it were, to the contemplative and the active--in the era of Sanskrit drama.

Most people assume that Greek drama came out of the 'dithyrambic choruses' popular in the major Greek city of Athens. These ecstatic dances and songs performed in honor of Dionysus, the ancient Greek god of drinking, goat-songs, orgies, and revelry. Oddly for such a raucous deity, the Athenian civic elevation of this god was done partially out of prudent compromise--Athens was a city of different

classes and interest groups, and Dionysus was linked to none of these. In effect, he was like a popular TV show or action-movie series that the entire population, regardless of their politics, rallies around. At first, the plays that developed out of the dithyrambic choruses featured one person on stage at a time. If there were a series of songs, different people might sing them, but they would never be on stage together, never interact. It was Aeschylus, the first of our playwrights, who introduced the single actor on stage at one time. This makes drama in the conventional sense possible; it means there is spoken dialogue on stage between two represented individuals, not just a recitation of narratively contextualized song to the audience. Sophocles, our next playwright, introduced the third actor, which made possible the full range of performative interaction and psychological depth on stage. With this, Greek drama became perhaps the richest and most substantive cultural form humankind had yet manifested.

Yet for all these quick and impressive beginnings, drama, for all its glory and fame, did not found a sustained tradition in the West. Poetry was written all across the Greek world; it could be written it any city in Greece itself (Sparta, that stern city of warriors, produced some of the earliest Greek poets), whether in the Greek homeland or in the various Greek colonies across the Mediterranean. Tragedy was performed through the Greek-speaking world but its writing flourished specifically at Athens, when that particular city was an independent city-state, in a time span of roughly about a century, beginning to end. In this interval, the great playwrights we are studying-Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Euripides, the four dramatists who founded our idea of the European stage--did their work. But in the succeeding era, when

Athens was no longer an independent city-state but part of successive leagues, realms, and empires, the intense civic life that had given rise to both the circumstances and passions of drama became absent. It is as if country music could only be written in nashville in the mid to late twentieth century, and was inconceivable outside those particular civic circumstances. Even under the Roman Empire, other forms of Greek literature--poetry, philosophy, travelogue, and even prose fiction-flourished, but the drama was basically dead. For a time in ancient Rome, during the height of Roman power, some Latin writers tried to write tragedy, Seneca being the msot successful. But Roman tragedy was sufficiently minor that as ostensibly learned a classicist as Shakespeares younger contemporary, Ben Jonson, was led to say that Shakepseare had qualitatively surpassed all previous drmaa, lumping the greek playwrights we know revere with such obscure Roman figures such as accius and Pacuvius, of whom bare fragments exist and who are not studied much. Had jonson written this today in a Clasiscs course, he would fail it!:

And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek, 32From thence to honour thee, I would not seek 33For names; but call forth thund'ring {AE}schylus, 34Euripides and Sophocles to us; 35Pacuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead, 36To life again, to hear thy buskin tread, 37And shake a stage; or, when thy socks

were on, 38Leave thee alone for the comparison 39Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome 40Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come. 41Tri{'u}mph, my Britain, thou hast one to show 42To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe. 43He was not of an age but for all time! 44And all the Muses still were in their prime, 45When, like Apollo, he came forth to warm 46Our ears, or like a Mercury to charm! 47Nature herself was proud of his designs 48And joy'd to wear the dressing of his lines, 49Which were so richly spun, and woven so fit, 50As, since, she will vouchsafe no other wit. 51The merry Greek, tart Aristophanes,

52Neat Terence, witty Plautus, now not please, 53But antiquated and deserted lie, 54As they were not of Nature's family.
And even though we still venerate Shakespeare, and see him as the greatest single playwright ever, he would not so cavalierly be placed ahead of the great Greek tragedians, but by the time Shakespeare wrote, there was an entire new tradition of drama. Shakespeare never read the Greeks. For much of the medieval era Western Europe had lost knowledge of the Greek language. Moreover, very few of the plays of the ancient Greek dramatist wad survived the Middle Ages. For instance, Sophocles wrote over a hundred plays; due to the ravages of time ((and of wars, including those launched by the Western European Crusaders) we have only seven. All the other playwrights, even Euripides who we have in the most bulk, are known to us (and were known to the West during the Renaissance and after) by a mere fraction of what they actually wrote. Moreover, drama had passed totally out of fashion in the early Middle Ages not just because of the postulated waning of classical learning but also because of the rise of Christianity and its attitude towards tragedy. (Should say high dramaeven in the Dark ages there were informal performances: jugglers, singer-=storytellers, bards, and so on. But there was, as far as we know, no organized theatre). In Christianity, the ultimate victory of Christ was the most resonant fact in all of human action; therefore no tragedy, no setback, could be definitely final. What we will talk about in terms of the 'catharsis' described by Aristotle, the pity and terror played out on stage that both

horrifies and heartens the audience with its exposure of irredeemable suffering which, in the ardor of its manifestation, is somehow comforting and even cleansing is precluded by the Christian promise of general redemption. Christianity, in fact, prefers, structurally, 'comedy' to 'tragedys , and it is no accident that the greatest medieval Christian work, Dantes epic poem, is called THE DIVINE COMEDY. Comedy here does not mean ['ha-ha funny," (Hrosvitha of Gandersheim, the tenthcentury German nun who wrote Christian comedies, was not the Margaret Cho of her day) but a form emphasizing happy as opposed to unhappy endings. In fact, from Aristophanes onward, comedy as a genre got less 'ha-ha' the next major Greek tragedian, Menander, formulated a "New Comedy' which emphasized marriage-plots and what we would today call Hollywood outcomes, letting a romantic and reconciliatory tone predominant over savage or farcical laughter. Terence and Plautus, whom Jonson references in his tribute to Shakespeare, were Romans influenced by Menander and New Comedy. Tragedy in the middle Ages was restricted tot accounts of reversals of fortune that could easily be accommodated within a moralized Christian framework. When drama reemerged in the late middle Ages, it came out of a circumstance very similar to the dithyrambic choruses--a specific instance of religious affirmation. On Easter, for instance, the scene in the New Testament where the disciples go to seek Jesus in the sepulcher--and find he is not there, he is risen--was enacted dramatically very early on, and led itself to an entire tradition of mystery plays' and 'miracle plays; in the late Middle Ages. Elizabethan drama-including Shakespeare--came out of this tradition, even though Shakespeare was not at all an explicitly religious playwright, and he along with his contemporaries, resurrected the idea of 'tragedy in its full

emotional range; what happens to Hamlet or Lear, for instance, is no mere reversal of fortune.

As the Greek language was rediscovered and ancient Greece, not Christianity, became more of a cultural ideal for modernity, palywrights0suych as the seventeenth-century Frenchman Pierre Corneille or Jean Racine, consciously- tried to emulate Greek precedents. In turn, nineteenth-century Romantics such as Percy Bysshe Shelley consciously revolted against classical precedent--his PROMETHEUS UNBOUND was a direct 'refutation' of Aeschylus's PROMETHEUS BOUND. But, in both cases, the modern ideal of classical drama was something of a phantom. There was little sense of how classical drama operated as drama, or of the specificity of the cultural forms out of which it came.

All this changed as the result of two diametrically opposed late nineteenth-century Germans--Friedrich Nietzsche and Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf. Wilamowitz-Moellendorf was a 'philologist', that is, a linguistically and textually oriented scholar of literature. He helped give us the sense of ancient Greek playwrights as dramatic personalities--by carefully patching together what little we know about Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Aristophanes as people. A far more radical path was taken by Nietzsche, who brought to light the irrational, Dionysiac aspects of ancient Greek drama, which he tacitly likened to the commingling of genres achieved by Richard Wagner in his operas. Nietzsche, though did not fetishize or sentimentalize the Dionysian (which, as we have seen, was at least partially a product of a publicly minded compromise_ but insisted that a more conscious, cerebral

aspect, the 'Apollonian' coexisted with it. Nonetheless, the thrust of Nietzsches work was to make the Greeks less impeccable 'greats' and to reveal their own emotional turmoil and internal contradictions.

Though twenty-first century assumptions are hardly the same as Nietzsches or Wilamowitz's, their general emphasis--a combination of interest in the Greek past in itself, for all we can know of it, and a willingness to let the texts speak to our own questions and uncertainties--has still prevailed. This mirrors the paradoxical combination of strangeness and familiarity, loss and preservation, mystery and accessibility, which runs throughout the relationship that we today have with the drama of classical Greece.