A Brief History of Tragedy
June 17, 2012 § Leave a comment
It is difficult to read Sophocles without reflecting on the origins of drama itself, as his are some of the earliest plays ever written. Both Chinese and Indian theatre came later, and I am not aware of any other civilization that had this art form in 500 BC. Aeschylus, senior to Sophocles by a few years, is usually credited with being the pioneer of Greek tragedy, but Sophocles was the innovator who first put three actors on a stage and had the audience riveted to an enactment (rather than a narration) of a dramatic episode. Before Aeschylus, there was song, dance and story-telling; prior to even that, there was the religious ceremony, the shaman’s ritual dance, which was sympathetic magic in its truest form: the symbolic imitation of supernatural forces, in order to pacify them, understand them, and ultimately, to control them. Nothing generated awe and wonder in an audience as a man or woman who could become the lightning and the volcano, the streaming river and the blinding sun, the creeping tiger and the prancing peacock, the angry god and the lurking demon. As EF Watling, the translator of the Theban Plays, says:
At [drama’s] roots lie not only the human instinct for narrative and impersonation, but also the instinct for the ritualistic expression and interpretation of the power of natural forces, the cycle of life and death, and the nexus of past, present and future…
This was a small step, evolutionarily speaking, from Sophocles, and directly thence, zooming forward 2500 years, from performance art today. It is droll to think that the vision of a masked rain-doctor capering around a fire, shrieking and waving his arms at a silent audience that watches in horrified fascination, is not fundamentally different from ballet and opera, or indeed, from the most sophisticated and slickly marketed film in existence. This is even truer of Broadway (and Bollywood). It is hard to reconcile the elaborate sets and special effects of today from the bare and bleak settings of Greek tragedy, but music is the common link.
Singing and chanting were integral parts of Sophocles’ plays, performed by the omnipresent Chorus, a group of people who stood on a small platform near the main stage, called the dancing-place, or the orchestra. This group was both part of the audience and part of the play. It reacted to the events unfolding on stage, sympathizing, suffering and celebrating with the characters, or grieving for them.
The tragedy, whatever the subject, is our tragedy. We, like the Chorus, are both in it, and spectators of it. And while the tragedy is being played out, we identify ourselves with this character and now with that – inconsistent, vacillating mortals that we are.
The chorus was the bridge between stage and audience; a necessary one, perhaps, for early audiences of a new art-form. It taught us how we were expected to feel at various points in the play. Today, all that remains of this aspect of the chorus is the laugh-track on TV sit-coms – and even that is a dying trend. But music itself has continued, and so have choruses.
Next, I thought about the role of Greek tragedy in the evolution of Greek thought over time. Homer probably lived in the 7th century BC, in the middle of the age of lyric and epic poetry that lasted from the eighth through the sixth centuries. The bards twanged their lyre and sang of ancient wars, of kings and heroes, and above all, of squabbling, scheming Gods and Goddesses, who toyed with the lives of mortals and caused history as a bi-product of their games. But by the fourth century, Greece was producing men like Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle and Demosthenes, whose subtle and searching prose rested on a firm understanding of human psychology and motives, and saw no merit in basing human history on the whims of fickle Gods.
Such a sea change in attitudes didn’t happen overnight: an essential step between Homer and Demosthenes involved a fresh interpretation of the legends of which the bards had sung: a human one. Sophocles was a vital piece of the puzzle. Now people saw before their eyes the suicidal Ajax, the vengeful Electra, the dying Hercules, the wily Odysseus, the traumatised Oedipus, the noble Theseus, or the rebellious Antigone; now, they were able to put themselves in the shoes of these characters, and say, I know how I would feel and what I would do if I were in her position. Legends were no longer only what happened once upon a time to other people; this was also about them, the here and now; and by extension, about all men and women everywhere and at all times. Moral philosophy, historical inquiry and political oratory were now within their grasp.
Thus the plays were the missing link between epic poetry and analytical prose; the fifth century was the bridge between the sixth and the fourth. Aeschylus, whose plays were mostly recited monologues with breaks in between for a bit of on-stage action, was closer to Homer; it was Sophocles who first relied on realistic characters to tell a compelling story to his audience, and thus prefigured Herodotus and Thucydides. As Watling says in his admirable introduction to the plays:
For Aeschylus…his concern is primarily with the power and continuity of the divine forces …which cannot be questioned or resisted. The persons of the drama are less individuals than puppets symbolic of men and women entrapped in the predicaments to which humanity is entrapped and condemned….by the will of heaven…
…pronounces no judgment. He neither approves nor condemns. Here, he says to us, is the story – an immortal story, but a story of mortal beings; such was their predicament, such were the pleas advanced on this side and that..
Compare this with the beginning of Book One of the Histories, where Herodotus talks about the Persian version of the genesis of the argument between the Greeks and themselves, and the Phoenician and Greek version of the same troubles; “Whether this latter account be true, or whether the matter happened otherwise, I shall not discuss further,” he declares, resolving to “discourse equally of both, convinced that human happiness never continues long in one stay.”
Needless to say, Athena and Poseidon have no part to play in either version of Herodotus, only the debatable actions of human men and women. Back to Sophocles: read, in his play Antigone, as the blind soothsayer Tieresias tells King Creon:
“You cannot alter this. The gods themselves
Cannot undo it. It follows of necessity
From what you have done…”
Even in Oedipus, where a terrible curse is pronounced by Apollo on the house of Labdacus, it isn’t the gods that make it come true, but deliberate human actions – including, ironically, actions intended to evade the curse. Man is free-willed, and is responsible for his actions; they have intended and unintended consequences that he must bear. This, at core, is the lesson of Sophocles; in order to teach it, he developed an art-form where the actors pretend to be free-willed as well, and the audience, who knows the story inside out, still comes to watch the performance again and again.
Which leads me to my final thought: that it is a universal truth, perhaps, that when you are motivated by suspense, by ‘what will happen next’, you don’t think of much else but the story; but when you know exactly what is going to happen, but see multiple interpretations of how and why it happens, this is when you start thinking about what a funny old thing life is, and you keep meditating about it, until – bam – you suddenly have this incredible urge to share some really deep insights with the rest of humanity. Then, if you happen to be Aristotle, you’d go off and write the Poetics and define aesthetics for a civilization; but if you happen to be me, all you’d write is this lame blog post.