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Saturday, May 27, 2023

Greek Tragedy, The Mother Lode Of Drama Or Business As Usual? The Invariability Of Human Nature

The Oresteia is either the mother lode of tragedy – the source for all future human drama – or the first and most eloquent expression of human nature. Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and  Eumenides all tell stories of  ambition, jealousies, incest, hatred, deviousness, and murder.  Every playwright thereafter followed suit.  

This similarity, this progression from the 5th century BC until the present day, should not be surprising. What is true now was true then.  Human nature has not changed and aggression, territorialism, ambition, jealousy, internecine and family squabbles have remained a permanent feature of human life. The significant aspect of Greek tragedy is that it was the first to explore human dynamics - the complex psychological, social, cultural, and behavioral aspects of life which make it what it is.  It was not so much that the Greeks of 2500 years ago had a unique and precocious perspicacity and insight. It was that they took the familiar and put it on stage.  Before them were only epics, stories of heroes and demons, tales of courage and heroism that defined nations, not individuals.   

When reading Clytemnestra’s bitchy response to Cassandra, the princess-slave brought home as booty from the Trojan War by Agamemnon, we might conclude that Aeschylus was before his time, the first to observe the same corrosive power of jealousy that we are used to in Othello, The Winter’s Tale, and  Cymbeline. Yet of course Aeschylus was not before his time.  He was of universal human time.  We all act like Othello, Clytemnestra, and Posthumus. His insight was dramatic - he put jealousy, spite, vengeance, and retribution on stage. 

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The tribute modern playwrights must pay to the ancient Greeks is not insight but production. They were the first to conceive of staged drama within which the most noble and most ignoble passions were expressed.  They retained the historical context of past epics – the mythological and historical tales and events that were central to culture – and played out human conflict within it. 

Aeschylus did not discover palace coups and intrigues, the behind-the-scenes plotting and bloody assassinations are the stock-in-trade of history and drama. He and his colleagues were the first to use them as context for the human drama that was repeatedly played out.   Henry V provided the end scene for the War of the Roses, a war fought over lineage and royal inheritance – a bloody decades-long affair whose justifications were as flimsy as those for the Trojan War.  

‘A war fought over someone else’s wife’, say the Chorus about Agamemnon’s adventurism; and so it was with the Lancasters and the Yorks.  When Henry wants to hear what he expects is the patriotism and national pride of the common soldier as he is preparing for the Battle of Agincourt, he goes in mufti into the trenches and hears just the opposite.  Rich men’s petty squabbles, the troops say, our blood spilled for his ambition.

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Vengeance and vendetta – the heart and soul of The Oresteia – were new to the stage in 5th Century BC, but of course not new to human enterprise.  The House of Atreus, the Montagues and the Capulets, the Hatfields and the McCoys, Tamora, Queen of the Goths and Titus Andronicus were only heirs to the oral histories and fabulist tales of prehistory.   

Serving up enemies children to them in banquets in retribution is not new. After Atreus’ banishment, he learned of the adultery being committed between his wife and his brother. As revenge, he invited his brother and his two eldest nephews back to Mycenae. There, under the guise of rebuilding the relationship, he had the nephews killed and cooked into a feast, which he presented to Thyestes for dinner. He revealed the fate of the boys after Thyestes had eaten.  Titus, when the learns of the rape and mutilation of his daughter by the sons of Tamora at her instigation, serves the cooked and severed boys up to her in a banquet.

View from the Bridge, Arthur Miller’s family tragedy, is the melodramatic expression of Sicilian vendetta.  Nothing has changed since Aeschylus, says Miller.  He didn’t invent vendetta, but he set a good example.

Aeschylus and his colleagues knew how to get and keep audience attention. Aristotle in his Poetics describes at great length the tools and artifices used to this end. Clytemnestra doesn’t simply kill her husband to avenge the murder of their daughter at his hands, he wraps him in a net like a fisherman and stabs him to death in his bath.  Cronos, son of Uranus, kill him, castrates him, then throws his testicles in the sea.  Violence, perhaps our most common, persistent, and telling trait, sells seats.  Imitation, said Aristotle - seeing ourselves in the actors on stage - is what we want.  How do they resolve the savage tendencies within all of us?

Tennessee Williams, perhaps best known for his portrayal of delicate, shy, poetic women, had a bloody side.  Chance Wayne and Val are castrated because of male jealousy.  Mrs. Venable’s son is killed, cooked, and eaten by feral Italian street boys. Bloody, vengeful, hateful murder was part and parcel of the human soul.

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There is something in the modern idealist which embraces the idea of progress – that despite the convincing evidence of a murderous, marauding, territorial, and defiantly self-interested history, the world can be rid of nastiness.  We no longer have to be slaves to the past or to the predestined engine of human evil – its nature.  With only effort, belief, enterprise, and patience, we can overcome.  

Those who point to the perennial violence of history and its dramatic portrayal since the Greeks as a retort to this Utopian fantasy, are shouted down as naysayers.  Yet history cannot be revised, expunged, or forgotten.  The Greeks were not the first progressives.  The Oresteia is all about hopeful aspirations.  Once Agamemnon and Clytemnestra have been killed, the curse of the House of Atreus can be put to rest, and the new world of Athena, Apollo and Zeus can defeat the Furies, turn them into gold, and life can go on rationally and peacefully.  Of course this and other fantasies of governance, rule, and family affairs is far from reality.  The blood, guts, and gore, will continue ad infinitum.

So reading the Greeks is a lesson in literary history - they were the first to put human nature on the stage, to redefine heroism and courage, to note the depths of psychological torment, and to be unafraid of failure - but also political philosophy.   They are honored because of their dramatic innovativeness but also their setting the trajectory of dramatic human enterprise on its way.  The House of Atreus, the weight of history and family legacy was true then and is true now. They defined the difference between the Furies and Athena as essential moral variance of the ages.  

The trial of Orestes was important because of its portrayal of a major turning of Greek and human history.  Greek culture would continue to be affected by myth and an interventionist polytheism for many centuries longer, but The Oresteia was a first in exposing judicial autocracy and the violent, self-absorbed human nature which it must corral.

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Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is a play which reprises Aeschylus’ Eumenides. In it the interim Duke of Vienna, like Aeschylus’ Furies establishes a draconian moral code according to which the letter of the law must be obeyed.  There is no room for discussion, debate, or trial. There can be no consideration of circumstances, antecedents, or motives.  The Duke, like the Furies, argue that such inviolable laws are at the center of a civil society.  Without absolute moral and legal standards, human behavior will always slip below the lowest common denominator.

A reading of Greek tragedy is not only a trip back to the first speculators about human nature, history, and society; but a great ride – a Grand Guignol, Turkish soap operatic melodrama.  Aristotle again writing in Poetics wrote about how to get and hold an audience with suspense, familiarity, and recognition of its own frailties. 

Clytemnestra is Hedda Gabler, Tamora, Lady Macbeth, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Goneril, and Rebekka West all rolled up into one.  She dominates The Oresteia as a plotter, a murderess, and a vindictive ghost.  Because so much of the plays is familiar – human nature takes little to decipher – her character is marvelously devious and indomitable. She is the Nietzschean Superman, the ubermensch, the conqueror.

Image result for Clytemnestra Greek Character. Size: 224 x 185. Source: www.thefinancialexpress.com.bd

The Shakespearean critic Jan Kott noted that if one were to lay down all of the playwright’s Histories in chronological order, one would would be struck by their similarity,  Human nature being what it is – the engine of human destiny – it is not surprising to see greed, ambition, jealousy, and hunger for power so repeatedly represented.  What is interesting is exactly how the characters in his plays played out their destiny in such remarkably different ways.  And so it is with Greek tragedy – nothing new there, but we love to watch Clytemnestra do her thing.

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