The Greek Tragedy:  Doom is Booming

The Tales Are Brutal. Is It Our Fate to Watch?

By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 1998; Page G02

In the "Electra" that opened recently on Broadway, Zoe Wanamaker gives a strong, heroically eccentric performance. It's reason enough to see the show, though the rest of the production is slow going. Except for the welcome, no-nonsense presence of Pat Carroll as the Chorus, the acting tends toward the weepy and overly expressive. And there are odd design gaffes: As Electra's mother, Clytemnestra, Claire Bloom is forced to stagger unsteadily around the dirt-covered stage in high heels. Her whole performance is about not falling over. Why director David Leveaux allowed this is anyone's guess.

He did right by Wanamaker, though. She's a fierce, half-mad Electra. Her mother murdered her father, and Electra's been waiting decades for her brother, Orestes, to return from exile and take revenge. In the meantime, she's been making a royal pain of herself, ambushing Clytemnestra with questions such as, "Why are you bedding the man who killed your husband?" Sophocles' play opens on the day Orestes finally comes back.

"Electra" is hardly the only ancient Greek story being staged these days. Diana Rigg opens soon at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Racine's Greek-myth play "Phaedre," two years after she last played New York with Euripides' "Medea." Jo Anne Akalaitis is rehearsing Sophocles' two-play "Iphigenia" cycle for Theater for the New City and is casting "The Trojan Women" for a production at the Shakespeare Theatre here in the spring.

All of these stories are 2,400 years old.

Why are people still going to see them?

The extant Greek tragedies (most of them were lost in the 4th-century fire that destroyed the Library of Alexandria) are not only more than two millennia old, they were written in a dead language and performed in a formal choral style that has no relationship to modern, psychologically based acting. Additionally, the plays were unknown to the writers of the Renaissance, who got their ideas about tragedy from the cruder, later works of the Roman dramatist Seneca, and so have had almost no direct literary influence on our drama tradition.

Yet any time a series of dreadful events befalls a modern family, people say, and accurately, "It's like a Greek tragedy."

The Greek tragedy champs of this country are, of course, the Kennedys. The father's ambition, so this reading goes, curses the sons. One dies young, two are murdered, a fourth causes an innocent's death.

There are many Greek tragedies, of course. Medea kills her children when her husband deserts her. The great general Ajax goes bloodily, pathetically mad. The Trojan women are taken into slavery. Phaedre is cursed with a tormenting lust for her stepson. But by and large Oedipus and the House of Atreus dominate our contemporary imagination. Oedipus is the one who killed his father and married his mother. The house of Atreus is Agememnon, Clytemnestra and company: child murder, husband murder, matricide.

Just summarizing the stories illustrates the difference between Greek tragedy and the Renaissance dramas from which our contemporary theater derives. The plot of "Oedipus Rex" can be encapsulated as neatly as a Hollywood pitch: Man unknowingly kills father and marries mother, discovers the truth and blinds himself. You can't do this with Shakespeare. Nobody sums up the plot of "King Lear" as, "A man makes a bad decision and is mistreated by his children." Try to describe "Hamlet" by listing what the hero does: The whole play is about what he doesn't do. Character is action in Greek drama. In the Renaissance tragedies, character is fate.

Our modern Western concept of human character is strongly influenced by the Christian idea that how a person acts influences his fate. Though theology maintains that man's actions cannot affect God, the idea persists that being good is better for the fate of your soul than being wicked.

This would simply have made no sense to the ancient Greeks, whose gods were not the source of human ethics but mercurial, selfish and spiteful. People pray to the Christian God for succor and comfort. In ancient Greece, once you'd made the necessary animal sacrifices, you just tried to stay out of the gods' way. The thing they did best was get offended.

The idea of a human being's having some control over his or her fate has no meaning in Greek drama. A terrible situation comes about and is suffered through. There is an awful emotional resolution when Othello kills Desdemona; there isn't when Medea slaughters her children -- it's just unrelievedly horrible. Next to the Greeks, whose tragic heroes stare helplessly into the abyss, the Renaissance dramatists' striving characters look sentimental and rather melodramatic.

In the sense that Greek tragedy is about being caught in some awful trap that slowly closes in on you, it would seem to be dramatically static. "Oedipus Rex" depends on the audience's knowing the play's secret almost from the beginning -- knowing before the hero knows, watching him plunge ignorantly toward his doom. Similarly, we watch Electra rage and mourn while aware, as she is not, that Orestes is alive and coming home. The central question that powers modern drama -- "What happens next?" -- is irrelevant. What Greek tragedy asks instead, in the most terrible way possible, is, "What is happening now?"

Though formal and nonrealistic in style, Greek tragedy is more psychologically penetrating than any of the more "realistic" drama that follows. With Shakespeare, we begin to get the modern sense of the individual, of psychology in action with or against the world. In Greek tragedy, murderous movement can occur but meaningful action is impossible. Where modern drama shows us how people act when they suffer, Greek drama just shows us suffering.

Trapped in his fate, the Greek tragic hero can move only inward, descending into the whirlpool of his psyche. The emotional states in Greek drama are as pure as those in dreams, where emotion is experienced unmitigated by the distractions of consciousness. We are in the fury and tempest of human existence, the cyclone of the soul.

Freud knew what he was doing when, choosing metaphors for psychological disorders, he turned to the Greeks. His deterministic and essentially static view of the human personality is based on the idea that the present-day life we think we're living is merely some sort of shadow play cast by our past. In the Greek tragedies, the past is the only thing that is truly active. It writhes up into the present and strangles every character it touches. Everything that could possibly matter has already happened. That's what doom is.

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