How Greek Drama Saved the City
Daniel Mendelsohn writes in the NY Review of Books:
At the climax of Aristophanes’ comedy Frogs, a tartly affectionate parody of Greek tragedy that premiered in 405 BCE, Dionysus, the god of wine and theater, is forced to judge a literary contest between two dead playwrights. Earlier in the play, the god had descended to the Underworld in order to retrieve his favorite tragedian, Euripides, who’d died the previous year; without him, Dionysus grumpily asserts, the theatrical scene has grown rather dreary. But once he arrives in the land of the dead, he finds himself thrust into a violent literary quarrel. At the table of Pluto, god of the dead, the newcomer Euripides has claimed the seat of “Best Tragic Poet”—a place long held by the revered Aeschylus, author of the Oresteia, who’s been dead for fifty years.
A series of competitions ensues, during which excerpts of the two poets’ works are rather fancifully compared and evaluated—scenes replete with the kind of in-jokes still beloved of theater aficionados. (At one point, lines from various plays by the occasionally bombastic Aeschylus are “weighed” against verses by the occasionally glib Euripides: Aeschylus wins, because his diction is “heavier.”) None of these contests is decisive, however, and so Dionysus establishes a final criterion for the title “Best Tragic Poet”: the winner, he asserts, must be the one who offers to the city the most useful advice—the one whose work can “save the city.”
Today, the idea that a work written for the theater could “save” a nation—for this was what Aristophanes’ word polis, “city,” really meant; Athens, for the Athenians, was their country—seems odd, even as a joke. For us, popular theater and politics are two distinct realms. In the contemporary theatrical landscape, overtly political dramas that seize the public’s imagination (Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, say, with its thinly veiled parable about McCarthyism, or Tony Kushner’s AIDS epic Angels in America) tend to be the exception rather than the rule; and even the most trenchant of such works are hardly expected to have an effect on national policy or politics (let alone to “save the country”). Such expectations are dimmer still when it comes to other kinds of drama. The lessons that A Streetcar Named Desire has to teach about beauty and vulnerability and madness are lessons we absorb as private people, not as voters.
The circumstances in which we attend theatrical performances today underscore the segregation between our theater and what Aristophanes would call “the city.” When we see a drama or a musical comedy, we do so as private persons expressing personal preferences: we choose the play we happen to be interested in at the moment; we select the date and the time and the seats we prefer. When we enter the theater, however, the “selves” that we have expressed in making these choices disappear; we assume a kind of willed anonymity, exchanging the familiar world of lights and activity and noise for an uncanny, hushed darkness.
Private, personal, anonymous, invisible: it would be hard to think of a theatergoing experience less like the one familiar to the ordinary Athenian citizen during the 400sBCE. This—the so-called “Athenian century,” the hundred-year period of Athens’s political and cultural dominance from the establishment of its democratic government, in 509 BCE, to its humiliating defeat at the end of the three-decade-long Peloponnesian War, in 404—was also the century, not coincidentally, in which the great dramatic masterpieces of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were composed, produced, and performed for the first time.
That the fates of Athens and of tragedy were so closely entwined suggests a profound organic connection between the polity and the genre. For us, the children of Freud, great drama is often most satisfying when it enacts the therapy-like process by which the individual psyche is stripped of its pretentions or delusions to stand, finally, exposed to scrutiny—and, as often as not, to the audience’s pity or revulsion. (One thinks again of Streetcar.) But although there are great Greek plays that enact the same process—Sophocles’ Oedipus inevitably comes to mind—it would appear, given the strange twinning of Athenian drama and Athenian political history, that for the Athenians, tragedy was just as much about “the city” as it was about the individual.
The notion of “the individual” in our sense of the word would, indeed, have been strange to an Athenian of the classical period: when the philosopher Aristotle famously says that “the human is a political animal,” he doesn’t mean that we are all like Lyndon Baines Johnson but, rather, that the human species is naturally social and civic—by nature suited to live in a polis. Over the course of the fifth century BCE, tragedy evolved into an ideal literary vehicle for exploring, and often questioning, the political, social, and civic values of Athens itself.
In his treatise Poetics, the first extended work of theater criticism in the Western tradition, Aristotle, writing in the mid-300s BCE and looking back to the great century of Athenian drama and, beyond that, to the dim origins of drama itself, suggests that tragedy grew out of a kind of ritual chorus known as dithyramb, sung in honor of the god Dionysus. (We know that in the fifth century—perhaps a century and a half after the primal moment that Aristotle was trying to reconstruct—dithyrambs were sung at public festivals by choruses of fifty singers, men or boys. These were led by anexarchon, a performer who “led off” the singing.) The philosopher asserts that tragedy grew out of moments of “improvisation” on the part of these chorus leaders who, evidently, decided at a certain point that instead of simply feeding the opening bars of the chorus to their fellow singers, they were going to sing a few lines of their own.
Whether this notion was based on hard evidence known to the philosopher and since lost or was simply a shrewd surmise, the theory has an obvious appeal: . . .