The spectacle of tragedy

The function of the tragic in art is what it does to, and for, the audience.

Greek tragedy was a spectacle, performed seasonally in great festivals dedicated to gods, in huge amphitheatres (“spectators-all- around”) before thousands of people. Much of the performance, accompanied by music and dance, was sung, making it more like opera than proscenium theatre today. The action was all in the words. It was truly the media of the millennium, whose life was both precious and brief, and whose death was not, as Nietzsche thought, caused by Socrates, coinciding rather with the demise of the democratic state it spoke to.

By convention, if not fiat, tragedy could only deal with mythical themes (though The Persians details the victory at Salamis), the result perhaps of a ban on staging contemporary events, in consequence, it was said, of a performance of Phrynichus’ The Sack of Miletus, which so moved its audience to tears that the poet was fined, “for reminding them of familiar misfortunes”.

Though they dealt with myths or elaborated incidents from the epics, the poets could modify them and even invent alternatives (“Probable impossibilities are preferable to improbable possibilities” advises Aristotle, sagely). Myths in any case were stories which varied with each telling, often serving conflicting aims: The homogeneity and multifarious forms of worship in polytheistic cults made for both competing and complementary narratives.

The remote past really provided a template for articulating present concerns, albeit obliquely. Tragic drama addressed the city through its citizens. Sophocles’ Oedipus (staged a year after a plague struck Athens in 430 BCE) opens with a crowd petitioning the king because of a miasma afflicting the city. The Trojan Women, produced during the ongoing conflict between Athens and Sparta, dwelt on the suffering of women and children, acted out before the ruins of Troy. Jean-Paul Sartre made an adaptation of it during the Algerian war as a lesson for the French .

Tragic drama grappled mainly with moral conflict, articulating the struggle between tradition and new modes of thinking; seeking to confront expediency with justice, revenge with the rule of law; dramatising if not always resolving the collision of rational with irrational forces. Conflict or opposition was the central torque around which both the language and literature of the Greeks was constructed: The lynch pin of their legacy to world thought. Competing voices were a constant on the Attic stage.

Dealing with myths meant having a varied cast of gods, heroes and men. Zeus, a tyrant in Prometheus Bound uses, like all tyrants, Force and Violence as his henchmen. Apollo, the god of prophecy, becomes a bounder and liar in Hippolytus. Heroes don’t fare any better. Odysseus was regularly cast as a unscrupulous scoundrel, a shifty politician; Hercules, a comic drunk, and so on. The justice and injustice of the gods was both affirmed and denied.

The state and its politics were directly addressed, as in The Persians of Aeschylus, where the action takes place before the tomb of Darius, arch enemy of the Greeks. In Euripides’ Helen (produced in the later half of the 27-year-long Peloponnesian war), the entire Trojan war is shown to have been fought for nothing, since Helen was never taken to Troy, an airy phantom going in her place. Imperial pride and valour were thus emptied of point and purpose; the honour of the thousands killed as shadowy as the simulacra on whose behalf they died. Not surprisingly, Euripides lived out his last years in self-imposed exile, though he was much venerated (some Athenian sailors captured in Sicily were released when they recited verses from his works).

The tragic spectacle, on Aristotle’s account, was premised on a flaw (hamartia) which reversed the fortunes of a great man. The tragic flaw as it came to be known, insisted on a character trait leading to the downfall of the protagonist. But hamartia can also mean a missing of the mark, a mistake in judgement, leading with tragic logic, to suffering or death. Often there was no mistake, just bad luck, the unfolding of events outside human control. Phaedra’s illicit desire for Hippolytus was also a conflict between impersonal, cosmic forces. While each strove for mastery, humans suffered, (she hangs herself while he is killed by his father’s curse). But ultimately only individuals act, and there are many inhuman acts in these tragedies, done by those in power, tyrants or their clones. Death and misery loom large: Women are sacrificed, children killed, madness and suicide abound, the wicked often prosper while innocents suffer. Suffering is the human condition and the gods alone, if there are any, or an obscure impersonal necessity, drives the destinies of men.

Greek thought privileges purpose. Every artefact has a function or use that explains its nature. The function of the tragic is what it does to the audience. Plato thought tragic poetry exacerbated the emotions it aroused (and so was bad for civic order), Aristotle that it released them (and so was good). Our reactions to violence or sex in the cinema are broadly similar.

But Aristotle also specified the nature of the emotions tragedy relieved us of: Fear and pity. Pity for the fate of the tragic hero, whose very vulnerability is responsible for her undeserved suffering, and fear that such suffering could be one’s own. This reversal or metabasis from good to bad fortune is the essence of the tragic condition, which often finds expression in the plays: “Some god destroys you now, exacting in your suffering the cost for having once been happy.” (Euripides, Hecuba)

This is what universalises the particularities of the tragic plot, it is not something that happens to someone, somewhere, distant in time, but what happens now ( so arousing pity). If it can happen here, to anyone, it can happen to you, to me, at anytime, for no reason, other than an inimical god or malign fate, and that is why it arouses fear.

(The writer taught philosophy at Delhi University)

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