I've never been able to get my mind around the ancient Greeks. If you take Winston Churchill's point, the Russians should confuse me. But I'm silly enough to believe that I get the Russians. It's the Greeks that remain the enigma to me.
An example. In our culture we tend to think that time is what it is, and we humans move through it. If we didn't have this concept of time, no time travel story from H. G. Wells to Dr Who would make the least sense. We move through time.
By contrast, the ancient Greeks (from what I understand) believed that humans were still and time washed over them – the future washing in from behind them. Why was the future behind them? They couldn't see it. They could see the past. So a human was still in the eddies of time with the future streaming from behind.
Yeah. I don't quite get it either. Elusive.
The people of ancient Athens developed tragedy during a hugely positive time in their history. The apocryphal story is that –
Aeschylus fought in the battle of Salamis,
Sophocles welcomed the victors back to Athens, and
Euripides was born.
The three great tragedians wrote for an Athens that had led in major military victories, had set up an empire, and had established a fledgling democracy and a burgeoning economy. These folks positioned themselves as the masters of the eastern Mediterranean.
Why then did they celebrate a festival to Dionysus by watching stories of heroes of the fabled past go through misery? In the Iliad Agamemnon may be a bit of a shitheel, but the misery of his children – particularly daughter Electra – doesn't seem to be a major feature. And Oedipus, according to Homer, seems to have had a long, happy career as king of Thebes.
It may be that the plays we do not have might show us another side of that culture. (Hey, I love Frau Bieber[*] as much as the next guy, but we should always remember that we don't know lots about the ancient Greeks.) But given what we know, for Americans, it would be if we found some comfort in watching plays about the troubles of George Washington.
As I've mulled these questions, I've begun to wonder if for the Greeks the project of tragedy and the essence of theatre were bound together in ways we don't often think about.
As an art, theatre includes several elusive facets. Theatre happens now. A play presents a story in the present tense. Even if the play was written centuries ago, the story is told now. The actors are here with the audience acting in this moment. Romeo meets Juliet for the first time now. It didn't happen yesterday. It's happening right now, right in full view of the audience.
But it's all been written years ago. And read. And rehearsed. It's planned and choreographed and designed. If an actor slips up, another actor could be badly hurt. At the end of the night after hanging up their costumes, "Romeo" and "Juliet" go their separate ways to their own homes and their own sweeties.
The immediate juxtaposition of the known factor of the 'rehearsed' with the unknown of the future creates a curious paradox. The life of a hero unfolds in front of us. We know what will happen, and yet, in a way, we don't. Being in the theatre allows us a small means to control our future.
We can't know for certain what's going to happen in the theatre, but we have a pretty good idea. Romeo may be saying a few stray lines from that production of As You Like It last season. Juliet may fall incorrectly and land behind her funeral bier. The Duke, having gotten involved in a great game of poker in the green room, might be a little late for his final entrance. But chances are that those things won't happen. We know that Romeo and Juliet will die. For a little while we get to see a little bit of the future and realize that knowing the future isn't all what it's cracked up to be.
Oedipus keeps getting hints that the guy he killed on the way to Thebes might be his papa. We start to see his future in the same way every prophet has seen Oedipus' future since he was a baby at Jocasta's breast.
Fear does weird things to people. Some people can accept good times and enjoy themselves. Other people, though, get scared. They get an itch to control the future. The problem is that the future can't be controlled. It can barely be managed. Whether it comes from behind us, or we swim towards it – the future is not under human control.
I live in a country where more and more the people in charge want to get more things under their control. They're scared. So they want to control people and things. Stand in this line. Fill out this form. You get to come in the door. You don't. Where are your papers? Give us your finger print, a swab of saliva, a drop of your blood.
They want to control not only this country, but others as well. You get to be a leader. You don't. You get some privileges in how you behave. You don't.
All in an effort to have some measure of control over the future. If only we could control the future. We'd be safe.
But would we be happy in that controlled utopia?
This month Jews celebrate a miracle of light in a time of darkness, and the Christians celebrate the wild entry of God into human affairs in the form of a very vulnerable baby boy. The ancients who tended that long ago menorah and the two young, first-time parents found some way to hope. They hoped that the future would come out well.
Me? I hope for the future. But I'll leaven that hope with a smidgen of the Greek way of dealing with past, present, and future – a little theatre.
[*] Bieber, Margarete. The History of the Greek and Roman Theater.
(NJ: Princeton U Press), 1939 & 1961. If you haven't read it, you should.