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Note from Greek Festival Artistic Director Brian Kulick
CHILDREN OF ORPHEUS
It was Auden who once observed, “There could be no stronger proof of the riches and depths of Greek culture than its powers of appeal to every kind of personality. To X, the word Greece suggests Reason, the Golden Mean, emotional control, freedom from superstition; to Y it suggests Gaiety and Beauty, the life of the senses, freedom from inhibitions. The historical discontinuity between Greek culture and our own, the disappearance for so many centuries of any direct influence, made it all the easier, when it was rediscovered, for each nation to fashion a classical Greece in its own image. There is a German Greece, a French Greece, an English Greece — there may even be an American Greece– all quite different.”
This historical discontinuity is a profound reality and forms an essential dialectical relationship between our past and our art. It is a uniquely Western condition. The East has always been more careful with the passing down of its traditions, making a tight chain of transmission. Think of India’s Katakali shadow plays or the Kabuki theater of Japan, both of which continue, to this day, forming an uninterrupted passage from one generation to the next. This is not so with the West. Ours is a series of broken traditions with none more difficult to regain than the Greeks. Pierre Klossowski best articulates this situation, reminding us that, “This humanity that has vanished to the point that the term ‘vanished’ no longer has any meaning- despite all our ethnologies, all our museums and everything else – how could such a humanity have even existed?”
But it did and we are driven to try to retrieve what has been lost to us and bring it back to the light of day. Like Orpheus, we are compelled to brave the underworld of oblivion to bring back our beloved Eurydice. The invention of Opera in the 16th Century is the first instance of this essential Western impulse to try to recreate what Greek Theatre might have been. It is not by accident that so many of those initial artists, which included Angelo Poliziano, Claudio Monteverdi, Jacpo Peri and Giulio Caccini, all chose the story of Orpheus as the subject matter for their operas. They are, indeed, the children of Orpheus and the Eurydice that they seek to bring back to life is this ever elusive, ever remote artistic flourishing known as Greek Theatre. One could argue that many of our greatest theatre movements begin as attempts to re-create this unique artistic expression which remains forever lost to us. Each generation tries their hand at a kind of cultural resurrection that began with the 16th Century Italians and continues to this day with our modern and post modern artists. In the end, the Greeks become the perfect prompt, ever tempting us to re-discover them but, ultimately, allowing us to inadvertently discover ourselves in the process.
But what exactly is this art form that the Greeks called tragedy? Such a daunting question wants to be answered carefully, slowly, beginning with a sensitivity to the words that were first employed to usher in this unique phenomenon. Two such words still form a central part of our own performative vocabulary: theatre and drama which come from the Greek theatron and dram. Theatron literally means “a space in which to see” and dram (from Doric Greek) roughly translates as a “doing” or “action.” Strike both of these words off one another like pieces of flint and they spark the idea of theatre being “a space in which to see actions.” Jean Pierre Vernant, the great 20th Century Greek scholar, finds this emphasis on “action” to be particularly telling of 5th Century Greece which he believes was in the process of radically rethinking itself. For Vernant, the simultaneous birth of tragedy and democracy is not an accident. Both forces are trying to help move the Greeks from an archaic mode of being to a more modern sensibility. The key to this transformation was tied to a new understanding of human action. In the long lost Homeric past, we find that Agamemnon could be excused for the action of stealing Braises from Achilles by simply saying that a god had entered into him and compelled him to take and rape the poor young girl. Such explanations will no longer work for a 5th Century Athenian citizen who is part of a democracy. Now that citizen must become responsible for his actions, Greece invents theatre and law courts to educate and work out these issues of responsibility that come with this new concept of human agency. And so dram/action is at the very center of the Greek tragic universe.
Two other star-like terms form part of the vast lexical constellation that makes up the night sky of tragedy, they are hairesis and hamartia. Hairesis is the more straightforward word to translate and means, quite simply, choice. Hamartia has a far more tangled etymological past, during the Renaissance it was creatively mistranslated as “tragic flaw.” The word actually hails from the practice of archery and originally meant, “to miss the mark.” By the 5th Century hamartia was used to cover all manner of mistakes, for the Greek tragedians it came to signify a simple act with colossal consequences. Vernant notes, “Tragedy presents individuals engaged in actions. It places them on the threshold of a decision, asking themselves what is the best course to take.” Think of Agamemnon’s dilemma in IPHIGENIA IN AULIS where he must choose between sacrificing his daughter for a wind to take his ships to Troy, or spare her life and forever thwart his war effort. He must make a hairesis and hope that it is not committed a hamartia. The goal of Greek tragedy, in Versants’ reading, is to move an audience toward an appreciation for informed decision making. Innocence, the ancient poets tell us, is dangerous — it can attract wolves. But, in Greek tragedy, there is no escaping the wolves. The choice our hero makes inevitably “misses the mark” and brings forth two final words in our zodiac of tragedy: the vaguely familiar sounding peripeteia and the more inscrutable anagnorsis, A Peripeteia is also known as a reversal of fortune (almost always for the worse) and the more elliptical anagnorsis is defined as the moment at the end of a tragedy when ignorance crystalizes into a sharp and cutting knowledge. In this respect, tragedy’s education is one of via negativia: the hairesis leads to a hamartia that results in a peripeteia that ends in a sobering form of anagnorsis. This is tragedy’s brutal equation and it is as exacting as Kepler’s second law of thermodynamics.
As beautiful as this argument is for the origin of tragedy, it does not necessarily explain why this Greek invention continues to capture the imagination of generation after generation of artists and audiences. Holderlin, the 18th Century German poet, cryptically writes that “Tragedy is a metaphor for an intellectual intuition.” But of what? Perhaps if we begin to understand what it is that tragedy seems to intuit, we can then better understand its hold on our collective imagination.
It is common place to state that the original audience walked into the theatron knowing these stories and how they would end. Less understood is the ways in which the Greek tragedians would significantly alter a given story, giving it a fundamental variation. No myth was passed on without some slight or significant revision. Our Greek tragedians traffic’d in a similar game. These variations would cast a new light on a given myth, helping to explain and deepen the potential meaning of its outcome, but the outcome itself remained fundamentally inviolable.
No matter what variation occurs, our heroes can never escape their destined end. There is something very powerful between this illusion of freedom that variation seems to promise and the hard reality of an end that is ultimately unalterable. Behind tragedy’s modernizing impulse and its flirtation with free will, there still lies, at the heart of Greek tragedy, a very ancient concept of fate which the Greeks, for all their growing sophistication, could not shake.
Fate is made manifest through time and there is, perhaps, no greater time based art then theatre itself. Felt time may elude us during a given day (we often say, at the end of a day, “where did the time go?”) but time is made material in theatre, we can feel it, it becomes palpable. One of the Greek words for time is hora which can mean “season” or “seasonality,” it is the moment when “things come to fruition.” The word hora becomes our English word hour, as in: “the hour is near.” It is a kind of temporality that is particularly felt in the theatre, when suddenly everything points to a given end. And perhaps it is right here, at this very instant, that we discover Holderlin’s notion of “Tragedy as a metaphor for an intellectual intuition.” We, like the Greek tragic hero, have been unaware, or in denial, or in active disavowal of our end and yet, no matter what we do, what variation life gives us, the end that we avoid moves inextricably toward us. Time, ultimately being the distance between us and our end, drains away moment by moment in the trajectory of tragedy. Most of us try to keep this unbearable reality at bay, burying it from the light of our consciousness, but such an endeavor is ultimately doomed. Time goes about its patient work and slowly, year by year, reminds us, ever more insistently, of its ever encroaching, unalterable ending. Tragedy, like time, brings this end to light and asks us how we will meet it and how can we sharpen our life choices by it. Tragedy prepares us for the work (or, rather, un-working) of time. Perhaps this is its enduring and sobering gift to each generation.