One of the greatest moments of my playgoing career, as I have posted, was seeing a staging of Agamemnon by Aeschylus directed by Charles Newell at Court Theatre in Chicago. I’ve lamented my little understanding of tragedy, but, if I didn’t understand the mechanics behind what I was seeing nevertheless I felt the power. (Newell’s tenure, initially much promising, with plays by Molière and Stoppard running in repertory, collapsed almost immediately into unvarying dullness and disappointment unbroken until Agamemnon.)
While I was shuffling stacks around the other day, I found Oxford Readings in Greek Tragedy which I had purchased from the dollar bin then promptly forgot about. It is a compilation of some nearly thirty essays edited by Erich Segal. Persons of my generation tend to know Segal as the author behind the film Love Story and its book; his career as a classical scholar was unknown to me. So I peeked into it, figuring I might educate myself a little. The first essay is by Oliver Taplin and titled “Emotion and Meaning in Greek Tragedy”. It is an excerpted chapter from his book Greek Tragedy in Action (I believe), which I have not seen but intend to order.
A lot of what we think we know about Greek tragedy is wrong, writes Taplin, so he explains that he must disabuse popular misconceptions:
“My working assumption throughout has been that the tragedians were free in their use of theatrical techniques, that they chose to convey their meaning by certain actions and sequences of action rather than others, and that this artistic choice directs us to their purpose. But most critics have written not of freedom but of constraints, limitations, rules. In some ways Aristotle’s Poetics sets the example for this approach, though at least Aristotle was being prescriptive, not descriptive. But in his wake more petty and more authoritarian critics have so extended and rigidly codified the ‘rules’ of Greek tragedy as to obscure and even deny its lively freedom. Overgeneralizations and simplifications have become common text-book doctrine; and instead of illuminating tragedy these clichés have mortified and alienated it. Some will have to be cleared out of the way in order both to justify the claims of this book and to approach finally the experience of the audience of a Greek tragedy. This negative progress will, I hope, constantly be bringing our positive goal nearer. To react against the imposition of rules by critics is not for a moment to deny that the Athenian theatre was in many respects highly conventional. Innumerable conventions governing diction, tone and propriety defined the genre and sustained its elevation. Others regulated, and at the same time made familiar, the technical medium. Some may strike us as awkwardly restrictive (e.g., those governing the handling of the chorus or stichomythia); others are still dramatic common sense and seem too obvious to notice (e.g., only one character speaks at a time, characters normally speak on entry). Very few of these ‘laws’ are unbreakable. Two conventions, for instance—both with sound practical justification—are that the chorus should not go off in the middle of the play, and that wounds and death should not be presented on stage. Yet there are counter-examples to both within the nine plays taken in this book, the former in Eum and Ajax, the latter in Ajax, OT and Hipp. These unwritten laws are not really restrictions or limitations, they are rather the familiar framework which supports any great cultural florescence. When the artist has accepted forms and his audience shares a complex of expectations, then, since the audience is more sensitive and receptive, the art form can be accordingly more highly developed. So the circumscriptions are liberating (most, if not all, worthwhile human activities need rules). It is only after the flowering is over that the rules become a bondage and the art tends either towards lifeless imitation (like the tragedy of later antiquity) or towards an indiscriminate formlessness (like today?). These flexible defining rules of the game are not like the stiffly distorting overgeneralizations I am complaining of.
“Take this, for instance: ‘all the important action in Greek tragedy takes place off stage: on stage it is merely spoken and sung about.’ If this book has not scotched that common misconception then it has achieved nothing. My claim is, on the contrary, that it is the action which takes place on stage which is important, and is part of what the play is about: the action off-stage is only of interest in so far as it is given attention on stage. The error comes about from a simple-minded preconception of what constitutes action; it only counts the huge violent events of narrative history—battles, riots, miracles, natural disasters and so forth. This is to miss the point that the stuff of tragedy is the individual response to such events; not the blood, but the tears. It is the life-sized actions of this personal dimension which are the dramatist’s concern, and which he puts on stage. (It is above all the film which, for better or for worse, has obscured this distinction.)”
I could not have explained better dramatic “action” than Taplin does here. Making an online comment at an Ibsen review on Witness Performance website this past summer, I stumbled over the thought that “[i]n Chicago, our audiences have not been trained to look for drama.” When I say “drama” or “the dramatic line” in essence what I am thinking about is “action.” But I have never known how to define it or precisely indicate what I mean. The “simple-minded preconception of what constitutes action” had perplexed me, even though—as a playwright—I felt I knew what I meant; but I could not say it. Taplin provides a text I can point to.
Some of his insights appear rudimentary (or basic) and yet supremely well stated:
“But even if the myths were much more rigidly laid down than my argument claims, this would still be of minimal consequence for the literary criticism of tragedy, since the mere story, such as may be excerpted in a collection of ‘Greek Myths’, has no significant bearing on the quality of the play. The mere story is shared by good and bad dramatists alike—it may be indistinguishable in Sophocles and in a fifth-rate hack. What matters, for the dramatist and his audience, is the way he has shaped the story, the way he has turned it into drama. The constraint is minimal: the scope for artistry enormous.”
This also harks back to my somewhat inept comment in which I express disdain for “story,” that ubiquitous catchphrase in theatrical “Mission Statements” across Chicagoland at least. (The “story” is not the thing!) Taplin also discusses “anachronism” in Greek Tragedy:
“[R]elatively few critics” fall into “what might be called the ‘propaganda fallacy’. This is the supposition that a Greek tragedy was primarily or significantly shaped by the desire to promote a certain line on a specific contemporary issue (in politics or philosophy or whatever). The advocates of such a view will have for a start to allow that such propaganda is cryptic, if it is true that there is not one single specific allusion to a contemporary person or event in all of Greek tragedy. So far as I can see this is in fact the case. There is not one anachronism to be noted as such, no overt rupture of the dramatic illusion of the remote heroic world. To avert misunderstanding, I hasten to grant that in a sense—in the most important sense—Greek tragedy is entirely topical and the mirror of its own times. It was composed for the audience of fifth-century Athenians, not for a Bronze Age audience; and its general preoccupations, moral, social and emotional, are those of its age. Thus, it is a tissue of technical anachronisms in the strictest historical sense: my point is that they are not to be noticed as such, they are admitted only as long as they are congruous with the heroic world of the far past in which the play is set.”
Taplin discusses the nature of tragedy:
“[T]he following passage, which comes from [Gorgias’] virtuoso apologia for Helen, surely has tragedy in mind. ‘All poetry I consider and define as discourse in metre. There comes over the audience of poetry a fearful horror and tearful pity and doleful yearning. By means of the discourse their spirit feels a personal emotion on account of the good and bad fortune of others.’ This passage alone should be enough to rescue Gorgias from the common slander that he was merely a word-juggler. Above all he sees that emotions are at the heart of tragic poetry. And what is more he has put his finger on one of the most vital and remarkable features of this experience: that the emotions are generous—altruistic almost—that we feel disturbed personally for other people, for people who have no direct connection with us and indeed belong to another world from ours.”
This is a useful pointer for me should I one day attempt to write tragedy; the prospect is unlikely, but, should occasion arise, I will need all the help I can get. (Taplin also takes the moment to get in a swipe at a famous German philosopher and cultural critic of note: “[H]ow deluded Nietzsche was in claiming the Greeks as his authority for denouncing pity”!)
No deconstruction of the tragic form is on offer; yet Taplin again points to the distinguishing features of the drama:
“The characteristic tragic emotions—pity, horror, fascination, indignation, and so forth—are felt in many other situations besides in the theatre. Above all we suffer them in the face of the misfortunes of real life, of course. What distinguishes the experience of a great tragedy? For one thing, as already remarked, we feel for the fortunes of people who have no direct personal relation to us: while this does not decrease the intensity of the emotion, it affords us some distance and perspective. We can feel and at the same time observe from outside. But does this distinguish tragedy from other ‘contrived’ emotional experiences (most of them tending to the anti-intellectual) for example an animal hunt, a football match, an encounter group, reading a thriller, or watching a horror movie? Well, the experience of tragedy is by no means a random series of sensations. Our emotional involvement has perspective and context at the same time, and not just in retrospect. Thus the events of the tragedy are in an ordered sequence, a sequence which gives shape and comprehensibility to what we feel. And, most important of all, the affairs of the characters which move us are given a moral setting which is argued and explored in the play. They act and suffer within situations of moral conflict, of social, intellectual and theological conflict. The quality of the tragedy depends both on its power to arouse our emotions and on the setting of those emotions in a sequence of moral and intellectual complications which is set out and examined. Tragedy evokes our feelings for others, like much else; but it is distinguished by the order and significance it imparts to suffering. So if the audience is not moved, then the tragedy, however intellectual, is a total failure: if its passions are aroused, but in a thoughtless, amorphous way, then it is merely a bad tragedy, sensational, melodramatic.”
This being one essay of nearly thirty, I look forward to “peeking” in further. Also, as I say, I intend to get a look at Taplin’s original book—it having achieved the status as a “classic” according to its blurb. Other of Taplin’s books look intriguing; particularly as regarding theatrics as portrayed on Greek vases—but those lie outside of my price range at this time.
I may or may not charge ahead further into the Oxford book; but for now this gives me plenty to think on.