Athenian Tragedy

March 15, 2011

Robert Pogue Harrison (RH)

Rush Rehm (RR)

1 RH @1:00/   Last week on Entitled Opinions our topic was Aristotle’s Poetics. We talked with Blair Hoxby about Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, his analysis of it’s component parts, and his understanding of it’s purpose.  Now that we know each other a little bit better why don’t we get closer and take a tumble with the thing itself?  “Theory is a fine and fancy place but none I think do there embrace.”

And that’s what we intend to do today, embrace the thing itself.

I have with me in the studio a person who can take us through the locked doors of ancient Greek Theater and on to the stage where tragedies of the sort Aristotle theorizes about were actually performed.

Rush Rehm is a professor of classics and drama here at Stanford in addition to which he is an actor and a play director. Devoted listeners will remember the show he guest anchored last year about the band Glass Wave. Who could forget that show? You won’t forget this one either after you’ve heard it. Rush Rehm on Greek Tragedy, stay tuned.

2 RH @ 2:46/  Like Minerva’s owl which flies at dusk, philosophy takes wing at the end of the story looking back on it’s plot and making sense of it from the perspective of it’s outcome. Aristotle reflects on the art of Greek Tragedy in the twilight of it’s great tradition after Euripedes, Sophocles, and Aeschylus had had their day in the sun. And it was a day in the sun quite literally since Greek plays were performed outdoors in full day light in wide open amphitheaters carved into hillsides or into the slope of lofty mountains.

With my guest today we’ll go back to the practice of Greek Tragedy. Not like belated philosophers trying to make sense of it’s universal meaning, but like observers of it’s performance.  Observers interested above all in the power, magic, and rituals associated with Greek Theater.

The further back one goes into the origins of tragedy the more important become it’s occasional aspects. Theater in it’s earlier instantiations was associated with occasion. Indeed it was an occasion, communal, civic, and religious in nature. I for one don’t know how to think of Greek Tragedy without invoking the word occasion, even if that word does not have Greek roots. Occasion comes from the Latin word occasio which means opportunity, the appropriate time. And how much of tragedy is about occasions in this sense, the appropriate or decisive timing about events.  Ocasum in Latin is the past participle of ochidere: to fall down or to go down. Ob: down, away; Cadere: to fall.

Again, how much of tragedy is about downfall, of a hero, a house, a city. But hold on ochidere also means a falling together or juncture of circumstance. Here too, how much of tragedy is about the coincidence or falling together of events? That’s what Aristotle meant by Mythos finally, a plot whose action unfolds according to laws of probability or necessity even though the events in question remain only contingent. In tragedy contingent events fall together as if on occasion to produce that sense of inevitability we associate with the tragic effect.

But I’m starting to theorize about tragedy in the mode of philosophers now, abstractly and stripped of context. Whereas what we would like to know is something about the real life factors that occasioned the performance of these plays in the ancient theaters of Greece. That’s why we have Rush Rehm with us today to take us back to the essentials in this matter. Rush, welcome to the program.

3 RR/  Good to be here Robert.

4 RH @5:46/  So I’ve spoken about Greek Tragedies as occasions. In what way were they social, festive or religious occasions for the communities that actually organized and attended their performances?

5 RR @5:59/  In the fifth century B.C. tragedy was associated primarily with one city, Athens. We often talk about Greek Tragedy but we really mean Athenian Tragedy. All productions of Greek Tragedy in Athens in the fifth century and on to much later were associated with particular theatrical festivals. Particularly as it was connected to the god Dionysus. The most important one was the city Dionysia which happened in the early, well actually earlyish spring, March probably on our calendar ….

6 RH @6:36/  Around our time right here…

7 RR/  That’s right, we’re right in … we’re in tragic time.  Uh, and also there were other festivals in the winter. One called the Lanai, in January and sort of rural festivals, or deem festivals what we call local theater festivals probably in December. So in that sense all tragic performances were occasioned by their place in the yearly calendar. And also were associated then with religious festivals connected with the god Dionysius. So that’s the most important occasion. Tragedies just didn’t pop up any old time any where, but they were part and parcel of what, if you were Christian, call a liturgy, a seasonal coming around every year. And there’s much more to say about the occasions of Greek Tragedy in part not just a seasonal one, but also the political one. These were festivals funded by, primarily funded by the city. That does not make them state in the way that we might think of state sponsored theater because the way that the city funded the festivals was to get a rich person to pay for it. You were sort of drafted to do so. And if you didn’t want to do so there were ways in which they could find someone else to do it if you would be willing to trade your resources for that person. So people basically took on the responsibility of being drafted to provide a chorus for different tragedians.

There were other ways in which you could talk about the occasional nature of Greek tragedy. The spring was the time in which the assembly, which was a democratic gathering of the citizens would determine, think about the war planning for the summer since Athens was frequently at war, particularly in the last half of the fifth century. And so it means the occasion of the performance of the Greek Tragedy might also be an occasion in which the polis could think about  what it might be planning to do politically, militarily. This actually pops up not only in pre-performance festivals but also in the plays themselves.

8 RH @ 8:26/  Do you mean like, get ready we’re in for some disaster and catastrophe … and downfall?

9 RR/ (Laughs) Well, I would use, … the pacifist nature in me comes out, I would take another example.  We know, for example, Euripides’ Suppliant Women was performed probably in 423 BC and at that time it appears that there were Spartan envoys in Athens trying to negotiate a treaty. Perhaps a treaty trying to end the Pelloponisian War, or at least take a break from the Peloponesian War that ultimately happened in 421. So you can see that there might be a way in which the plays, the content of the plays would reflect on in an indirect but nonetheless real way on real events. So I think this is, another way to put this would be that the festival context of Greek Tragedy is connected to a whole lot of other social, civic, political contexts and by political I think we need to revert to Aristotle’s  notion of the word in Politics where he says that human beings are creatures of the polis. We often translate this as political animals, but what it really means is creatures of the polis. They are creatures of their local political community which Athens would have been.

So, not only would the civic festivals connected to Dionysus in which tragedies were performed reflect on these religious connections but also the political occasions of the assembly meeting that they often reflected other performance elements of ancient Athens for example law courts, meetings and discussions and debates in the agora, even private symposia. So there’s a, I could add to that the way in which marriage and funeral rituals pop up again and again in tragedy. So, one could almost talk about Athens as a performance culture in which tragedy played a role much more integrated and interconnected with these other elements of civic, political, religious life.  And not simply an art practice separated from, different from, stuck in kind of museum.  And that, as you pointed out in your introduction, is reflected quite obviously in the fact that Greek Tragic performances took place outdoors in the light of the sun, not only could you see what was going on on stage but you could see the city behind behind the theater, it wasn’t blocked off and perhaps more pointedly you could see each other. The way the seating was arranged it was certainly possible for most citizens to be looking at other people as well as the plays.

So in that sense it’s slightly de-aesthetisized from the way we think about theater or art now which is kind of quietly reflected upon privately. This would not have been the case in my view for Greek Tragedy.

10 RH @11:00/  When you look at those amphitheaters in some of these ancient Greek cities they are enormous and they are really, would be at the heart of the polis in many ways and some of them seated up to 14,000, to 20,000 people. So it was clearly, not at all just a kind of side show in the realm of aesthetics, but something critical to the liturgical life of the polis as you were saying.

Were people obliged to attend these plays?

11 RR @11:37/  No, um, we don’t, …well a wonderful thing about the Greek world is we don’t know as much as we’d like. Which allows us to think a lot. We are not inundated with material in some sense …

12 RH/  With the … with mere facts.

13 RR/ (Laughs)  Yes, mere facts. Um, it does not appear that there was a requirement to attend the theater at all but there was at some point, and there’s a debate about when this happened, it could have been in the fifth century , it could have been in the fourth century, where there was a fee given by the city to people to encourage them to go to the theater, basically buy them a ticket. But it’s not clear when that happened or if it was necessary if they used that money to buy a ticket. So you might think of it as a subsidy. In some sense the theater was deeply subsidized as I already said by rich people in the city and perhaps by this little fee that went to the citizens to go see the plays. By the way we also know it was not, attendance  at the, I’m talking about the city Dionysia in Athens, was not limited to citizens by any means as far as I can gather. Although there is a debate about this. The evidence is on my side that women could attend the theater. Whether they did is not certain it’s quite clear slaves could attend. Foreigners could attend.  Again, talking about the city Dionysia in March, one other aspect of that timing was that the sailing season would have opened and in the ancient world roads were awful. You get this in Greek Tragedy, you walk on the road and you might get beaten by somebody who turns out being your father, that’s Oedipus. So people tended to travel if they needed to do distances by sea. Even thought the Greeks had a healthy respect for the sea and didn’t like it much. They didn’t sail for fun. But the opening of the sailing season meant that people from abroad like I mentioned the Spartans could come to see these festivals. So they became something of a showcase for the city. In my view one of the most remarkable things about the showcase for the city was it’s ability to take on the flaws and faux paux, foibles and even deeper problems that the city manifested.

14 RH @13:36/  Well Rush I’d like to ask you a little bit about the antecedents to the tragedies being performed at the heart of the polis and having reference to the city in which they are taking place and the actual historical political moment. While that certainly had to be the case when your dealing with a city like Athens there seems to be evidence indicating that the origins of tragedy which is a matter of great speculation with great philologists, Nietzsche one among them. Speculating about the non-civic context of the earliest sort of precedence for tragedy. But it would be a rural more kind of something that would I would in my mind more like a village than a polity as such. Do you think that there was something …that the origins of tragedy come from really from the uh, from the countryside or from …

15 RR @14:44/  Yeah, … I, I’m not of that school. Nietzsche was influenced by a, well many many things, lord knows, and he had his own extraordinary originality,  but there was a kind of feeling in the 19th century, if one can generalize, that somehow there was this primal element out in the country before it was tamed and shaped by the city. Then you can read that in different ways. It was a magnification of something or it was a repression of something and you can go in different ways on that. Of course we don’t know. But this also featured into a notion about Dionysiac ritual and worship that was kind of wild and crazy and then of course it had to be sat on …

15 RH @15:26/ Yeah, but excuse me for interrupting for just a moment, but we do know as a fact that tragedy and Greek theater in general is associated with the god Dionysius.

16 RR/  Yes it is, absolutely, there is no doubt about that. The question is what was the nature of Dionysiac worship?  And there is some good studies on that and anything we know about it has much more to do with organization, ritual in the normal sense of the word and not wild orgiastic ecstasies that ultimately had to be tampered down by authority. It’s just an intriguing fact about Dionysiac ritual. Also the notion, you get it in Euripides Bacchae that Dionysius is a new god but if you can read Linear B which goes back to the 1400’s, 1200’s, you know, pre-Greek Greek, Dionysius pops up, so he’s an old god in spite of his failure to reach the pantheon.

17 RH @ 16:14/  But he is the god of intoxication …

18 RR/  He’s the god of intoxication, he’s the god of a lots of things, he’s the god of border crossings if you want to call it that. The sense of metaphysical borders, that kind of transgression. But Dionysiac worship as far as we know, and we can go on about this if you want, was much more organized and less chaotic and radically independent. This is the kind of notion that the romantics liked to have about the Greeks that they were. Now I’m not trying to say to go back to the notion of Winklemann and all these people saying the Greeks were very ordered and organized, but ritual was more orderly than not. And this was manifested in many ways.

But to go back to the question about the origins of tragedy more generally. I would find a more, and Aristotle does this as well, a more useful route is the performances, oral tradition of performing Homer. This goes back at least to probably the 8th century maybe earlier we don’t know. Then there was some form of redaction and eventually these texts were written down and they were performed in Athens every four years minimally at the Panathenaic festival, the biggest Athenian festival. They were performed in order. The rhapshodes were sort of proto-actors they played many parts but only one actor. Aristotle in the Poetics talks a fair bit about the way in which epic and tragedy overlap and of course he goes on to say about how tragedy distinguishes itself. He also adds one other element in the origin question which is the idea that there is also a choral element in the origins of Greek tragedy which he associates with long narrative, well, some sort of narrative poems associated with Dionysius called Dithyrambs. And at the festival of the city Dionysia in addition to the performances of tragedy and comedy in this March annual festival there was also the performances: twenty; ten mens choruses and ten boys choruses organized around political units called tribes. They weren’t really tribes they were basically political organizations like city’s internal suburbs. And each of those mounted both a man’s and a boys chorus of Dithyramb.  So at the same time that Tragedies were performed Dithyrambs were performed …

19 RH @18:24/  What is a Dithyramb?

20 RR/  Well, it’s hard to know. There’s some late Dithyramb, and I’m not much of an expert on it, but it’s some kind of narrative poem in which Dionysius may appear some how …

21 RH/  And it’s associated with Satyr’s?

22 RR @18:35/   Well no, Dithyrambs aren’t. They are associated with um, large choruses of 50. Greek Tragedy seemed to have a chorus of 12 and then maybe 15. And as I recollect Dithyrambs are not masked whereas Greek tragedies is masked. So you have to figure out how did you get masks into this? And there is some association perhaps with Dionysiac worship.

But anyway, the origin question is a complicated one. I don’t think Nietzsche and people like Frazier, and Cambridge anthropologists, got it quite right. But they were very very interested in rural ritual somehow getting tamed and corrupted and pulled into the city. And, I mean, who  knows it could be true. But I’m more intrigued by the complex narrative that you get in tragedy’s extraordinary language which seems far removed from any notion of like hey let’s all go out, kill a goat and dance around it.

23 RH @19:27/  Yeah, it’s true. And we want to speak about some of the formal elements of tragedy, but there is this undeniable fact that much of tragedy is about suffering, no?

24 RR/  Oh, absolutely. No doubt about that.

25 RH/  And about pathos or … and that suffering seems to entail often in the most moving versions of it a loss of control, a downfall of some sort, or some kind of catastrophic disruption in the everyday order of things.  So…

25 RR @19:57/  Well, that’s, that’s certainly true. I mean that’s absolutely true and that would be the heart of what most of us are drawn to in tragedy. Aeschylus hss the great phrase, it’s two little words thrown together there, remarkable, pathe mathos.  Which means, by suffering learning.  Or we generally translate it: we learn by suffering.

25 RH/  We learn by mathematics because you know that’s the root of mathematics.

26 RR @20:26/ (Laughs) Well no, mathos is the learning part. So, we mathematize suffering would be a better way to put. Now we could go to town on this. And I would love to. At least a little bit of town.

It’s not a simple moral lesson that we have to suffer to get something. It’s deeper than that. Because it’s, and this little passage is embedded in a longer excursus by the chorus in Aeschylus‘ Agamemnon, trying to figure out to whom they should address their prayers. And they decide in something called Zeus, whatever he is, however we should identify this god, this  force so that we don’t miss anything so that he or it would listen. And they go on to say that we learn by suffering and against our will comes wisdom.  Just lay around that one for awhile:  against our will comes wisdom, the grace of god by force. So there is something about learning by suffering that is built in to the system. It’s not a moral desideratum.  It is inescapable. And that is the tragic element. It’s not just we ought to learn by suffering. Whether we like it or not, whether we choose it or not, that will happen. And that’s what the world of tragedy, at least a good bit of the world of tragedy explores.

27 RH @21:50/  Would it be trivializing it to say that none of us necessarily enjoys being thrown out of our everyday, let’s say, stupor believing that everything is going to turn out okay, but that we have to be reminded not only  of suffering but of death, violence and all the things that threaten the polis with destruction.  And that therefore we, despite ourselves need to learn, recall…

28 RR @22:28/  Yes. I think that that’s absolutely true and particularly true now.

In some sense much truer now than then. In a way I would almost move toward a kind of realistic explanation of the way why the Greeks dealt with this because if you know they didn’t people died at home. They were born at home. There was death and dying and birth and funerals all around your daily life. The military conflicts in Greece were person to person, hand to hand. People slipped in the blood. It was so different from the world we live in and which we are politically and ideologically encouraged to distance ourself from certain kinds of suffering. You know, we’re sending drones into Pakistan, that’s fine. It’s all there, where somebody is playing a video game while someone 10 thousand miles away his 9 kids are gathering firewood get blown away, oh well that’s too bad. On and on and on.  I could go on, and have in fact in print gone on about this subject.

But for the Greeks I’d say I don’t, my view is they don’t probably didn’t need so much reminding, and that’s what tragedy can do for us, as they saw reflected in a more cosmic scale there own kinds, at least something of their own kinds of experience. So it was more an elevation and a generalization of their own lives to a larger scale than it was, Hey guys you gotta remember that life’s really, can be, quite awful.

And one other thing I’d say and if you like I can read a passage from Oedipus at Colonus, this will perhaps be one among the most negative kinds of views of what life is like, and if you like I can just read that …

29 RH/  Please.

30 RR @24:13/  So this is one of the choruses in Oedipus at Colonus which is Sophocles last play:

Whoever wants a greater share of life not keeping to a moderate portion has it skewed. Not to be born wins the prize by all accounts. But once you come into being to go back from where you came as fast as possible that comes second. When you are young, empty headed and easy with life what painful blows lie ahead? What crushing grief won’t find you? Murder, civil strife, discord, war, envy. And last place? That goes to damnable old age. Powerless, friendless, alone, where evils of every shape  are your only neighbors.”

Take that.

31 RH @25:06/  Yeah. Take that. And … that is Greek pessimism. Again, i don’t want to insist too much on Nietzsche’s interpretation although I know that I’ve been imbued by it so I can’t get away from it, but this pessimism regarding the fact that it would be the best of all would be not to have been born, then if you have to be born to get back to where ever it was you came from as quickly as possible, that he understood tragedy as something that the Greeks managed to affirm life in the face of this realization of the horror.

32 RR @25:40/   Absolutely. And again, the trouble with any kind of quotation is that it’s one part of a play. It’s not the conclusion. This, I just read it as an example of how bleak, and in some sense I have to say truthful. I mean sometimes old age is great for people if their lucky, but for a whole lot of people it’s not like that and there’s a whole lot of people that don’t have the privileges and you know the blah, blah, blah. We need to expand our horizon of what the world is really like especially in a place like Stanford.

But this is embedded in a play about a man who has persevered. Oedipus persevered so far as to, by the end of the play, curse his sons. And then to be in some extraordinary fashion heroized in Athens. So this is not a prescription of doom and choosing doom. Because you are thrown into the world …and there’s your occasion, your great occasion, right. Your thrown into the world without knowing who you are, without choosing to be thrown into the world.  For the Greeks that meant something, that meant already what you thought you knew about the world you didn’t know at all. And no matter how much power you may have you’ll never get away from all sorts of things you cannot control in spite of what you think.

This, in my mind, is an extraordinarily important lesson for those of us living in this country now.  Where we think we can pretty much do anything. I mean we have limits but they’re always economic limits and they always have to do with making sure that rich people have a lot of money. But there actually are much deeper limits. You can think about all the ways we don’t think about that.

33 RH @ 27:16/  Oh. For sure. We live in a society for which tragedy is almost antithetical to the self understanding of ourselves as a society as well as individuals. Of course that doesn’t mean that the suffering that tragedies are traditionally about doesn’t occur in abundance even super abundance in our midst. It’s just that we are, our nation has somehow  …was born under a different kind of paradigm of the pursuit of happiness. The kind of right to the pursuit of happiness. Which is, I would imagine, an ancient Greek would not know what to make of this.

34 RR @27:57/  They would be somewhat dazzled by the thought. That doesn’t mean that pessimism rules.  As you pointed out, Nietzsche’s extraordinary insight picking the The Birth of Tragedy is that, to paraphrase him, the myth is that we as individuals somehow matter. And of course that’s absolutely an American myth. I have the right to this and that. Get out of my way, I should be able to do anything I want. It’s all up to me, me, moi, moi. The Greeks who lived in a polis, political community, real community, familial community, economic community in the old sense of the working of the household, would not have known what to do with that. But, Nietzsche gets it that individuation is the myth, but there is a kind of life force underneath this a ground swell of being, he calls it, one of his wonderful evocative phrases, that tragedy celebrates. This just keeps going and in some sense it’s almost associated with natural forces. Then this connects, you get this in Greek tragedy all the time. It’s both a curse and our only blessing that we are inter-generational, that we procreate and that life goes on and that can carry back things we didn’t control but it also projects into the future, so tragedies also always projecting out of the past into the future. But it refuses, I (ate) that phrase in one of my books, it’s that the priority of the past, I mean obviously past is prior but we don’t think about it as also in some sense being the thing that tells us where we’re going from which we cannot escape. And in the United States as you well know I mean we’ve got a cult of forgetting the past; again and again and again. I mean we forget it every week. This is encouraged. The Greeks were, and Greek mythology clearly was all about holding on to some ways in which tradition keeps working through. It could be a family curse, it could be a story that keeps returning, it could be an archetype of return like the (no) story of the heros after the Trojan war. Any number of things. But these things keep working through their contemporary meditations and reflections on their own lives.

35 RH @ 30:04/

I wanted to ask you about that precisely because so many Greek tragedies seem to concern themselves with families or family drama’s. If not the downfall of families, it’s the killing of the father, or you know the Orestia, about the whole Agamemnon thing. Family is the institution of where past, present, and future are interconnected through the chain of generations obviously. So if there is going to be some kind of future to the past you’d locate it often times in the generations. It’s extraordinary how much of tragedy is wedded to the institution of family don’t you think?

36 RR @30:52/  Yes absolutely, but I would … take two pretty clear examples of say familial curses. One would be the house of Atreus in the Orestia and the other would be the Oedipus story. What’s extraordinary in the Orestia, as you well know, is that it moves away from the familial curse. When Agamemnon returns from Troy, the chorus welcome him and they know something’s up. And we know something’s up if we are attentive to Clytemnestra’s language if not her clarity. They sing: “King who ravaged Troy, offspring of Atreus, how shall I welcome you with words you deserve.”  Okay so: “King who ravaged Troy”,clearly something Agamemnon did. “Offspring of Atreus,” something Agamemnon had nothing to do with. So you have right there the conjunction of inherited fate, “offspring of Atreus”, and choice: “king who ravaged Troy” that is a king of a city who ravaged another city. At the end of the Orestia, Orestes is tried and he’s acquitted, with even votes and all sorts of complications, not acquitted in a clear and happy way but in a way in which we can’t get any closer to not deciding how to end this thing. Then the rest of the Eumenides is about converting the Furies into forces of good that will make their home in Athens and substantiate, in a literal sense, the Court of the Areopagus, the first homicide court. So you’ve got a movement from the tragic curse of the house of Atreus and the choices that individuals made: Agamemnon to sack Troy and sacrifice his own daughter. Orestes to kill his own mother and on and on. To that familial myth is in some sense then transformed and embedded in the city as the foundation of a civic institution, trial, acquittal, things like that where the gods now drop out and humans take over. Okay, that’s I think is a pretty clear example of the way a family bleeds into feeds into moves up into the foundations of the city.

Oedipus, Oedipus Tyrannus, which we all know, Oedipus finds out he’s cursed to kill his father and marry his mother, does everything he can to avoid and ends up inadvertently doing it. But that play is set in the context of a plague and Oedipus is a Tyrannus he’s the leader of a city. Tyrant in that sense that doesn’t mean the same thing as our word tyrant. It means he came to power oddly.  So, whatever, else Oedipus does in that play he also finds the person that causes the plague of Thebes and for the second time he frees the city of plague. So even the familial curse is somehow linked to larger political and polis health. There are many larger things you can say about that in terms of the function of Tragedy developed in the fifth century and so forth. I would just say you are absolutely right that family is essential and never forgotten but it frequently feeds into a much larger nexus.

37 RH @34:04/  What’s beautiful about the Orestia in my reading of it is the way it ends with a kind of exaltation.  Or, let’s say glorification of the democratic institutions of Athens the city which through the tribunal and the power to acquit and to judge can actually put an end to a kind of endless reciprocal violence that comes through the curse of the family. Family, as you were suggesting, gets subsumed under a larger expansive definition of the family of the city as a whole. The Furies can also be domesticated and brought into an allegiance with them.

But of course that is a particularly edifying ending. Whereas there are other tragedies, I’m thinking of Antigone, where there is a irreconcilability between the law of the Oikos, of the household, the more ancient law of burial of kin that Antigone upholds verses Creon who is the head of the city. And the law of the polis and the law of the family are in a kind of tragic conflict that cannot end with this kind of resolution that you have in the Orestia.

38 RR @35:27/  That‘s absolutely true.  I would say that Creon, who is a kind of in my view anyway, manifests increasingly over the course of the play the symptoms of a stage tyrant, you see that in other Greek Tragedies, who (Creon) increasingly uses the notion of family to apply to the city in a way that sometimes rightwing political states sometimes do where supporters of the family i.e. you have to do things our way because we know what is right and those sorts of things. The assumption of the metaphor of family to the larger …folk.  You know, and we don’t need to go into the many different ways that has worked out historically and still is used by political forces.

What’s intriguing about that play is that Creon devalues the local family, he rejects intelligent decent and humane advice from his own son. Afterall Antigone is his niece. The consequences of it are that Creon looses his own family. His son commits suicide siding with Antigone, breaks up the familial allegiance with his father for someone he thinks is acting morally and civically correctly. And also Creon’s wife commits suicide.  So what happens is that Creon looses his family by virtue of insisting without inclusion the notion of family as if he knows what family really means and acts accordingly and acts in a fashion that is extremely undemocratic, I mean he’s an absolute autocrat, does not listen to citizens giving him good advice and so forth. So, even there although it’s often set up as a tragedy about oh it’s the family verses the state and the state has to subsume the family in fact that doesn’t work out like that. By the end of the play the person who’s really destroyed and is clearly not on the side of the gods at all is Creon. And Antigone although she’s dead and clearly died at least as far as I can tell, and if you care about these things, in some kind of despair, she hangs herself in a cave, she is in some sense vindicated by the play and Creon is … the opposite of vindicated …devindicated, destroyed by his own actions. And yet it is built exactly as you say around the issue of family and state, but here family and state         are in a different calculus.

39 RH@37:50/  Well would you say that Creon deserved his fate and therefore the outcome of that play is one in where the good guys win and the bad guys pay their price for it? Because if that’s the case then it’s not the most sublime kind of tragedy as a way I was taught, that tragedy is not about right against wrong but about right against right and two different concepts of what is the right and …

40 RR @38:16/  Yeah, this is a great question. Um,  and I’m probably not articulate enough to get at the best answer to it. I am not convinced that the sublimity of tragedy lies in the notion that it’s right verses right. This is Hegel. And Hegel has this idea, and it’s a beautiful idea it’s wonderful it’s a great reading of history, I mean you just have to love it even if it’s not right.  That’s what makes something tragic in that they are partial rights and you’re moving toward some ultimate in dissolvable One. This is the movement of History and it’s terrific. I don’t believe it’s a very accurate reading of Antigone.

Now, at the end of the play nobody wins. Antigone’s dead, Hyman’s dead, Euridyce dead and Creon’s destroyed and Thebes is messed up. So it doesn’t look like anybody won this one. But what you saw was that someone who thought, Creon, because he had political power that he could act, in some sense without limits. The Greek word for that would be hubris.  Hubris is violence to the world. Well Creon does all sorts of violence to the world. Everyone says so. Tereseus says so ultimately. Tereseus comes in speaking for the gods and says you know you did something you cannot do you mixed up the living and the dead. Don’t do that. God’s don’t like that. Zeus does not get his right. Hades does not get his right. This is wrong on so many levels. Who do  you think you are? Well, I’m the tyrant and I know and I know gods aren’t like that gods don’t work like that, god’s aren’t interested in those sorts of things. He’s in some sense very modern. And he has this transpolitical standard. The trouble with this transpolitical standard is it has zero to do with democracy and it has everything to  do with autocracy.

So in some sense, yes, Creon gets what he deserves, but Creon like many characters, even Antigone, doesn’t know or doesn’t have full knowledge of the consequences of their own actions. All of them, Hyman, doesn’t presumably when he comes to speak with his father, want to die. He wants to convince his father that his father is wrong and that he ought actually to listen and he ought to bend and be a better leader and all that sort of thing. He ends up committing suicide in the arms of the dead Antigone.

So I don’t think Greek Tragedy avoids some kinds of moral judgements about characters or ethical choices, in fact choice is so essential in tragedy but it is certainly …what is it …umm as George Steiner said a long long time ago in The Death of Tragedy;  “You know, Greek Tragedy isn’t the kind of thing … does not raise any kinds of issues that can be solved by better divorce laws .”  Like if only Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had gotten a divorce … that’s not it. So there is a level in which there is no choice. There is. There certainly is, but also that does not obviate good and bad decisions taken along the way. That’s built in to many, many, many plays and you see it again and again.

41 RH @41:08/  And do you think that the notion that Aristotle introduces into the Poetics about hamartia which we discussed last week with our guest that it has to do with making a wrong choice?

42 RR/  Well, I think hamartia in Aristotle’s sense is more functional and less moral.  And that he means, and I think you discussed this with your guest last time, it’s a kind of archery term. It means when you shoot at a target and miss the bullseye.

43 RH @41:30/   Well Creon misses it obviously, no?

44 RR/  Well, yeah, exactly. But for Aristotle I think he means something like in ignorance of something. For example Oedipus, doesn’t know … I mean it’s a simple question, realists wonder why doesn’t he, but that’s not the world of the play. He doesn’t know who he is. He does his best to know who he is. He does his best to act on what he knows. Like a good leader and perhaps a good human being ought to do, a good Greek ought to do. You try to know what you can know.       So he does his best but he doesn’t know who he is. As a result he runs into all of these problems and horrific ones. This has nothing to do with his intention. And I don’t think it has anything to do with his pride. Some people think it does and like to read it as a study in pride. You can do that if you want but it seems to me it’s about that he just doesn’t know. And that’s a kind of metaphor, a great classic metaphor. It’s the reason it was so popular, that play was so popular in the 20th century in part … also Freud had something to do with it.

But that you do the best with what you know and that cannot necessarily take you to … it may end the plague in Thebes which is terrific, but it, you may also discover your own cursed roots and you have to, in some sense, live with it.

To go back to Greek pessimism, my reading of Oedipus, Oedipus Tyrannus, is somewhat heroic, that in the face of this, as many people have said: the Greek mask has a mouth open and eyes open. You always have to look at it, you can’t turn your back in a Greek theater nobody would hear you or see you. So you’re always facing it. You, in a sense, meet your fate.  You don’t just sort of run into it. You meet it. You run into it and then you meet it. Oedipus meets it and he really meets it and he blinds himself and the play goes on for another 350 lines. So it’s not about Oedipus finding out who he is it’s about what Oedipus does after he finds out who he is. It’s quite remarkable really. He reasserts his himself. He tries to take care of his kids. He does all these amazing things. So even in the face of not knowing who you are and running into what horrors that can mean, there is still some call to the human to address it and not run away from it.

45 RH @43:43/  And to become the humanity that you are. And that means … earlier you said despite our will we achieve wisdom. And the wisdom in that case is that I understand that I’m a mortal and being a mortal means that I am not a god and I’m not necessarily in control of the fate that befalls me although I can, insofar as I am human, come out to meet it face on ….

46 RR @44:09/  And to take responsibility for it. Which is intriguing. I mean Oedipus could say, in Oedipus Tryanus he doesn’t, but in Oedipus Colonus he kind of does. It’s kind of an interesting change at the end of his life, one could spend a lot of time on, but Oedipus never says, “well gosh I didn’t mean to do it- I didn’t know.” Instead he says, “Look what I did.”  Imagine Americans taking on that kind of sense of responsibility. Ah well, it wasn’t our fault, we didn’t know, we had good intentions. All the time we spread havoc across the globe, but oh well.

Wake up, read some Greek Tragedies.

47 RH @44:39/   No, if there were any tragic pathos in some of our leaders after we acted in ignorance and discovered what kind of outcomes we brought about through our actions the horror of it would have caused some of them to blind themselves if they had the Oedipal … that Oedipal spirit in them.

48 RR @44:59/  Absolutely, right yes

49 RH/  But rather than that they find excuses ….

50 RR/  They get a place at the Hoover.

51 RH @45:06/  Exactly.  So, I’m intrigued by the this motif that you’ve touched on between the non priority of the past and the way in which the family is the institution that obviously has a past and it has future and the present, it’s the generation that’s trying to keep them together and the notion of the atavistic elements that you can have in certain plays, maybe it’s too strong a word to apply to Antigone’s stubborn insistence on fulfilling the mandates of the laws of the Oikos the laws of the household against the law of the city. Nevertheless we know that there are different temporal …how shall I call it …hetero-chronos elements in Greek Tragedy, namely elements that belong to different ages or different moments of the past so some are very archaic and some are modern.

So the Furies, for example, are among the most ancient goddesses and they belong to a time where the law is that of sheer vengeance, private vengeance. But of course society has moved beyond that at the time that Aeschylus is writing the Orestia. The institutions are trying to get beyond a kind of atavistic kind of law of vengeance. You have a conflict between a present and an atavistic past. At the same time I would like to ask you if you think that the hetero-chronus, the multiplicity of different times is also in the form of the Greek Tragedies in the sense, that is it true that the choruses for example might be older in form in so far as they use meters and poetic forms that are much more ancient than, let’s say the speech of the actors which some at least probably were not sung so that the actors would probably suggest something that would be more recent historically …

52 RR @47:20/  Yeah the question is a very good one. I’m not sure … let me see if I can unpack some of it.  Greek lyric in tragedy is extremely complicated and remarkable.  Because Greek is an inflected language you can find metrical patterns and match them in a way that is impossible in English. The English word order just prohibits it, you’d have a non-sensical sentence to be able to match it. Much of Greek lyric is written in what is called: response. That is you have a section of so many lines that is repeated metrically exactly.  Say you have A and then A’.  Then you have B and then B’  and then C or something like that. And they are different patterns. There are forms in Greek lyric that are Doric which is Greek from the Peloponnese primarily and most of the Attic in the rhetoric in the speeches is what’s called Ionic. So there are some differences. Whether that reflects age is hard to know. I don’t know. I have to say that. But I do take the general point, absolutely, that Tragedy is a multiplicity of, contains a multiplicity of temporalities. Just as it contains a multiplicity of forms, lyric and rhetoric being the two primary different ones. And we don’t have anything like that remarkable merging of rhetoric or speeches, I guess you could call them, written in Iambic Trimeter. It’s in a verse but it’s not sung. Then full lyric sung by 12 or 15 chorus members who also danced at the same time. Chorus means dancing, to dance. The greek phrase to direct a play was, didaskalien chorum, to teach a chorus, that would be to direct a play, so the chorus was primary in that sense.

So there is a multiplicity operating. I already suggested some of the multiplicities in performance culture all these different elements find their way in happily in Greek Tragedy. A kind of bastard art in that sense. Not sublime and pure but a combination of all sorts of things. In terms of temporality I’m not sure that the formal elements are where you would go to find it most clearly. Though for a better linguist it could be.


But for me it would be the way in which time is manifest in the plays. We already pointed out this sort of intergenerational time. The number of ways in which the metaphor of giving birth operates in tragedy is extraordinary.  And it’s not just a figure of speech. I think it suggests this the past generating the present and then generating some kind of future. On top of that kind of time you have what one might call seasonal time, cyclical time, the time I mentioned in the festivals but also the way that they measure time: they’ll talk about when the dipper moved around and was here, and you realize the way the opening of Agamemnon, the watchman is on the roof: … I know about the year because I know how the stars move. And against that kind of time I’m going to talk about the arrival of a beacon: a very specific time what we call kairos: a particular moment in time, or the intervention of specificity into the temporal landscape if you want.  And there are other ways you can talk about it, you can talk about the kind of epochal time, the time of a person’s life.  And maybe you can have a Heidegerian fourfold of times operating here. And you see them and their intersection is really important because the Greeks were aware of time as almost an agent. In Aeschylus, all over the place, time is doing something time reveals things. And this has something to do with back to our notions of Americans forgetting the past.

For the Greeks, for example judgement or punishment might not hit you, it might hit your kids or your or your grandkids, hence the familial curse, right? Now if we think about how we’re into nuclear weapons and nuclear all sorts of stuff, nuclear waste, the half life of 10,000 years which we are going to store somewhere you know. How old are we, 250 years? I mean what is this? It’s an absurdity, an absolute incredible insanity. But we just think well, well, well time, it’s all okay, it’s all good. But the Greeks think, no, no, no, …time, it might not get you young man, but it might get your great, great grandkids. Now of course we don’t care about them but we pretend we care about them The Greeks seemed to have that notion, hence back to the priority of the past, the past moving through, means a kind of moral relationship to the world. It’s not so much balance as equanimity, but is a recognition of limit.

And so our understanding of time in tragedy is the beginning of a way to understanding our own limit. And of course is something that does not sell well at Target. So, we don’t want to do that. We can buy, we can just keep buying, we can buy our way out of time.

53 RH @52:13/  What you say raises an interesting issue for a context of discussion of tragedy at least for me which is the …the issue of consequence. It’s true, if you live in a mind set where the consequences of your action might hit your great great grandchildren and you pay lip service to the future but basically as a society we could not care less about three generations away. Nevertheless, our actions all have consequences that are long term, especially with the enhanced technology at our disposal. And so much of the plays, the actual plays of tragedy have to do as I see it in working out the consequences of certain, either actions which take place on the stage or actions that had taken place sometime in the deep past, but that the consequentiality of causation or agency is something that I think Aristotle was very sensitive to when he was speaking about inevitability or probability, no?

54 RR/  Yes.

55 RH @ 53:30/   That there is a law of consequentiality and to take cognizance that one’s actions have consequences, even if they’re unintended …especially maybe if they’re unintended that this becomes a moral awareness, no?

56 RR/  Yes. Oh absolutely, I think in one way this is one of the attractions of the Greeks to their mythological tradition. I mean just think about it. In some sense it still operates for those of us who care about this sort of thing. That there are these old stories, it’s quite clear that Oedipus wasn’t invented the week before the Theban plays started popping up.  The Trojan war goes back at least in their historical memory in their cultural memory hundreds of years minimally. So that they already saw a tie between old tales and their own lives. Do you know what I mean? I don’t think this was forced. I think this was a natural understanding of the way things worked. So the archetypal stories still operate in the same way that past actions have consequences in the present or in the future.

I completely agree with you that one of the things that tragedy keeps showing is the consequences of actions which are frequently taken either in ignorance or sometimes out of best intention or passions of the spur of the moment. But the audience is able, in a way that the characters sometimes can’t, …see how those consequences play out. And then are asked in this civic arena if you want, civic religious, whatever you want to call it, this arena of the theater to, I imagine, reflect on how this thing is actually going to play out in their own lives in their own city. And again, remember that they are participants, I mean not all of them, I mean women didn’t have political rights, nor didn’t get them in this country until not long ago, but it’s not that it was a radical democracy in the total sense, but it was a much more radical democracy than anything we’ve come close to. Because people took votes and changed things day in and day out. So these issues in some sense had purchase more directly I would think on the manifestation of actions that the Athenians could take part in.


So I agree with you, consequences mean something and they don’t mean something in the abstract. They mean something in what you’re going to do. There’s a great example of this in some sense an easy one, too easy: but in Euripides’  Suppliant Women, a play I mentioned earlier, it’s very much interested in political decision making. It’s a very political play in an obvious sense. Theseus is called on, there is a question if he should go to war and help some people recover their corpses?  Nasty old Creon in Thebes isn’t allowing the Argive women to bury their corpses of their sons. And Theseus manages to raise an army and liberate the corpses. Then there’s this big discussion, well they could go and sack Thebes and Theseus says, “NO, I only came to do this one thing.” A remarkable restraint considering the kind of joys of war. And the messenger says this is the kind of leader to choose.

Now I think he’s not saying, you know, vote for so and so, but rather; here we have a mythological example of something, which has been twisted by Euripdes and manipulated a little bit, but there it is. And we have a paradigm, a kind of archetype, and Greeks like that sort of thing; mythological archetypes, paradigm’s, ways that one might model their own actions. Here it is, now Athenians. What will you do?

57 RH @56:56/  Well, a rather embarrassing question for you Rush. Which is if Greek Tragedy contains this kind of wisdom, about the consequences of actions and the importance of decisions and the gravity with which one should take and make certain choices. Why is their history, their actual history not wiser because they were, as you said at the beginning of the show, they were constantly at war, they, …uh screwed things up as much as anyone else did and in the final analysis did they just not learn the lessons or is there another order of fate which emerges to say that no matter how hard we try we’re always going to screw it up anyway because we’re somehow fallible and we’re kind of guilty. There’s an intrinsic guilt and we’re never going to …[escape]

58 RR @57:46/   That’s a real good question and I think it’s probably says more about the critic and the reader than it is about the form because you know it’s a question about how you want to take it.

I believe that tragedy keeps playing between, I’ve said it before, choice and fate. That there are elements you have no control over and other elements you do. Time and again you see characters, sometimes they’re caught in a situation in which their choices are so limited that it’s very hard. Orestes says, before killing his mother, he has this crisis. And he says Teadras what shall I do? Bernall calls it the tragic question, I love it. What shall I do? …Drama.  What shall I choose to do?  So it’s all about choice. And Pilades says, speaking for Apollo, do what the gods tell you to do, so he kills his mother.  Then of course he suffers horrifically. Killing his mother he’s finally vindicated, but it’s not like he has a very good time with it and he’s not happy about doing this so it’s really, I mean my god, a horrible thing.  So, if you want to humanize it, here’s a horrific circumstance in which the world has thrown Orestes. As I say at some point  Orestes doesn’t choose to be Orestes, but once he’s thrown into being Orestes then Orestes begins to choose.  So he begins to choose the things.  So I don’t think that, in my reading of tragedy, fate dominates. That’s just my reading of it. Clearly it’s very much more prominent. I think it’s a useful imperative to correct our own notions of self-empowerment. I don’t think you would present this to an audience given all of these democratic radically democratic notions of voting and not just voting, you could just be picked by lottery to serve on a very important government function, I mean in some sense the high end of this would be that our society is only as strong as it’s weakest link, i.e., we really have to believe in something like public education for Americans right. It matters. I think that it’s a kind of education in a way. This might be some kind of political reading of tragedy, an education toward democratic practice. Although done in a mythical an archetypal way not in a highly specific and individualized historical moment way.

Whether the human race is doomed or not, you know, and whether that’s the message of Greek Tragedy is … I rather think like Oedipus, what if that was the message you got?  You went to Delphi and it said, “Oh, the human race is doomed.”  What are you supposed to do with that information?  Are you supposed to go have a party? Are you supposed to help it to it’s doom? Presumably as a human being you are supposed to fight against it. That’s what Oedipus does. He says, “Well, then I’m not going to go off and run and find somebody who looks like my father and kill him. My mother …I’m not going to run away from that, but run toward the future and do my best to avoid it and, you know, I think this is the reasonable position for anyone to take.

59 RH @1:00:33/  That’s beautiful Rush. We’ve come to the end of our show. I understand now in a much more profound way what Satre meant of all things when he said that we are condemned to freedom, we’re condemned [sentenced] to our freedom. That seems to be the kind of profound message in a certain way of what we’ve just heard you talking about.

I’d like to remind our listeners we’ve been speaking with Professor Rush Rehm from the department of Classics at Stanford here on Entitled Opinions. Thank you Rush for coming on. I’m Robert Harrison for Entitled Opinions. We’ll be with you next week. Take care Rush.

60 RR/  Thank you Robert

61 RH/  Bye, bye.

62 RR/ Bye.


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