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Literature & poetry

Greeks knew how to suffer

A Companion to Tragedy

No more barbaric threats. I will hear you both out, You first, then her. I’ll judge what’s brought this about — And it will be a fair judgment", Tim Piggott-Smith’s Agamemnon declared to the warring Hecuba and Polymestor in a recent production at London’s Donmar Warehouse. Minutes before, Polymestor had erupted through the stage floor with bleeding, blinded eyes, dragging the dismembered pieces of his son behind him in a plastic bag, for all the world like a character from a Quentin Tarantino film. Meanwhile, the eponymous Hecuba, exhausted by the passion of grief and revenge, was crawling round the stage like a dog. Over this vision of abject brutality, where powerless victims preyed on each other, towered the Greek leader who had started the Trojan War and thus ultimately created the chaotic conditions that allowed such violence to occur. There he strutted above them, grandly speaking of justice and judgment and returning home to Greece. The setting was Thrace, but it could equally have been Afghanistan or Iraq, and the irony of Piggott-Smith’s "fair judgment" was not lost on the audience.

The vogue for Greek tragedy in the West End in the past few years (two Hecubas in the same year, Katie Mitchell’s Iphigenia in Aulis , Martin Crimp’s version of Women of Trachis , Prometheus Bound in Soho) must be a response to the post-September 11 War on Terror, with its false certainties and underlying doubts. Tragedy is the art form societies resort to when they want to judge what has brought war about. The narrative patterns of the stories, with their Aristotelian plots, offer the suggestion of cause and effect that might seem to explain horrific events and experiences. Perhaps directors feel that the deceptive simplicity of Greek tragedy chimes with the black-and-white climate of President George Bush’s "you’re with us or against us" world. But just as Agamemnon’s evocation of justice was offset at the Donmar by the scene of carnage until it became a cynical puff of rhetoric, so tragedy’s search for answers has been repeatedly dashed by the sheer emotional difficulty of its material. The "intractability" of human suffering, as Terry Eagleton puts it, resists glib moral explanation.

However, the emotional power of tragedy, the agnosticism of its form and its continuing relevance today do not feature as questions in Rebecca Bushnell’s Blackwell Companion . This is a book about tragedy that cites, three or four times, the story in Aristophanes’s Frogs in which Dionysus goes into the underworld to look for a tragic playwright to save Athens. Aeschylus is chosen because he can "cure the state", and this book takes a similarly pedagogical interpretation of tragedy’s function in the state to that of Aristophanes. It suggests that it is the task of tragedy to teach the correct attitude to problems, whether that be gender equality (Victoria Wohl’s "saving tragedy from the worst aspects of Athens") or virtuous behaviour (Deborah Boedeker’s and Kurt Raaflaub’s "didactic function" of the tragic poet in the Greek polis). "Tragedy insists," says Richard Seaford in his essay on Greek tragedy and Dionysiac ritual. But it does not. It prods and disturbs, begs unanswerable questions and, when staged at its best such as the Donmar show, it blows away.

One derives no sense of anyone getting blown away by a tragedy from Bushnell’s book. Emotion, in fact, gets quite a beating in several essays. "The history of the philosophy of tragedy is marred by an overemphasis on reception, an undue focus on the (emotive) effect of tragedy at the expense of tragic structure," scolds Mark Roche in his essay on Hegel. Oh, these overexcitable philosophers, with their weakness for tears! Well, there is no danger they will be passionately stirred by the measured essays in this collection. Most of the writers have absorbed the mechanistic and prescriptive approach to the subject articulated most clearly by Timothy Reiss in his recent book, Tragedy and Truth . "Tragedy is a kind of machine for attaching the right and true meaning to the activities of man in society," he claims. "Our emotions are not to be confused with that machine." Readers have no reason to be stirred either, because the implication of Bushnell’s book is that tragedy is predominantly an ancient Greek affair, which had most significance for the society that produced it — 5th-century Athens. "The notion of tragedy has always been retrospective, looking backward with a sense of loss," Bushnell announces in her introduction.

Consequently, nearly half the essays are devoted to Greek tragedy, frequently resulting in a repetition of material, while Othello , for example, gets only one paragraph and modern cinema nothing at all. The emphasis is on the historical context for tragedy and the way it "reflects and reproduces ideology as conflict" (Wohl). So none of the 11-plus essays on Greek tragedy discusses modern productions of the plays or considers the reasons why we might have wanted to restage them over the centuries. There is no sense, in other words, of tragedy as a living form or of its having any relevance beyond the immediate historical conditions of its first performance. If it does have a longer shelf life, it is merely as confirmation for certain academic arguments.

Georg Buchner’s play Woyzeck is "an appropriate vehicle for assessing the usefulness of a Marxist approach to literature", announces Gail Finney with no apparent irony. The elitism of this view of tragedy — that it has nothing to do with emotion, nothing to do with life, nothing to do with the experience of ordinary people — has long been debated by critics. Indeed, it is precisely the implications of Bushnell’s "distinction between tragedy and the merely horrific accident or catastrophe" that Yeats voiced back in 1910 and that Raymond Williams defiantly challenged in his 1966 book, Modern Tragedy . He declares: "We can only distinguish between tragedy and accident if we have some conception of a law or an order to which certain events are accidental and in which certain other events are significant." But of course that "law" or "order" is socially conditioned, and it neglects the experience of ordinary people. "The events which are not seen as tragic are deep in the pattern of our own culture: war, famine, work, traffic, politics." There is no point in an art form that has nothing to say about those concerns, that can stand by while genocide is committed in Africa and say sanguinely that "mass graves in Rwanda have nothing to do with tragedy" or that the Trojan War is somehow tragic, while the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami is merely a catastrophe.

Since Bushnell’s book is based on the premise that "in Western culture the meaning of tragedy is inseparable from history", its most valuable contribution is to the historical tradition of the genre, the recovery of forgotten plays and the consideration of the social and political conditions of performance. Her own essay, on the classical and medieval roots of Renaissance tragedy, is useful in reflecting on the medieval mysteries and morality plays that inform Shakespeare’s work. Alessandro Schiesaro sets Senecan tragedy in the context of earlier drama of the Roman Republic period, now mostly lost but which at the time affected the reception of Seneca’s plays. There is an essay on Spanish Golden Age tragedy, from Cervantes to Calderón, which, while it lacks imaginative speculation (we are bluntly told which plays fulfil Aristotle’s criteria for the genre), is valuable purely for reminding us of a tradition that is largely neglected.

There are also a few essays that resist the overall didactic approach of the book and at least raise the possibility of tragic aporia. Ruth Scodel, for example, has written a fine essay on the relation between epic and tragedy, arguing that certain moments in Greek tragedy mean we now read Homer differently. There are two more speculative essays on psychoanalysis (by Julia Reinhard Lupton) and on materialist thought (by Hugh Grady), which at least offer some thoughts on why people continue to be compelled by tragedy and why it might still matter. "Tragedy," Grady acknowledges, "is universal in its exploration of human suffering, but human suffering itself takes different forms and meanings from era to era, culture to culture."

A Companion to Tragedy is a scholarly volume. Each contributor has recently published on the subject, so the book offers a snapshot of current thinking on tragedy, with extensive bibliographies of up-to-the-minute criticism. But this thinking, emanating almost exclusively from America (only six of the 29 contributors are not based in the US), offers only one perspective on the topic. We need other perspectives — those prepared to respond to the emotional challenges of witnessing atrocity, brutality and despair.

Jennifer Wallace is a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, and is the author of The Cambridge Introduction to Tragedy , to be published by Cambridge University Press.

A Companion to Tragedy

Editor - Rebecca Bushnell
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 556
Price - £85.00
ISBN - 1 4051 0735 9

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