“Greek Tragedy and Ritual” – Sourvinou-Inwood

pages 7-24 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell, 2009

While moderns enjoy tragedies such as Euripides’ Bacchae and Sophocles’ Antigone as drama, the ancients looked at tragedy as ritual. In other words, by simulating interactions between mortals and immortals on the tragic stage, the ancients constructed religious dogma. Today, bishops and popes construct religious dogma in councils and chairs. Yesterday, the ancients constructed religious dogma on the stage of the tragic theatre. Lack of knowledge of this distinction makes moderns susceptible to misinterpreting ancient tragedy. Or so Sourvinou-Inwood argues.

Sourvinou-Inwood presents evidence of the ritual basis behind Greek tragedy. Tragedy consists of a series of prayers and rites. Oracles play a central role. Celebrations to gods outside theatre often involve choral activity; the chorus forms a central fixture on the tragic stage. As the City Dionysia began (the festival where tragedies were staged), the statue of Dionysus was brought from the sanctuary of Dionysus Eleuthereus to Athens. And so on. The evidence Sourvinou-Inwood presents is incontrovertible. Greek tragedy has a ritual foundation.

Next, Sourvinou-Inwood presents cases where the modern lack of knowledge of the ritual basis of ancient theatre has created misunderstandings. With an understanding of the ritual basis of tragedy, we should not, for example, in Sophocles’ Antigone take Antigone’s side. Antigone’s claim that it is her religious duty to bury her brother (a traitor in the civil war) is not backed by any extant religious law. We should, however, take Creon’s side, who passes a law forbidding burial to traitors (one of whom is Antigone’s brother) in the interests of national unity. In her ritual reading of this tragedy, it is only when Creon keeps Polyneices’ corpse in the upper world too long that the cosmic order is upset, as, according to Greek religion, the corpse really belongs in the nether world. Sophocles’ Antigone explores, therefore, not the collision between two equally justified ethical forces (as Hegel and other moderns saw it), but how the religion of the Greek city-state may sometimes get it wrong. In this reading, Creon does it all right, yet, because the will of the gods is beyond human comprehension, gets it all wrong. The purpose of tragedy, in Sourvinou-Inwood’s reading, is to explore religion. Greek tragedies are not timeless, but for a specific time and purpose.

If fifth century tragedy is a  ritual of Greek religion, nobody gave Plato and Aristotle the memo. Both of them discuss tragedy extensively, and they don’t consider tragedy to be part of their liturgy. Instead of religion, they focus on the emotional affect tragedy has on audiences. For Plato, tragedy corrupts the audience’s emotions because it is a cheap imitation of life. If–as Sourvinou-Inwood argues–tragedy is a sacred rite, it is unclear why Plato would view it as an imitation or mimesis of life. Aristotle, of course, came to a different conclusion than his teacher. To him, tragedy rehabilitates the emotions through catharsis, a purging of pity and fear through pity and fear. But he was of the same mind as his teacher insofar as tragedy is drama, not ritual.

Mind you, Aristotle (fourth century BC) comes a little late to the game, after the heyday of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the so-called ‘big three’. Plato, however, was a contemporary of Sophocles and Euripides. One way to reconcile the discrepancy between Sourvinou-Inwood and Plato/Aristotle would be to argue that tragedy began as ritual (in the sixth century), and then gradually became secularized until the fourth century, where it was completely secular and had “nothing to do with Dionysus.”

My beef with the Sourvinou-Inwood reading is that I believe that Greek tragedy is for all time. Her ritual interpretation reduces tragedy to be a work for one time: tragedy, to her, is timely, not timeless. And by the way, I don’t care if I’m wrong. Gosh darn it, at least by arguing for tragedy’s timelessness, I’m arguing from the perspective of art, arguing from the good guy side! Here are my objections to the ritual interpretation of tragedy. But before beginning, I don’t deny there are ritual aspects behind Greek tragedy. Just like there are religious rituals and artifacts to Easter and Christmas celebrations. But to me, Greek tragedy ought to be interpreted as art before it is interpreted as ritual. Why should the interpretation of one audience in the fifth century (who may have understood tragedy to be ritual) be privileged over all the interpretations of subsequent audiences (who see tragedies as drama)?

First criticism: the ritual interpretation of tragedy results in less inspiring and somewhat limited conclusions. If I’m going to accept any interpretation of tragedy, I want it to make my experience more, not less! Take the discussion of Antigone. In Hegel’s interpretation of the work as drama, Creon and Antigone are ethical equals on a collision path. She represents the right of religion in wanting to bury her brother. He represents the civic right of the polis in denying burial to traitors, one of whom is Antigone’s brother. Anouilh, in his 1944 adaptation of Antigone, also recognized that the genius of the play lies in how both Creon and Antigone have an ethical foundation: in the same audience, the Nazis applauded the portrayal of Creon (with whom they sided) while the Free French applauded the portrayal of Antigone (with whom they sided). That would have been an interesting show to see! Just imagine the tension in the air… In Sourvinou-Inwood’s reading, however, Antigone is wrong and Creon is (mostly) right. Part of the play’s greatness is lost. Am I to believe that Sophocles’ audience missed this dramatic masterstroke which subsequent audiences grasped with ease? The ritual interpretation would be like arguing that the original audience of, say Bach’s Mass in B minor couldn’t hear the same genius modern and secular ears can hear because they were too focused on the religious aspects of Bach’s music. I don’t buy this. The inner core of a work’s genius should be available to keen interpreters of every generation.

Part of Sourvinou-Inwood’s argument is that, while there isn’t ethical parity between Antigone and Creon, her interpretation of the play is actually richer because it focuses on the unpredictability of the divine in the face of mortal understanding: although Creon plays his hand (mostly) correctly, he still goes down in the end. I agree that how the gods engineer unexpected outcomes is part of the play’s appeal (Euripides says so in the coda to many of his plays). This can be part of a ‘dramatic’ interpretation of the play. The ‘dramatic’ reading can also include the ethical parity between Antigone and Creon. But the ritual interpretation cannot accept the ethical parity. In this respect, it is limiting. In interpretation, ambiguity is often fruitful.

Second criticism: Sourvinou-Inwood argues that the Greeks conducted religious ritual on the stage of tragedy because Greek religion “did not have a canonical body of belief, no divine revelation nor scriptural texts.” Are myths not canonical bodies of belief? Did competing cities–the Hera cult in Argos, the Athena cult in Athens, and the Dionysus cult in Thebes–not compete for the right to shape canon in much the same as Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians claim primacy for their point of views? Do oracles, visions of Pan and his satyrs in the woods, and the taking of auspices not count as divine revelation? And what were the works of Homer and Hesiod if not scriptural text? Even setting this aside, why should Christianity be compared to Greek tragedy? Okay, so Christianity has a canonical body of belief, divine revelation, and scriptural texts. So would the conclusion be that Christianity does not need to dramatize religion on stage? If that was the case, then why do we have plays such as Hochhuth’s The Deputy or oratorios such as Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (which I saw a week and a half ago conducted by Butterfield at UVic)? Whether or not Greek religion had a canonical body of belief should not have any bearing on their need to dramatize religion on the stage.

Third criticism: I would have liked to have read more about whether Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were aware that their works for one time, and not for all time. Some of their texts survive down to the present day, so someone would have been recording them, writing them down. And if they were disposable works, works for one time–as Sourvinou-Inwood argues–why would there be need to preserve them?

All in all, Sourvinou-Inwood is right in positing a ritual basis of tragedy. But perhaps her argument would have been stronger had she not pressed her case so far? Drama and ritual is perhaps more a both / and rather than an either / or proposition.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

2 thoughts on ““Greek Tragedy and Ritual” – Sourvinou-Inwood

  1. Thomas I. Ellis

    Thank you for sharing your perspective on this. I agree on the whole with your critique of this person’s reading. But both you and Sourvinou-Inwood may be positing a false dichotomy here between “ritual” and “drama.” The division of our experience both individually and communally, into “sacred” vs. “secular” realms (or time-bound ritual vs timeless art, as you conceive it here) is, in itself, an artifact of the post-medieval Christian sensibility, as it evolved, in particular, after the rise of humanism in the Renaissance, further accelerated by the Reformation and later, by the scientific revolution (Descartes and all that). For the rest of the world, and for the ancient Greeks in particular, there was no such distinction between “sacred” and “secular” realms of experience.
    So it was quite possible, in my view, that the tragedies could be both: an integral, context-specific part of a communal ritual paying homage to the gods (and there is ample evidence, both in the plays themselves and in all we have learned about ancient Greek culture, to support this view) AND dramas appreciated (both then and thereafter) for their artistry and their timeless insights into the perennial complexities and moral ambiguities of our experience.

    After all, to take a more recent example, the ritual function of Bach’s religious cantatas in Leipzig did not preclude others from studying, discussing, and performing them elsewhere, within and outside of churches.

    Reply
  2. Edwin Wong Post author

    Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. When you say it, it makes sense: there wouldn’t have been the division between sacred and secular in the ancient day. Culture was religion and religion was culture in the pre-medieval world. Your comment reminds me of an old lesson I tend to forget every now and again: the ancients seem so close and familiar, but are more different than we like to think. The more we think of the ancients as a younger version of ourselves, the more trouble we get into with false dichotomies. Great comment, insightful.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.