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Review of “The Greatness and Limits of Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy” – Roche

pages 51-67 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author Blurb

Mark W. Roche is the Joyce Professor of German Language and Literature and Concurrent Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, where he also served as Dean of the College of Arts and Letters from 1997 to 2008. He is the author of six books, including Tragedy and Comedy: A Systemic Study and a Critique of Hegel (1998) and Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century (2004).

“The Greatness and Limits of Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy”

Roche’s essay is chapter 4 in A Companion to Tragedy, edited by Rebecca Bushnell.

According to Roche, Hegel’s theory of tragedy is, after Aristotle’s, the most studied and quoted. Unlike Nietzsche, Hegel never formulated his theory in one book. Hegel’s thoughts are scattered through his writings. For English readers, Anne and Henry Paolucci have collected all Hegel’s thoughts on tragedy (mainly from Phenomenology of Mind and Lectures on the Philosophy of History) in their useful book: Hegel on TragedyWhat did Hegel have to say on tragedy?

Tragedy arises, according to Hegel, when a hero courageously asserts a substantial and just position, but in doing so simultaneously violates a contrary and likewise just position and so falls prey to one-sidedness that is defined at one and the same time by greatness and by guilt.

Hegel’s position on tragedy, is, unsurprisingly, based on the famous Hegelian dialectic of thesis and antithesis leading to synthesis. His thoughts on tragedy are really an extension of this theory of knowledge:

Each category or thesis reveals its one-sidedness and passes over into its antithesis, which is likewise recognized as one-sided, eventually giving way to synthesis, which both negates and preserves the earlier terms; the synthesis itself becomes absorbed in a larger process in which it, too, is recognized as partial, though at a higher and more complex level. This continual progression, whereby partial categories give way to their own internal contradictions, leads to an ever greater realization of reason, self-consciousness, and freedom.

Why, according to Roche, is Hegel’s Theory Great?

  1. Most theories of tragedy focus on tragedy’s effect on the emotions. Only a handful focus on the structure of tragedy. Hegel, along with Hölderlin, Schelling, and Peter Szondi, examine the structure of tragedy, and explore how the hero’s flaw is intertwined with the hero’s greatness. Of course, Hegel’s theory also considers the emotional effect of tragedy, but as a secondary element of the exploration. According to Hegel, we feel not pity, but sympathy with the hero since, despite the fall, the hero is justified.
  2. Hegel’s emphasis on collision emphasizes how “it is the honour of these great characters to be culpable.” harmartia denotes a character flaw in Aristotle’s theory. Hegel’s “error mechanism” is more complex, as now the hero’s greatness and flaw are one and the same thing: “in fulfilling the good, the hero violates the good.”
  3. The focus on collision is inherently dramatic. Hegel’s theory invites critics to focus on the most dramatic moments in tragedy. This is what we want, since tragedy is naturally a dramatic art. Drama is to tragedy what sound is to music. Hegel’s theory is especially applicable to Goethe’s Faust (the collision between Faust and Mephistopheles) and other works which contain collisions such as Euripides’ Bacchae, Schiller’s Wallenstein, Ibsen’s Ghosts, and Brecht’s The Good Person of Sezuan.
  4. There are external collisions (e.g. Antigone versus Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone). But there can also be internal collisions where the same individual is aware of irreconcilable and just conditions within himself. Hamlet is such an example. Roche writes: “To elevate to tragic status Hamlet’s lack of will as a simple inability to act, the common view among Hegel’s contemporaries, is to transform tragedy into mere suffering. For Hegel the apparent weakness of Hamlet derives, rather, from the energy of his thought, which recognizes a conflict between the emotional need to act in the face of corruption and indecency and insight into the immoral nature of the contemplated action.”
  5. The collision of opposite forces–both justified–inspires philosophical reflection on the good. By presenting two alternatives, Hegel invites the spectator to weight the totality of the duties and obligations contained in either claim.
  6. Hegel’s theory draws attention to tragedy’s treatment of paradigm shifts in history. Collisions frequently dramatize tradition conflicting with innovation: case in point is Aeschylus’ Oresteia, where Athena represents the democratic process of trial by jury while the Furies represent the archaic system of “an eye for an eye” retributive justice. Hegel’s theory gave rise to the historical drama of Friedrich Hebbel which dramatizes one norm being pushed aside to make way for the new norm.

While Hegel doesn’t offer a theory of comedy, he “recognizes a shift from tragedy to comedy when what is substantial gives way to what is subjective, and the particular becomes more important than the universal.

Why, according to Roche, is Hegel’s Theory Limited?

  1. While Hegel considers that the opposing forces in the tragic collision are equally justified, that is seldom the case. For example, even in Antigone, Hegel sympathizes more with Antigone’s “right.” That’s an interesting point, as there’ve been a few articles by classicists (who specialize in the ancient world) arguing that Sophocles and his audience would have gravitated more towards Creon. In their reading, Antigone goes too far in her obdurate persistence. The takeaway from this limitation is that there are very few pure Hegelian tragedies where both sides counterbalance equally in their claims.
  2. Hegel does not distinguish between external (e.g. Antigone versus Creon) and internal collisions (e.g. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”). Roche points out, however, that this is less a criticism than an expansion of Hegel’s theory. Roche breaks down internal collisions into a two major types: the tragedy of self-sacrifice where the hero does good knowing that suffering will be involved (Miller’s Crucible or Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral) and the tragedy of stubbornness where the hero will not yield (Sophocles’ Ajax). The tragedy of stubbornness is similar to what has been understood as a tragedy of character where the hero has too much of one virtue and not enough of another (e.g. in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People Dr. Stockmann has too much honesty and fearlessness but a lack of prudence).
  3. Hegel’s critics dislike his insistence on an element of harmony in the resolution of tragedy. To moderns such as Marcuse, “The absolute tragic essence of the tragic tragedy is suffering without meaning.” If this is modernity, I am allergic to modernity. For me, the purpose of art is to instil meaning onto “unmeaning” reality; reality, as a concatenation of random events, lacks intrinsic meaning. Art puts reality into human terms. A good third to one-half of ancient tragedies end in reconciliation. Would Marcuse and moderns consider Aeschylus’ masterpiece The Oresteia (where the Furies are reconciled with the new order of Olympian gods) to be something other than a tragedy? Pierre Corneille’s Cinna, where Augustus is reconciled with the conspirators is another excellent example of a successful “resolution” play. Hegel is certainly right to insist on an element of resolution in tragedy. If I want suffering without meaning, I don’t need the theatre, I’d just watch the news.
  4. Roche finds a fourth criticism in Hegel’s failure to articulate clearly between tragedy and dramas of reconciliation. This is made more complicated in that the line between tragedy and dramas of reconciliation are blurred: Goethe’s Iphigenia and Sophocles’ Philoctetes, for example, can be considered to be tragedies, dramas of reconciliation, or both. At times Hegel seems to prefer a tragedy where the reconciliation comes organically (e.g. through the plot) and at other times Hegel disparages dramas of reconciliation.
  5. Critics such as Otto Pöggeler find fault with Hegel’s long run optimistic worldview: it is incompatible with the gravity of tragedy.
  6. Critics such as Johannes Volkelt finds fault with tragedy for portraying individuals rather than metaphysical ideals. Not sure why Roche would list this as a fault or limit of Hegel’s theory of tragedy.
  7. Last criticism is that Hegel’s theory applies only to a handful of plays: “Hegel’s typology of tragedy, brilliant though it is, appears to exclude all but a dozen or so world tragedies.” There you have it: Hegel’s theory is the one-trick pony of literary theory.

Hegel’s Theory versus the Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy

Let’s take Roche’s comments on Hegel’s theory and apply them to my theory of tragedy, called “risk theatre.” Risk theatre argues that risk (rather than a collision) is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. My book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected came out February 2019, so risk theatre is, compared to Hegel, an upstart contender.

The first thing Roche likes about Hegel’s theory is that it prioritizes investigating the structure of tragedy before it looks at tragedy’s emotional affect. So too risk theatre examines the structure of tragedy. In risk theatre, the central element of the structure is not a collision, but risk. Heroes, by taking on inordinate risk, trigger cataclysmic low-probability, high-consequence events. Tragedy dramatizes risk gone awry. In risk theatre, each dramatic act is also a gambling act.

Roche appreciates how Hegel weaves together the hero’s greatness and the hero’s flaw together. It is an advance on Aristotle’s concept of hamartia, or the tragic flaw. Risk theatre does away with the flaw altogether. In risk theatre, the hero’s bet is good. The odds are with the hero. Heroes are clever, after all. They play to win. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the hero will prevail. Tragedy, however, dramatizes the one time out of a hundred where the best-laid plan fails. Risk makes tragedy exciting. In risk theatre, instead of a flaw, an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event brings the hero down. In risk theatre Birnam Wood is always coming to high Dunsinane Hill. The “flaw” in risk theatre is chance: more things have happened than what the hero thought would happen.

Roche has high praise for Hegel’s theory of tragedy because collisions are inherently dramatic. Risk theatre would argue that risk is as inherently as dramatic as collisions. Richard Jessup’s The Cincinnati Kid and Walter Tevis’ The Hustler, two novels which use the gambling analogy as a visual analogy of risk illustrate the dramatic qualities inherent in risk (both were also made into memorable movies with high powered casts including Steve McQueen and Paul Newman). Risk theatre and Hegel’s theory enjoy a similar advantage in that their focal points are both inherently dramatic.

Risk theatre, like Hegel’s theory of tragedy, delineates a theory of comedy. For Hegel, tragedy shifts to comedy when the substantial gives way to what is subjective, and the particular becomes more important than the universal. Risk theatre, predictably, looks at the relation between tragedy and comedy in terms of risk. Tragedy and comedy both dramatize low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. The difference? Tragedy dramatizes downside risk and comedy dramatizes upside risk.

In one way, risk theatre and Hegel’s theory have quite different limitations. While Roche identifies the limited applicability of Hegel’s theory as a drawback, risk theatre casts almost too wide a net by saying “risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action in tragedy.” The saving grace is that risk theatre is interested in a specific type of risk: the all-in wager. To trigger the low-probability, high-consequence event, the hero has to go all-in.

With regard to an element or resolution or harmony in tragedy versus unmitigated suffering, risk theatre is agnostic. Risk theatre is built on the idea of opportunity cost. By pursuing one option, the next best option is foregone. Risk theatre is happy so long as the price is paid. If, after the price is paid, there is a resolution, that neither adds nor detracts from the tragedy. In Pierre Corneille’s Cinna, for example, Augustus sacrifices his authority to maintain law and order. Do they try to assassinate you?—reward the conspirators with consulships and join them together in powerful marriages. Augustus has paid the cost of preserving the Empire by showing clemency to the conspirators. The play ends in a group hug. Risk theatre, however, finds it a perfectly acceptable tragedy, as the resolution came at a high price. What risk theatre cannot stomach is a resolution that comes without paying the price: that is the stuff of comedy.

As to Hegel’s optimism, risk theatre is likewise optimistic. While Hegel sees progress through the dialectical process, risk theatre sees progress because the audience, having seen how unexpected low-probability events can have the highest consequences, leaves the theatre with a higher sensibility of risk. Theatre dramatizes risk acts gone awry on the stage so that off the stage we learn to become more robust. After seeing tragedy, the audience learns off stage to have a plan B, learns to keep some powder dry, learns of the dangers of too concentrated a position.

Roche finds that a drawback of Hegel’s theory is its limited applicability to the great tragedies. Hegel’s theory works on a dozen or so plays. Risk theatre does not share this drawback. As long as you can construct the hero’s actions as a wager and something happens out of left field to upset this wager, risk theatre works. In some plays, it’s obvious. Macbeth is risk theatre’s paradigm play: Macbeth wagers the milk of human kindness for the crown but all is lost when Birnam Wood unexpectedly comes to high Dunsinane Hill. Some plays, such as Miller’s Death of a Salesman, require a little more imagination, but, in hindsight, work quite well through a risk theatre read. According to risk theatre, Loman wagers his dignity on the American Dream. The low-probability, high-consequence event happens when, contrary to expectation, Loman realizes his insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive. And some plays, such as King Lear, require a great deal of imagination, but reward you with a new take on an old play. According to risk theatre, Lear bets the well-being of the kingdom on his capacity to rule. It is a good bet: he has ruled wisely and made good decisions for many years. The unexpected event which derails his bet happens when senility overtakes him; he had not been counting on that. Risk theatre, unlike Hegel, is an infinitely plastic theory of drama, bounded only by the reader’s imagination.

There you have it: round one of a ten round battle royal: risk theatre versus the mighty Hegel!

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

“Aristotle’s Poetics: A Defense of Tragic Fiction” – Eden

pages 41-49 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

After two chapters on the political and cultic roots of Greek tragedy, A Companion to Tragedy turns to tragedy as literature in chapter three with Kathy Eden’s piece “Aristotle’s Poetics: A Defense of Tragic Fiction.” Here’s her author blurb from the beginning of the book:

Kathy Eden is Chavkin Family Professor of English and Professor of Classics at Columbia University. She is the author of Poetic and Legal Fiction in the Aristotelian Tradition (1986), Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition: Chapters in the Ancient Legacy and Its Humanist Reception (1997), and Friends Hold All Things in Common: Tradition, Intellectual Property and the “Adages” of Erasmus (2001).

Aristotle’s Poetics (written between 360-320 BC) has had an immense, twofold contribution to western thought. Not only does it dissect the inner workings of tragedy, it also created an entirely new genre called the philosophy of tragedy. As a guidebook on the history and social function of tragedy, it contributes to our understanding of literature. As a groundbreaking work in the new genre of the philosophy of tragedy, it contributes to our understanding of philosophy, particularly of aesthetics. It does so because it answers the question: “Why do we find the art of tragedy endearing when the action of tragedy is full of strife and sorrow?”

Because the contributions of the Poetics have been immense, philosophers, creative writers, playwrights, and students of drama continue to read it to this day. Most of the time, they read the Poetics as a standalone work. But it is not a standalone work. Aristotle wrote the Poetics as a rebuttal to his teacher Plato. And it is when readers understand that Plato is the secret unspoken antagonist lurking in the Poetics that the Poetics begin to make sense. Or so this is Eden’s argument in her chapter.

The Origins of Aristotle’s Poetics

Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, did not like mimetic arts or fiction. To Plato, the shortcoming of mimetic arts is that they copy reality, and, as copies, are imperfect and corrupt representations. The psychagogic power of fiction–as false copies of reality–lead the soul astray. Tragedy, as fiction and drama, is a mimetic art. Because it stirs the emotions, it is dangerous, something that Plato bans from his ideal state.

Take Homer’s Iliad as an example. It is a mimetic art of fiction. It represents war–a few days in the Trojan War, to be specific. But if you want to be a general, would you learn about war by reading (or listening) to the Iliad or by finding a general who is actually an expert in warfare? Although the Iliad has stories of generals and their tactics, it is not the real thing. It would be dangerous to read the Iliad and then go off into battle. True knowledge comes from doing. Or philosophizing, which is to understand the causes of why and what something is. Mimetic and fictional arts such as epic and drama are, to Plato, not serious, a form of ‘child’s play’ (paidia).

Plato also values truth because it is consistent. Fiction and the mimetic arts, however, portray change. They portray changes in the tragic agent in the face of misfortune. And dramatic change is based on probability. Change, being based on probability, is not truth. The truth to Plato is unchanging. Art which represents change based on plausibility and probability to Plato is dangerous, an attack on immutable truth.

All these things Plato taught Aristotle. But Aristotle wasn’t so sure. That’s why he wrote the Poetics, argues Eden. The Poetics is Aristotle’s rebuttal of Plato. It is Aristotle’s attempt to rehabilitate fiction and the mimetic arts as something worthwhile and wholesome.

How Aristotle Rehabilitates Tragedy in the Poetics

While agreeing with Plato that drama is an imitating or mimetic art, Aristotle disagrees that it is ‘child’s play’. Tragedy, according to Aristotle, is not paidia but a ‘serious’ (spoudaia) representation. And, as a serious representation, it is worthwhile. Thus, when we wonder why Aristotle insists that tragedy is a serious representation, to understand that, we have to recall that he is rebuking Plato for calling the mimetic arts ‘child’s play’.

Now, how is tragedy a ‘serious’ representation? Although based on probability (here student and teacher agree), the tragedian ‘must understand the causes of human action in the ethical and intellectual qualities of the agents’. Tragedy is serious in that the tragic poet must convincingly weave together character and intention into the structure of the events. No small feat.

And what about the danger Plato identifies of tragedy influencing the emotions to lead the soul astray? Aristotle agrees with Plato that art has a great power over the emotions. But, instead of rejecting these emotions, Aristotle would rather harness them for a greater good. The purpose of tragedy, according to Aristotle, is to arouse pity and fear. Why pity and fear? ‘Pity and fear’ writes Eden, ‘are instrument in judging action . . . In the Poetics (ch. 13) we pity those agents who suffer unfairly, while we fear for those who are like us’. So, because tragedy elicits pity and fear, it performs a function in that it sharpens our ability to judge human action. And, because it sharpens our ability to judge human action, tragedy performs a useful social function. It is thereby rehabilitated. Or so Eden interprets Aristotle.

Risk Theatre and Aristotelian Theory

In my book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected, I’ve developed a bold new 21st century model of tragedy. The feedback from the playwriting world has been fantastic. In the academic world, however, some critics wanted to see some more engagement with the existing body of tragic theory. This blog is a good place to respond. I could have done this in the book as well, but a decision was made at the time of writing to make the book accessible to as wide an audience as possible. The goal of the book is to start a 21st century art movement by reimagining the tragedy as a stage where risk is dramatized. Incorporating theoretical arguments would have detracted from the book’s main drive. So, what are the primary differences between risk theatre and Aristotle?

According to Aristotle, tragedy is ‘an imitation of human action that is serious’. According to risk theatre, tragedy is an imitation of a gambling act. The protagonist is tempted. The protagonist wagers a human asset (honour, the milk of human kindness, faith, the soul, etc.,) for the object of ambition (a crown, the opportunity to revenge, success, etc.,). And then the protagonist goes past the point of no return with a metaphorical roll of the dice.

According to Aristotle, there is a change (metabolē)–usually for the worse–in the hero’s fortune. This change is the result of hamartia, or an error. According to risk theatre, there is also a change, which is, again, usually for the worse. But this change is not due to error. The protagonist’s wager and course of action is reasonable. There is no mistake. The degree of success is high. What upsets the protagonist is an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event that comes out of left field.

According to Aristotle, the elements of the plot follow the rules of probability. There is, as Eden says, a ‘causal connection between events’. According to risk theatre, the elements of the plot do not follow the rules of probability. In risk theatre, the unlikeliest outcome takes place: Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill (e.g. Macbeth) or it turns out that the man searching for the patricide happens himself to be the patricide (e.g. Oedipus). Risk theatre can generate the unlikeliest outcome because of a truism with risk: the more risk we take on, the more we expose ourselves to unintended consequences. In other words, risk theatre is exciting because, in taking on too much risk, the protagonist breaks the causal connection between events.

According to Aristotle, the emotions tragedy generates are pity and fear. According to risk theatre, the emotions tragedy generates are anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for what the hero will wager and apprehension for how the hero’s best-laid plans will be upset by some black swan event.

According to Aristotle (and Eden’s interpretation of Aristotle), tragedy ‘sharpens its audience’s ability to judge human action’. According to risk theatre, tragedy sharpens its audience’s realization that low-probability, high-consequence events can defy the best-laid plans to shape life in unexpected ways. Tragedy, by dramatizing risk acts, warns us not to bite off more than we can chew. In this modern world where we go forwards in ever larger leaps and bounds, do we not need a risk theatre model of tragedy more than ever? By watching a cascading series of unintended consequences play out on stage, perhaps we will learn the wisdom of the old folk adage: ‘Keep some powder dry’.

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

“Tragedy and Dionysus” – Seaford

pages 25-38 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Two articles into A Companion to Tragedy and both argue for a ritual basis for ancient Greek tragedy. Surprising. You’d think a reference work such as this would provide more balance. The ‘tragedy has nothing to do with Dionysus’ school of thought gets short shrift in this edition. Although Dionysus is the patron god of tragedy, so few tragedies feature Dionysus that a school of thought has arisen declaring that ‘tragedy has nothing to do with Dionysus’. In this article, Seaford argues that, although most of the stories from Athenian tragedy do not feature Dionysus, the art of tragedy is ‘Dionysiac’. Seaford frames the central question in this way: ‘Can it make sense to call a narrative or drama Dionysiac if Dionysus himself plays no part in it?’

Seaford argues that Athenian tragedy is Dionysiac, as drama originated from the cult of Dionysus. Specifically, drama came into being when the chorus leader broke apart from the chorus to address the chorus. When the chorus responded in a refrain, drama was born. In addition, even if many of the surviving plays don’t feature Dionysus, the tragedy festival itself indubitably belonged to the cult of Dionysus: at the beginning of the festival, the image of Dionysus was brought into the city and a ‘sacred marriage’ took place between the image and the wife of a magistrate called the ‘King Archon’.

Another prominent ritual in Dionysus’ cult is, of course, booze! Seaford postulates that the social elements of drinking naturally led to gatherings, festivals, and other occasions fertile for the development of drama. From the Anthesteria, a minor and ancient spring festival of Dionysus sprang the City or the Great Dionysia, the major festival where tragedy took centre-stage (this is where Oedipus rexThe Oresteia, Hippolytus, and other plays were first performed). According to Seaford, the Great Dionysia arose in the 6th century BC to serve a political end:

Suffice it here to say that whereas the ancient festival of the Anthesteria had long centered around a key moment in the agricultural year, the opening of the new wine, the new Dionysia was largely designed to serve a political end: the display of the strength and magnificence of Athens–to itself and to others. We should also note that the organization and coordination of the new urban festival was greatly facilitated at this time by the introduction into Attica of (recently invented) coined money: the universal power of money, deployed at a single center or even by a single individual, is especially good at coordinating a complex new initiative, and tends in our period to replace the less flexible power of barter and traditional observance.

Now, this is interesting: “the new urban festival was greatly facilitated at this time by the introduction into Attica of (recently invented) coined money.” Am I hearing this right–money had something to do with the birth of tragedy? In my book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, I argued that tragedy arose as a backlash to the introduction of money in Attica (or Athens, as I call it). Money made it possible to buy, sell, and exchange human life and values like bacon bits and deer skins at the market. As such, money degraded life and human value by turning it into an object of financial exchange. A counter-monetary spirit arose. It sought form and expression and found its voice in the new art form of tragedy. In the risk theatre interpretation, tragedy rails against money by routing exchanges involving life and human value through the shadow market instead of the conventional money market. For example, one can buy a title or a degree with money in the conventional market. In tragedy, however, the use of money is strictly forbidden. To acquire a title in tragedy–such as Solness acquiring the title ‘master builder’ in Ibsen’s play–one has to pay in flesh and blood. Solness, to become master builder, pays with his happiness, and the happiness of those around him. Happiness for becoming the master builder: this is the sort of existential transaction that takes place in what I call the ‘shadow market’.

By routing exchanges through the shadow market, tragedy railed against the monetization of life and human value. In this way, tragedy shows how some things cannot be brought with money. In this way, tragedy revolts against the monetization of life and value. Now, in my book, I turned the story of how tragedy arose as a counter-monetary art into a myth. I didn’t feel that my position could be academically defended, so I mythologized the process by weaving it into existing stories about Croesus (the tragic ruler of Lydia who invented money), Solon (one of the wise men), and the tale of Diomedes and Glaucus’ meeting (out of Homer’s Iliad). But from what Seaford is saying, it seems that this strange and bold view that tragedy arose as a reaction to the invention of money could find an academic footing. This to me is most interesting. At the time I wrote The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, I would not have, in my wildest dreams, thought this possible.

But, it is possible. I checked the bibliography to Seaford’s article, and he does have a full length book on this topic: Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy (Cambridge University Press). It wasn’t available at my local public library (they can’t even get it interlibrary loan!). But I had to read it, and luckily there was a used copy available on Amazon. What a find! I’ll be reading and reviewing this book very soon, here’s the blurb:

How were the Greeks of the sixth century BC able to invent philosophy and tragedy? Richard Seaford argues that a large part of the answer can be found in another momentous development, the invention and rapid spread of coinage. By transforming social relations, monetization contributed to the concepts of the universe as an impersonal system (fundamental to Presocratic philosophy) and of the individual alienated from his own kin and from the gods, as found in tragedy.

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

“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.