pages 163-180 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009
This well-organized essay in the Blackwell Companion to Tragedy is divided into six sections: “Myth, History, and Poetry,” “How to Make a New Myth,” “Innovation within Existing Myths,” “Mythical Innovation and Audience Expectation,” “Etiology,” and “Secondary Mythical Allusions.” The essay explores the long relationship the dramatic art form of tragedy shared with myth. Here is a summary of its main points.
Myth, History, and Poetry
Athenian tragedy–with a few exceptions–dramatized myth. Myth to the ancients, however, overlapped with actual history. As well, myth itself was fluid, malleable, and alive. As a result, although Athenian tragedy is based on myth, many different reconstructions and interpretations were available to the tragedians. To draw on myth is an advantage, not a disadvantage. Myth is far from a straitjacket.
How to Make a New Myth
There are interstitial spaces between the received events of myth in which the poet-tragedian may create new stories. Myth has a start point and end point that is set; the space in between is free. Take the myth of the Seven against Thebes. In the start point of the myth, Polyneices attacks his hometown of Thebes. In the end point of the myth, Polyneices kills and is killed by his brother. Creon, whose son is dead, rules Thebes as regent. Antigone, Polyneices’ sister is also dead. In the space between the start point and end points Sophocles’ creates his play Antigone: Antigone’s defiance of Creon, her love interest with Creon’s son, and the suicide of Antigone and Haemon are all Sophoclean innovations, a “new myth” that fills up the interstitial spaces between the canonical beginning and end points. These interstitial spaces are fertile grounds for the poetic imagination.
Another way to rewrite myth is by using the deus ex machina device: here, the plot can turn whichever way, even in defiance of myth, and the god appears at the last second to set the record straight. Euripides was especially fond of the deus ex machina device.
Innovation within Existing Myths
Sommerstein lays down a law that dictates how far poets could go in reshaping myths: “In a telling of any given story, any element may be altered, so long as the alteration does not impact severely on other stories which are not, on that occasion, being told.” Thus, in retellings of the myth of the Danaids, Hypermestra must always marry Lynceus because they give birth to descendants who will produce Perseus, Heracles, and many other heroes. Beyond this, however, much innovation is possible and Sommerstein provides many examples.
Mythical Innovation and Audience Expectation
This is the longest section and the most far-reaching. In it, Sommerstein talks about how ancient audiences must have understood and watched tragedies differently than modern audiences. In Euripides’ tragedy Medea, ancient audiences will have known that Jason is playing with fire in crossing Medea, a powerful magic-user. They will have known that their children die, though not by Medea’s hand–their death by their mother’s hand was, according to Sommerstein, Euripides’ innovation. Ancient audiences would have been expecting Medea to harm Jason–or his new girlfriend. Modern audiences, on the other hand, know, most of the time, that Medea is the play in which the mother kills her children: the fame of the play precedes the play. This is a powerful, and little known distinction between ancient and modern viewings of the play: we know what happens; ancients, even though better-versed in myth, did not.
Myth, far from being a straitjacket, gave ancient playwrights a valuable tool that is underappreciated today: the ability to mislead and misdirect audience expectations. When they bring about the unanticipated outcome, the ancient audience is shocked, and amused.
In this short section, Sommerstein talks about how Athenian poet-dramatists dramatized the creation of real-world rites, customs, and institutions through myth. Euripides was quite fond of drama as etiology: in Suppliants, for example, Euripides “explains” the real-world friendship between Athens and Argos through the action. Aeschylus, too, in the Oresteia, dramatizes the creation of homicide court at the Areopagus.
Secondary Mythical Allusions
Secondary mythical allusions occur, says Sommerstein, when characters (or the chorus) in a drama refer to other myths that are not being dramatized. By comparing their own situations to other well-known myths, characters are able to shine a different light, as it were, on the action of the play they are in. Of Sommerstein’s many examples, one from Aeschylus’ Oresteia stands out. In the Oresteia, Orestes has killed his mother at Apollo’s behest. The Furies, ancient spirits who punish blood crimes, pursue him to the Areopagus, where Orestes is being tried. He is defended by Apollo and persecuted by the Furies. Apollo suggests to the Furies that, just as Zeus had pardoned Ixion, they should pardon Orestes. But his argument is lame: the audience would have known from the Ixion myth that Ixion was a very bad person and Zeus was, in fact, wrong to pardon him (because after his pardon Ixion tries to seduce Zeus’ wife Hera!). These secondary mythical allusions, writes Sommerstein, enrich the textual density of the play. While in the Oresteia, Orestes is innocent, the remark from Apollo would suggests otherwise. By connecting different myths through secondary allusions, dramatists challenged their audiences.
I enjoyed this well-organized and concise essay. Sommerstein’s arguments fit together perfectly: after reading a few sentences, I could see where he was going, and his examples were spot on. This was very welcome after finishing a rambling book yesterday that, even after reading many pages, I was never sure where the author was going, if anywhere. The straightforwardness of Sommerstein’s essay is a sign that he has been thinking about myth and tragedy for a long time. The lack of direction in that other book I finished yesterday, I think, is a sign that the author–who is a famous world-expert–and the editors were working under too tight a timeline.
The thing that I am most grateful to learn from Sommerstein’s essay is that modern audiences do not watch Greek tragedies in the same way that the ancients did. Modern audiences, in most cases, already know the endings. Ancient audiences, while they knew the myths, would not know how the dramatist would write or rewrite the myth: a great amount of freedom is possible. Sommerstein’s example of this was from Euripides’ Medea, where he argued that Medea’s killing of her children would have caught the ancient audience off-guard. I can see from his examples how Euripides has, indeed, crafted his play to make the audience think what happens is not going to happen until the last second. There is more of a gulf between the ancients and the moderns than what we like to believe. A musical analogy would be moderns listening to J.S. Bach. Bach wrote a contrapuntal style of music where different voices would play off each other. Listeners in Bach’s time would have followed the distinct voices or lines. Many listeners today hear the harmonies generated by the voices rather than the voices themselves. The experience is different than what the composer was trying to achieve. But still enjoyable. It is a difference we should be aware of.
This got me thinking: today’s famous plays will be understood very, very differently two hundred, five hundred, and two thousand years from now. Hard to believe, but, if Sommerstein’s arguments are correct, it will be inevitable that, as audiences, cultures, and education changes, so too the thrill we get out of watching theatre. One way, I think, that playwrights can ensure that their plays will be “correctly” understood, is to adhere to a theory or model of drama. A model serves as an anchor of interpretation. There are many options. Today one can be an Aristotelian, a Hegelian, a Nietzschean, or one can try Brecht’s epic theatre or Miller’s Tragedy of the Common Man. There too is my burgeoning theory of tragedy called risk theatre, where risk is become the dramatic fulcrum of the action.
Though Sommerstein’s comments are directed to myths and plays in ancient Athens, the myths did not stop with ancient Athens. The old Attic myths are still alive today. I curate an international theatre competition called the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, now in its fourth year. Last year’s winner, Madison Wetzell’s The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, was a retelling of the Prometheus legend. I wrote a review of this fantastic play here. Even today, the myths are alive, changing, expanding, growing, being retold. Imagine that.
Allan H. Sommerstein is Professor of Greek at the University of Nottingham. His publications include Aeschylean Tragedy (1996), Greek Drama and Dramatists (2002), and editions of the plays and fragments of Aeschylus (2008) and of Aristophanes’ eleven comedies (1980-2002). In a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, he is preparing, with five collaborators, a two-volume study of The Oath in Archaic and Classical Greece.
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Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil