The old, clunky Gilbert Murray translation of Euripides’ Bacchae ends with this from the chorus:
There be many shapes of mystery,
And many things God makes to be,
Past hope or fear.
And the end men looked for cometh not,
And a path is there where no man thought
So hath it fallen here.
The Greeks seemed to believe that when it came to the gods, you sacrifice, then duck. You make a deal and hope they will keep it. Wooden though Murray’s version of the lines may be, it sums up the feeling you often get at the end of a Greek tragedy: that something larger than you are has brushed against you, and whatever it was, it wasn’t all that concerned about your well-being.
As 21st century humans, we don’t recognize that kind of force too often. Or at least put it in those terms. We know there are overwhelming forces that buffet and drown us, currents in which our small vessels are lucky to stay afloat, but we often mark those down as huge sociopolitical things, economic factors that influence our daily lives, but in ways we scarcely notice or, if we do, we get used to. They won’t block us from our dreams, we tell ourselves, in what is a very Western (and especially American) tone of voice.
The Greeks, even though they started the whole Western thing, were hardly as optimistic. Theirs is dark wisdom that still makes sense in the back of our brains. We know we are ducking things we cannot face, and maybe those things have to do with those dreams we are chasing.
Really early in the first big critical discussion of tragedy—the Poetics—Aristotle draws a contrast between the characters of Tragedy and its sister, Comedy:
Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are…. The same distinction marks off Tragedy from Comedy; for Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.
Aristotle also goes on to say that the fall of the tragic hero comes from hamartia. It’s a term that people used to translate as “tragic flaw”, but some of the Classical scholars I know tell me that it’s an archery term for missing the mark, closer to “tragic error”.
I think that one of the changes that can take place in modern tragedies, especially in America, has to do with our perspective on what Aristotle is saying. Perhaps a good tragedy, I told myself, could come from precisely that sense we sometimes have as to how special we are as individuals, that each of us is, indeed, “better than in real life”. So I have Stephen Thorne as one of my principal characters—a theatre director who plans a disruptive version of the Bacchae, Euripides’ very disruptive play, to thumb his nose at a city where he has been neglected and overlooked for years. In case you don’t know the play, this is how the Muse Polymnia sums it up in the first pages of Vine:
The story, after all, is hard. King Pentheus of Thebes tries to put down the new worship of Dionysus, a cult that is turning the heads of his female subjects. Pentheus imprisons the Great God, dismisses him. For such disrespect, of course the divinity exacts revenge. Dionysus persuades the poor king to dress himself in the garb of the Maenads—the female devotees of the god. Dressed in regal drag, he may witness the sacred mysteries. or so the god tells him as he leads the tressed and fabulous king into the mountains, handing him over to the Maenads, who tear him limb from limb.
You can see why it could turn heads in a conservative city. But the mistake Stephen has made is that he imagined himself all that special in the first place, that the neglect of his talents was in no way justified, and that he can control the play once it commences. Serious hamartia, I hope, and I also hope you will enjoy and shudder as this most contemporary and American version of ancient Greek tragedy awakens and uncoils in your presence. Enjoy.