Skip to main content

Anne Carson lives in Michigan. She teaches at the University of Michigan and at McGill University, where she is the Director of Graduate Studies, Classics. She was twice a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was honored with the Lannan Award for Poetry and Pushcart Prize for Poetry. In 2000, she received the MacArthur Genius fellowship. Her most recent book is Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera.


Tragedy: A Curious Art Form

Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief. Ask a headhunter why he cuts off human heads. He'll say that rage impels him and rage is born of grief. The act of severing and tossing away the victim's head enables him to throw away the anger of all his bereavements.1Perhaps you think this does not apply to you. Yet you recall the day your wife, driving you to your mother's funeral, turned left instead of right at the intersection and you had to scream at her so loud other drivers turned to look. When you tore off her head and threw it out the window they nodded, changed gears, drove away.

Grief and rage-you need to contain that, to put a frame around it, where it can play itself out without you or your kin having to die. There is a theory that watching unbearable stories about other people lost in grief and rage is good for you-may cleanse you of your darkness. Do you want to go down to the pits of yourself all alone? Not much. What if an actor could do it for you? Isn't that why they are called actors? They act for you. You sacrifice them to action. And this sacrifice is a mode of deepest intimacyof you with your own life. Within it you watch [yourself]act out the present or possible organization of your nature. You can be aware of your own awareness of this nature as you never are at the moment of experience. The actor, by reiterating you, sacrifices a moment of his own life in order to give you a story of yours.

Story continues below advertisement

Curious art form, curious artist. Who was Euripides? The best short answer I've found to this is an essay by B.M.W. Knox, who says of Euripides what the Corinthians (in Thucydides) said of the Athenians, "that he was born never to live in peace with himself and to prevent the rest of mankind from doing so." Knox's essay is called "Euripides: The Poet As Prophet."2 To be a prophet, Knox emphasizes, requires living in and looking at the present, at what is really going on around you. Out of the present the future is formed. The prophet needs a clear, dry, unshy eye that can stand aloof from explanation and comfort. Neither will be of interest to the future.

One thing that was really going on for much of Euripides' lifetime was war-relatively speaking, world war. The Peloponnesian War began 431BCand lasted beyond Euripides' death. It brought corruption, distortion, decay and despair to society and to individual hearts. He used myths and legends connected with the Trojan War to refract his observations of this woe. Not all his plays are war plays. He was also concerned with people as people-with what it's like to be a human being in a family, in a fantasy, in a longing, in a mistake. For this exploration too he used ancient myth as a lens. Myths are stories about people who become too big for their lives temporarily, so that they crash into other lives or brush against gods. In crisis their souls are visible.

To be present when that happens is Euripides' playwriting technique. His mood, as Walter Benjamin said of Proust's, is "a perfect chemical curiosity."3

There is in Euripides some kind of learning that is always at the boiling point. It breaks experiences open and they waste

themselves, run through your fingers. Phrases don't catch them, theories don't hold them, they have no use. It is a theater of sacrifice in the true sense. Violence occurs; through violence we are intimate with some characters onstage in an exorbitant way for a brief time; that's all it is.

H E R A K L E S

Q: Will you admit this fact, that we are at a turning point? A: If it's a fact it's not a turning point.1

Story continues below advertisement

Herakles is a two-part man. Euripides wrote for him a two-part play. It breaks down in the middle and starts over again as does he. Wrecks and recharges its own form as he wrecks and recharges his own legend. Two-part: son of both Zeus (god) and Amphitryon (man) he is immortal, maybe-experts disagree and he himself is not sure. Container of uncontainable physical strength, he civilizes the world by vanquishing its monsters then returns home to annihilate his own wife and children. Herakles is a creature whose relation to time is a mess: if you might be immortal you live in all time and no time at the same time. You end up older than your own father and more helpless than your own children. Herakles is a creature whose relation to virtue is a mess: human virtue derives from human limitation and he seems to have none; gods' virtue does not exist. Euripides places him in the midst of an awareness of all this. But awareness for Herakles is no mental event, it comes through flesh.

Herakles' flesh is a cliché. Perfect physical specimen, he cannot be beaten by any warrior, by any athlete, by any monster on the earth or under it. The question whether he can be beaten even by death remains open; it is a fact that he has gone down to Hades and come back alive: here is where the play starts. This fact becomes the turning point-the overturning point-of his cliché.

How do you overturn a cliché? From inside. The first eight hundred lines of the play will bore you, they're supposed to.

Euripides assembles every stereotype of a Desperate Domestic Situation and a Timely Hero's Return in order to place you at the very heart of Herakles' dilemma, which is also Euripides' dilemma: Herakles has reached the boundary of his own myth, he has come to the end of his interestingness. Now that he's finished harrowing hell, will he settle back on the recliner and watch TV for the rest of time? From Euripides' point of view, a playwright's point of view, the dilemma is practical. A man who can't die is no tragic hero. Immortality, even probable immortality, disqualifies you from playing that role. (Gods, to their eternal chagrin, are comic). For this practical dilemma Euripides' solution is simple. From inside the cliché he lets Herakles wreck not only his house, his family, his perfection, his natural past, his supernatural future, but also the tragedy itself. Into the first half of the play he packs an entire dramatic praxis, complete with reversals, recognitions, laments, revenge, rejoicing, suspense and death. This melodrama ends at 814. The actors leave the stage. You may think it's over and head for the door.

But if you stay you will see Herakles pull the whole house of this play down around himself, tragic conventions and all.

Then from inside his berserker furor he has to build something absolutely new. New self, new name for the father, new definition of God. The old ones have stopped. It is as if the world broke off. Why did it break off? Because the myth ended. If you pay attention to the chorus-especially their last utterance which is very, very brief-you will hear them make a strange remark. After the murder by Herakles of his own family they respond (992ff/102off)*:

Story continues below advertisement

*Please note that the first set of figures given refers to the line numbers of the present translation, the second to those of the Greek text.

...these evils here belonging to the son of Zeus go far beyond anything in the past.

..............

What groaning, what lament, what song of death, what dance of Hades shall I do?

The Greek word chorosmeans a dance accompanied by song, also the people who perform the dance. One of the functions of the tragic chorus is to reflect on the action of the play and try to assign it some meaning. They typically turn to the past in their search for the meaning of the present-scanning history and myth for a precedent. It was Homer who suggested we stand in time with our backs to the future, face to the past. What if a man turns around? Then the chorus will necessarily fall silent. This story has not happened before. Notice they do not dance again.

Let the future begin.

As we look back from the future at this old tragedy and its (all too contemporary) brutalized and brutalizing hero, we might

consider some aspects of the play and its production that are foreign to modern tastes or expectation. Nowadays we think of a play as something that happens inside a small black box with artificial lighting. The ancient theater of Dionysos at Athens could seat 12,000to15,000spectators and its plays were performed in daylight, starting at dawn. The backdrop of the theatrical space (the space in a modern theater that appears when the curtains part) was formed by open air. At Athens the audience

Herakles looked out on miles and miles of Aegean Sea. No curtain, very little set. Closest to the audience was a round orchestra("dancing space") where the chorus performed its songs and dances; behind this, a stage building of some kind (e.g. Herakles' house) where the actors went in and out. Two parodoi ("side roads") permitted entrances and exits from the wings. The play's action was performed in the small area between the orchestra and the stage building. Violence was not presented onstage. Violent acts and death were at times audible while happening inside the stage building or narrated afterwards by an eyewitness (usually the Messenger). Occasionally the consequences of violent acts that had taken place inside were extruded onto the stage on a mechanism called the ekkyklema("rolling platform") e.g. the mayhem visited by Herakles upon his family. Think tableau. In a theater of such scale, much of the audience's visual experience would have been an appreciation of tableau-a design of bodies moving or posed in space a long distance away. Hence the conceptual importance and symbolic possibilities of posture: you can read the plot of a play off the sequence of postures assumed by its characters. Up is winning, down is losing, bent is inbetween. Herakles' unlucky family is shown at first semi-prostate on the stage in supplication for their lives, then briefly upright while Herakles champions them, then strewn as corpses. Herakles himself enters gloriously upright but is soon reduced to a huddled and broken form. His task in the last third of the play is to rise from this prostration, which he does with the help of Theseus. Euripides makes clear that Herakles exits at the end leaning on his friend. Herakles' reputation in myth and legend otherwise had been that of lonehand hero. Here begins a new Heraklean posture.

Story continues below advertisement

Meanwhile throughout the play this image of collaborative heroism is embodied, movingly, in the tableau of the chorus. They are old men; they lean on sticks or on each other. All mortals come to this. Gods remain a problem. You will hear gods' names and see their consequences rawly displayed throughout the speeches and the action. You will sympathize with the chorus who cower before them and also with Herakles who decides not to believe in them-not to believe, that is, in the story of his own life. Bold move. Perhaps he is a tragic hero after all.

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter
To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies