BMCR 2004.03.28

Radical Theatre: Greek Tragedy and the Modern World

, Radical theatre : Greek tragedy and the modern world. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. London: Duckworth, 2003. 1 online resource (174 pages).. ISBN 9781472502339. £10.99.

Greek tragedy often howls with pain; scholarship on Greek tragedy generally does not. So it may come as a jolt that in Rush Rehm’s (R.’s) latest book, Radical Theater: Greek Tragedy and the Modern World, the anguish of the scholarly voice often eclipses the agony of the tragic characters themselves. This volume may best be described as an intensely personal, deeply felt meditation on the power of Greek tragedy to expose and confront contemporary and modern social ills, including such blights on the human condition as racism, imperialism, rape, poverty, and genocide. Throughout the work, R.’s own voice rings clarion; extended passages on war in Greek tragedy are followed by R.’s urgent pleas for peace in our own era’s troubled Middle East. This juxtaposition of ancient and modern takes some getting used to, but in the end pays its dividends, as R. argues forcefully and persuasively for an American performance tradition directed “outward”, towards a theater engaged with a world too often crumbling beyond the curtain.

R. is nothing if not pugnacious, and R.’s introduction firmly sets its sights on performance theory, which, on R.’s view, has overstepped the boundaries of its discipline. For R., if every action is a performance, and every person a performer, the stage itself is pointless. R. aims, then, to restore importance and dignity to the Greek tragic stage by reaffirming its archetypal character, its structural brilliance, and above all, its capacity for performing and transmitting a compelling narrative. In fact, R. has very little patience for modern theater that has abandoned narrative “in favour of pastiche, visual imagery, non-linear montage, a preference for display over explanation, and for the personal over the social or political” (17). That last qualification, however, is of quite a different sort than the previous characteristics, and leads R. to assert — rather surprisingly — that such adaptations as Charles Mee’s Big Love (a version of Suppliants) and the campy Medea: The Musical constitute “a failure of the imagination” (39). It’s not, I think, that these productions are unimaginative (indeed, R. later confesses that Big Love possesses “wonderful comic energy” [51]), but that they fail to engage the type of social and political issues that R. finds so desperately needed in our equally desperate times. The postmodern adage “the personal is the political” holds no truck with R.; Italian weddings and closeted hubbies may be the stuff of entertaining theater, but not of a profound one. When thousands are perishing in refugee camps, it’s tough for R. to care if Jason will finally kick open his closet door.

The bulk of the book consists of five interconnected essays on Greek tragedy, designed to be read in conjunction, though functioning well enough as independent arguments. In the first, “Theatre, Artifice, Environment,” R. places Athenian tragedy within its physical and temporal contexts, as he outlines both the physical space of the theater of Dionysus, and (more briefly) its religious context. For R., the outdoor, environmental aspects of the Greek theater have not been sufficiently considered when evaluating the force of the other in tragedy, particularly in such Thebano-centric plays as Oidipous Tyrannos and Euripides’ Antiope. The ‘polyphony’ of the Athenian environment — birds, wind, sun, and other ambient features — ensures that when landscape is referred to (such as the invocation to the sun at Antigone l.100) the lines between Athens and the other are blurred, not strengthened. For R., the sun shines equally on us all — Theban, Athenian, Balkan, and Iraqi — and the very environment of the Greek theater ensures that the greater world is addressed and assimilated, not closed off or banished beyond our borders.

The next two chapters are more philological in focus. Chapter 2, “Tragedy and Fear,” analyzes terms for fear in tragedy (mostly, but not exclusively, phobos, tarbos, deima and their compounds). After gathering an impressive roster of examples, R. argues that fear in tragedy is culturally embedded, not personally embedded, or, to put it another way, that in Greek tragedy characters fear on a societal level, not a selfish one. When the Danaids of Aeschylus’ Suppliants fear their forced marriage, it’s a fear of a social mechanism implicated within larger matrices of oppression, not just a personal crisis. At the beginning of his drama, Oedipus fears not for his own personal situation but for the future of his city: his is a concern directed outward in time. R. then segues (rather startlingly) to the types of things we (Americans) should be fearful about in our future, like nuclear waste: “By the year 2010, the United States inventory of spent nuclear fuel will reach 62,000 metric tons, which the government proposes to store permanently in an earthquake-active region of Nevada — Yucca Mountain — where it will remain radioactive for more than 10,000 years (and dangerously so for over 1,000 years, which is almost five times longer than the United States has existed as a nation)” (58). For R., American bourgeois drama — with its flock of Seinfeldian eccentrics and petty personal anxieties — fails to give fear its tragic due, though I am less convinced than R. that in Greek tragedy “fear trades on the public and the cultural far more than the private and personal” (63). (Isn’t all fear culturally determined? Why force a division?) Chapter three, dubbed “The Fate of Agency, the Agency of Fate” puts moira and tukhe through their tragic paces, and argues that Greeks had a far more supple appreciation of human agency than we might suppose given the prominence of Fate as a leitmotif. For R., what counts as the tragic question — ti draso ? ‘what shall I do?’ — is not an invitation to capitulation as much as a call to arms; dramas such as Philoctetes and the Oresteia present fate as the catalyst by which characters must make difficult ethical and moral choices (precisely the type of choices we as a nation must make when confronted by attacks from without).

The fourth chapter, “Tragedy and Ideology,” is R.’s most politically charged. After describing the events of 9/11, R. emphasizes the role of ideology in both the attacks themselves and America’s response to them. He argues that part of the power and importance of tragedy was that it allowed — in fact, encouraged — explicit criticism of state institutions, including patriarchy, the military, and even democracy. After glancing at passages in Herodotus and Aeschylus, R. thunders against wars that serve only the elite, though putatively waged on behalf of the masses (105): “Even a cursory look at history explodes the claim that the US was fighting for justice, democracy, or self-determination when it overthrew (or tried to overthrow) the governments of Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Vietnam (1954-1975), Cuba (1961-present), Zaire (1961), Dominican Republic (1965), Laos (1965-1973), Cambodia (1970-5, then supporting the genocidal Pol Pot regime), Chile (1973), Angola (1975-90), Nicaragua (1980-90), Granada (1983), Panama (1989), Iraq (1990-present), Serbia (1998-2000) and Afghanistan (2001-2).” A fifth chapter, “Tragedy and Time,” continues the emphasis on evaluating Greek tragedy as a mode that looks to past calamities as a way of preventing — or at least understanding — future ones. Greek tragedy is not“an orgasmatron of emotional suspense or release” but time spun from multiple viewpoints, leading inexorably to conflict. Intergenerational strife results from a failure to agree on a common interpretation of the past; tragic action — as in the Elektra and the Oresteia — is largely propelled by a new generation’s quest to literally bury the history-makers. A “better tomorrow,” then as now, may only be contemplated after facing honestly the failures of the past (126).

In general, one has the sense that the book was written in a white heat, and R.’s prose (ironically) takes no prisoners: whole schools of scholarship are lumped together with such phrases as “some critics” (109), “literary critics” (80), and “some classicists claim” (66), while controversial scholarly positions (e.g. “the afterlife offered few attractions for the Greeks,” [46]) are often pronounced ex cathedra. But this is of a piece with the book as the whole, a work obviously intended as a provocation, not a salve. Physically, the volume is very handsomely produced, with just a lone typo (“the Thebes”, pg. 27) and no other apparent calamities. The cover art is so striking that the book was in fact snatched out of my hands at two different coffeehouses (a personal record).

In many ways this is a difficult book to evaluate, or even to summarize. Readers on the left side of the political spectrum (in all fairness, this reviewer included) will smile favorably on R.’s demonization of what are largely right-wing priorities (a war on terror, a defense of marriage from quite different terrors, a general valorization of capitalism, etc.). Readers on the right — if they finish the book at all — will likely be infuriated by R.’s swipes at Ronald Reagan, at the military, and at capital punishment. So it goes. One reservation I might note is that by keeping his argument au courant, R. runs the risk of writing a book on Greek tragedy that can actually go out of date; it’s part of the tragedy of our own condition that current atrocities will always be replaced by further atrocities, and a reader in 2014 may (sadly) find the book less relevant. But it would be a shame if readers in 2004 shied away on that account. R.’s passion bursts forth on every page and demands that (in the words of a dramatist whom I think R. might admire) “attention must be paid.”