Fury, angst, cock-eyed history, Dame Janet Suzman and ancient Greek theatre

Sophocles
Bust of Sophocles, Athenian playwright and author of the Oedipus Rex (Oedipus Tyrannos).

Dame Janet Suzman recently made some cock-eyed remarks about theatre being a ‘white invention’, it coming from the (ancient) Greeks via Shakespeare, provoking a lot of fury, angst and uncertain history. I’m not going to add to the rage, but I will say something about the Greek side of the question.

‘Ancient Greece’ was in fact more than a thousand separate communities spread over the Mediterranean and centuries of time. The Greeks were in modern Greece, Asia Minor, Sicily and mainland Italy, and Spain. Their communities were tiny by modern standards, the largest being smaller than Luxembourg. While they spoke more-or-less the same language, worshipped the same gods and shared some cultural values, they were also very different from one another and fought almost unceasingly.

The words theatre, tragedy, comedy, thespian (from the early tragedian, Thespis) all come from Greek, directly or indirectly.

Tragedy and comedy are often thought of as being characteristically Athenian, even if the origins are uncertain, and in Athens they probably started to develop into a recognisable form from the late 6th and 5th centuries BCE, though there isn’t much exactness or confidence about this. Their development is often linked to the invention and growth of that peculiarly Athenian thing, democracy, and it can’t be separated from its civic context; it was public in every sense.

ancient-greece-2
Greek theatres looked a bit like this.

Athenian theatre wasn’t like ours. Our theatre can trace itself back to Athens, but they did things differently there. In Athens it was something like a combination of the Olympics, Christmas, Question Time and BBC Radio 4. (This would-be snappy comparison won’t stand close examination.) Plays, tragedies and comedies, were shown during certain religious festivals. As ever with the Greeks, it was highly competitive and the plays were judged and ranked, the winner being awarded a bronze tripod. Wealthy citizens were selected to fund the production of competing plays. At times there was a public ‘dole’ to pay for the admission of poorer citizens. Before getting too carried away at how fine and beautiful a democratic thing this was, it’s worth noting that women and slaves were excluded.

Tragedies were almost always reworkings, sometimes highly original and even tendentious and controversial, of traditional myths. These would explore contemporary questions of morality, mores and politics. Think (very crudely and approximately) of a nativity play in which, say, Roman imperialism and Jewish nationalism are looked at critically, and in which both have merit but are nonetheless irreconcilable, resulting in a ‘tragic’ conflict. (An outline of Aristotle’s enormously influential definition of tragedy can be read here.)

The same distinction marks off Tragedy from Comedy; for Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.

Aristotle, Poetics (translated S H Butcher)

Comedies, those classed as Old Comedy that is to say, were more like Have I Got News for You spliced with panto. There was political comment, personal abuse, obscenity and fantasy—cloud-cuckoo-land comes from Aristophanes’ The Birds, and is the name of an avian kingdom situated between earth and heaven, from where birds are stealing the smoke from human sacrifices to the gods. They were earthy; one begins with a character voiding his bowels and calling on the goddess of childbirth to aid him. The New Comedy was much more like ours, comedies of situations and manners, and you can still see the same in theatres and on television now. (The Romans adapted many of these from the Greek originals and Up Pompeii with Frankie Howerd isn’t far off the mark.)

tragic actor masks
A marble relief depicting theatre masks as worn by actors in both Greek and Roman tragedies and comedies. 2nd century CE (Vatican Museums, Rome). Credit: Mark Cartwright 2014.

Greek plays also had music, peculiar rituals and conventions (some originating from the religious aspect) and were in many ways strange to us. They can still be read and performed intelligibly and well, if not in a way that recreates the originals fully or entirely accurately. That they were different, very different, is hardly surprising and it’s worth remembering that they were watched by very different audiences in very different ways. Where does this leave us?

Dame Janet said ‘Theatre is a white invention, a European invention, and white people go to it. It’s in their DNA. It starts with Shakespeare … Theatre is a totally European invention, as is tragedy. Other countries don’t do tragedy. It’s an invention by the Greeks.’ Leaving aside the boldness of the generalisations—and there’s no need to be priggish about these, we’re not always speaking on oath and Suzman is an unlikely racist—there seems to be one important confusion here. Yes, the Greeks invented something that became modern Western theatre and what they did and thought is an important part of dramatic tradition. But their theatre-going and ours simply aren’t the same, including who, how and why. Who invented tragedy doesn’t have much to do with who now watches it. It’s not white people, it’s a certain kind of bourgeoisie for the most part, social, economic and cultural. If it were in ‘white’ European DNA somehow, then the whitest, most European parts of the UK would be awash in well-attended theatres. Drama, tragedy and theatre are no more in our DNA than hummus, even if some of the population likes both.

The Banker by Reginald Gray (1930–2013).
The Banker by Reginald Gray. Perhaps he’d like to spend a lot of money on winning The Drama Apprentice.

Do we have something to learn from the Athenians? It’d be easy to tremble at the knees over their mass participation, their civic sense, their giddy democracy and all that, but in a population of 60 million with vastly greater diversity and enormous resources of private leisure that isn’t going to be recreated. Perhaps if some wealthy bankers spent their bonuses (yes, I know … the bankers, the bonuses, the bonuses, the bankers) on sponsoring plays, with a driving urge to get one over on their peers by creating the most successful, we might have more popular theatre. Especially if the winners were publicly celebrated. God knows there are enough television competition models out there. It could even be an annual Christmas affair, adapting the Nativity and traditional panto stories, like Puss in Boots. But in the end, it’s just not the same. For me, make what plays you like and let whomever wants to come watch them.

Paul Fishman (Bristol, December 2014)

You can read my piece on ‘Ten ways that ancient Greece changed the world’ in the January 2015 issue of All About History.


Theatre masks image credit: Mark Cartwright 2014 (Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike).

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