New tragic form, old tragic sense in Contemporary World Theater

When Phrynichus first wrote tragedy by composing The Miletus Conquest, drawing on recent for his age historical events, he showed the way that the new for this period form of literature and art could follow (dramatic text and stage presentation).  However, reminding the Athenian audience of “familiar wrongs” and the challenge for immediate acceptance of responsibility for the destruction of Miletus and other Hellenic cities of the Asia Minor coast by the Persians was painful for all.  For this reason this new way form of writing was adopted, but its themes were rejected by fifth century Athenian society and writers.  As such, mythology (with the exception of very few cases as seen for example in Aeschylus’ The Persians) became the popular source that tragedy would draw its subjects from, and since then it was established. The myth’s unhistorical time, its elsewhere and other times tale, the echoes of the cultural past in combination with values and ideas of the ancient Greek thought and civilization (fate, tragic sin, nemesis, hubris, catharsis) compose the canvas on which works of the ancient tragic poets are developed.

And how about history, the terror of the Peloponnesian war, violence, disease and death, the people’s ambition and the war protagonists’ the  personal responsibility for their participation in it are?  For these, only indirectly, suggested or allegorically are given in the tragedies, through the heroes’ attitude and behavior that belong to the mythological/unrealistic level.  In this sense, tragedy loses enough from contemporary time, fails to produce events faithfully, to dramatize persons and events of History; manages, however, to gain in terms of meaning and content, in existential and metaphysical level, as, through the myth, catches and expresses the general and the universal.  Through the occasional example, it succeeds in expressing the collective and the diachronic, while the partial result will be searched in the source that caused it.

Characteristically, we can say that the Trojan war gave the tragic poets the themes to create a number of tragedies that belong to same “cycle” (Hecuba, Helen, Trojan Women, Philoctetes, Agamemnon) and to speak to mankind about the absurdity and the uselessness of the war, the blindness of violence, the terror of  violent death, the uselessness of sacrifice and heroism.

In world theater history, the same themes are repeated many times over in various genres (dramas, tragedies, melodramas, comedies, parodies) in various aesthetic forms (classicism, romanticism, realism, symbolism), either as ancient Greek mimetic repetitions of the originals (Seneca, Alfieri, Veraren), or as original intertextual creations or in other forms (Hoffmanstall, Anouilh, Giraudoux, O’ Neill).

However, as indicated since 1957 (?) by George Steiner in his treatise Death of Tragedy,  tragedy as genre, the way we know it through time, is not possible to exist in modern time.  The changes that have occurred ideologically and culturally as well as aesthetically and morphologically are many and of such kind that tragedy cannot surpass them. Here, however, must make a distinction:  there is a difference between tragedy as a theatrical or literary piece, and tragedy as a means of conception and expression of reality.  There is a difference between the text morphology and its characteristics and its essence and content.   In this respect, it becomes clear that tragedy in Shakespeare or Racine mean different than in ancient times, while the “tragic” element can be traced even in other writers (F. G. Lorca) or theatrical forms (the theater of the absurd) without morphologically reminding tragedy.

Therefore, even though we agree that tragedy as genre is dead, the tragic aspect as a form of human existence still exists, and cannot be different than that, as it is written in human nature itself: desires that surpass any measure and reach excess, selfish tendencies of self-promotion and imposition, illogical demands that violate any moral principle, rejection of ethical rules and  principles of social coexistence, are some of the causes that can lead any human being to tragic situations.  To these, if we add the facts of contemporary reality, the economic, cultural, religious, ideological and other factors that shape individual consciousness and group behavior, then it becomes clear that tragedy and tragicality never ceased to exist, but they always find ways to develop.  What makes the difference is the way, the conventions, and the forms, which, however, do not have to do with the content.

Violence in contemporary big cities, international terrorism, major social unfairness, huge socio-economic conflicts of the advanced postindustrial societies and the third world masses, repression and human abuse brought forth by man, rejection of the laws of nature that accumulative results in major ecological problems that threaten man’s future, displacement of human values and ideals, fanaticism and racist phenomena, ideological deterioration and its replacement by unprecedented economic, social, and state origin, compose the new reality out of which tragedy can draw its material.

The rules on which ancient tragedy was based are constant, and the only difference is that we notice is that today it is their content and/or their form has changed: Hubris as man’s inborn tendency to surpass the limits that have been set for him and to impose his ego on things and situations is most  evident in technology and the infinite applications it offers to man.  The contempt for nature’s laws with the progress witnessed in genetics, molecular biology, robotics, and so provocatively promote the image of a “different” human being, bears huge dangers for man’s physiognomy on earth.  Therefore, “fate” that  was an inescapable reality for the ancient Greek world and for tragedy as well, it may coexist in our days in man’s effort to change things radically and to prevail selfishly on universe.

Out of this may come “ate” and “nemesis” that will destroy the person who commits hubris.  Here are some of the possible sources that can cause tragic situations in twenty first century’s man and to be themes for development by modern tragedy.

But the “uncaused passion”, the “suffering innocence”, the collision of the hero’s individual will with superior powers and the conscious march towards the end, without any bending in his sentiments and ethical values, today all these can find their parallels in a marvelous way in a individual/personal or collective/social level, when personal and impersonal powers of economic, national or other interests come to suppress and violate the rights and other values of individuals or peoples, principles that have been gained with pain and struggle through the centuries. This uneven juxtaposition,  this condemned struggle of the weak against the strong is so evident in our days on a multiple level that it can be another source of  development for future tragic depictions.

Finally, man’s hemming in transcendental descent principles and mechanisms that surpass the limits of any possible logical interpretation and which work catalytically upon society’s and history’s reality still exists.  Their metaphysical descent and their reference, however, to extraterrestrial personal (gods) or impersonal (fate) powers have been totally replaced by other factors of intercosmic and societal descent.  It has to do with bureaucratic mechanisms, economic trusts, and any kind of open or secretive organizations, unions, and businesses that surpass nations, societies, and civilizations and have a universal control.  It has to do with globalization itself  which as a contemporary expression of a dire law dominates human beings in this world and tortures them. These are (or may be) some of the subjects than potentially be used (developed) by modern dramaturgy, which in turn will provide works that will be distinguished for their tragic content and which will express the same ideas, the same situations (comparatively speaking) with ancient Greek tragedy.

Theater, as the sensitive recipient of similar situations, is the diachronic and edifying system which does not only present events, but also comments on them, judges them, intervenes in them, and shapes the audience’s consciousness, being an excellent pedagogical instrument.  This is because of the dynamism of the image, the representation of the stage symbolism, and  the directness of the communication between the audience and the scenic (stage) spectacle.

Today we live in the spectacle society with image and speech imaging playing a most important role with the help of informatics and every kind of artistic manifestation.  Theater, being under pressure, adjusts its basic characteristic form, its word and dialogue, and enriches them with elements of supervision (educative elements?).  This way, the “word’s image” that had  traditionally existed since the ancient Greek drama period, is substituted by the “image’s word”, and theater changes into a modern form of a complex spectacle.

Similar changes also occur in text, that is the dramatic form of the theatrical work.  Intertextuality and dramatization, metatheater and performance are the modern forms of theatrical expression, absolutely set in the postmodern, multicultural time’s framework and expectations.   As such, the spectator, who is the only and final judge of the stage spectacle, is no longer the individual of a homogenous ethnic, educational, socio-cultural group.  The immediacy and viability that once existed between stage and audience does not occur anymore.  In a multiethnic environment, in a globalized social reality, a single theatrical world cannot exist.  This is a reason why dramaturgy must adjust to and embrace elements equally heterogeneous as well as interpersonal, including the spectators’ expectations and hopes.

Modern day writers should use the text, not simply as a “meaningful vehicle” which is comprised by different as well as heterogeneous sub-elements.  The original canvas may be interpreted as a “source text” which, because of its importance and its multisemeiological capabilities, can be exploited in positive and various ways.

In a similar way can be considered  (or usually can be) an ancient classical text (tragedy)or the work of a later author with a great repute as well (Shakespeare).  To this text come other ones of  less importance from various cultural traditions, with different semeiotic and connotative elements, and are fastened and connected to it, in a functional manner, enriching thus the original.  The new, altered “target text” is nothing else but an intertextual creation, a noteworthy dialogue between the new, modern writer with the original  “source text” and with all the other ones that follow with the same or similar themes and issues.  In this manner, a complex creation results which is the combination of several artistic forms, aesthetic tendencies, cultural traditions, a unified composition with the original text and dominating theme being the common factor and the unifying element.  This is the case of many well known works such as  Steven Berkoff’s Greek,   Lee Broher’s Oedipus,  Heine Muller’s Medea’s  Stuff, Caryl Churchill’s   Number (??? ), Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildersten Are Dead, Arianne Mnouschkine’s Atreides, Boto Stauss’ Caldeway Farce, et.c..

In these plays, the modern writer does not only converse and communicate with the one and only work he uses as an archetype (e.g. Oedipus Rex, Medea, The Oresteia, Hamlet, et.c.), but he does it with the entire cultural heritage which since antiquity reached the modern world by the use of theater.  Thus, tragedy as a genre still exists and functions in a new form, quite different, however, from the one inherited from classical  antiquity.

Thus,  the “tragic aspect” as a signifier is depicted with new semeiological meanings, and expresses the expectations and interests, the hopes and dreams of modern world.   As a result, tragedy did not cease to exist, but once again depicted its diachronic and universal significance, as it succeeds in unifying and identifying its internally written values in a historical set framework (antiquity, mythology) with the external objective expectations of modern society to which is addressed, being in this manner human mind’s chief means of expression.

Additionally, we can count the new facts regarding modern stage direction as well as new ways of stage practice, through which the play is created on stage during rehearsal and performance.  The actor’s body turns into a text, while movement and stage action become the story of the play which is drawn from personal experiences, sentimental situations, dreams and fantasies, that actors draw from the individual and the collective conscious and unconscious, trying to respond to specific incentives given by the director.

The coupling of  intertextuality and personal-body theater presents the modern edition in terms of meaning and function of tragedy in the modern world.  Because theatrical performance (and here lies the director’s defining role in modern theater) is an autonomous artistic creation, in the development of which the writer’s written text poses as a parameter, not necessarily the most essential.  To this, can be added the actors’ interpretation, other artistic framing, including music and other audio-visual codes that compose the aesthetic result.  Above all, however, stands the director’s personality that comes to mediate the communication between the modern spectator and the ancient dramatic text.  The director’s psycho-intellectual world, his own artistic experiences, will act upon the play with the proper way, so that the stage spectacle will satisfy all the audience’s expectations and reactions in the theater hall.

In this manner, it becomes evident that the reaction of interest and the reception of the stage message from the spectators should always be kept in mind along with the new facts as shaped by the postindustrial society’s conditions.  In any case, the form of the “tragic” as well as the stage presentation of “tragedy”, no matter what its content is, ought to adjust to today’s spectator’s interests and needs. That is why the shaping of tragedy necessarily follows different directions than those it did in the past; and that is why postmodern tragedy differs so much from the “modern” conception and expression of tragedy.