First published in First City magazine,
New Delhi, July 2006
What does Tragedy mean? Goat’s song, said the ancient Greeks.
Long ago, the Greek god of nature, wine, creativity, intuition and imagination, was honored through a choral lyric called the dithyramb. These drunken ecstatic performances were said to have been created by the satyrs, half-goat beings who surrounded Dionysus in his revelry. The dithyramb was performed in a circular dancing-place (orchestra) by a group of men who may have impersonated satyrs by wearing masks and dressing in goat-skins. Eventually, the content of the dithyramb was widened to any mythological or heroic story, and an actor was introduced to answer questions posed by the choral group. The questions and answers dealt with issues of the human conditions: life, death, fate, discipline, obedience, family, state, love. Thus was born the ‘goat’s song’ or tragedy.
Curiously, the “answerer” who responded to the questions of the goat-chorus was called a hypocrite, from where we get the English word ‘hypocrite’. Could it be that the ‘goats’ mocked the answers given as being false, untrue and full of prejudice and presumptions? The truth was deeper. Perhaps revealed only when all defenses were broken down – which happens after consumption of wine and narcotics that the satyrs freely distributed?
Tragedy depicts the downfall of a noble hero or heroine, usually through some combination of hubris, fate, and the will of the gods. The tragic hero’s powerful wish to achieve some goal inevitably encounters limits, usually those of human frailty (flaws in reason, hubris, society), the gods (through oracles, prophets, fate), or nature. Aristotle says that the tragic hero should have a flaw and/or make some mistake. The hero need not die at the end, but he / she must undergo a change in fortune. In addition, the tragic hero may achieve some revelation or recognition about human fate, destiny, and the will of the gods. Aristotle quite nicely terms this sort of recognition “a change from ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate.” The tragic hero is “a man who is neither a paragon of virtue and justice nor undergoes the change to misfortune through any real badness or wickedness but because of some mistake.”
Greek tragedies were used as a means to convey particular political and ethical testimonials about society, usually in order to convey certain morals or to ensure order. In such chronicles, a protagonist grapples with a particular conflict or sets of conflicts, usually pertaining to some universal moral code.
Aeschylus’ The Oresteia, like many Greek tragedies, is no exception to the rule. The Oresteia, like many other Greek tragedies of its time, deals with issues of justice, honor, and kinship. However, the play itself does so in a way that even mystifies the audience. Unlike other Greek tragedies, it is difficult to ascertain who exactly the protagonists and antagonists are. Moreover, the epic itself presents the audience with characters who are righteous in a sense, but very flawed morally. Agamemnon is such a character.
Agamemnon is first presented as a man of honor, bravely leading his troops into victory during the Trojan War. But then Agamemnon, in order to change the winds to win the battle of Troy, sacrifices his own daughter, Iphigenia. The complexity of Agamemnon’s character leaves the audience spellbound- is the man cruel, ambitious, virtuous? Before examining Agamemnon’s acts, it is important to note the historical and political context for which the play was written. In the context of this particular story, the act of sacrificing one’s kin for the sake of the state could indeed be deemed as righteous. Because Greek plays were very political, the theme of family loyalty was oftentimes presented as a danger for society and order. Unlike the Romans who worshipped family, Grecians were more focused on the importance of the state. Because of the historical and political context of the play, Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice his daughter could be deemed as a logical decision, especially since the sacrifice was for the sack of Troy and the victory of the Greek army.
In Sophocles, Antigone going against the state for the sake of family loyalty is seen as a very dangerous thing to do, resulting in dire consequences for all. Oedipus had two daughters and two sons. After his infamous incest, Oedipus blinded himself and left the city of Thebes in the care of his sons. Years later, war eventually broke out between the two sons. During the conflict, the two brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles, fought against each other as leaders of the two different sides. Eteocles was of the entrenched faction, in power in Thebes. Polyneices was the upstart, a returning exile, and he brought an invading army against the city. In the course of the battle, the two brothers killed each other. But Eteocles’ army eventually triumphed. In the aftermath, Creon ascended to the throne. Creon declares Eteocles shall be given a full and honorable funeral, while the body of Polyneices will be left for the animals and the sun. Anyone who tries to perform the proper funeral rites for Polyneices will be killed by public stoning. Antigone begs her sister, Ismene, to help her bury their brother. Ismene refuses. The two girls bewail their situation as daughters of a doomed mother and father, and sisters of two men who have slain each other. But while Ismene in fear sides with Creon’s decree, Antigone refuses to give in to this harsh and cruel decision and demands Polyneices be given due respect. In her confrontation with the state, she is willing to choose death. Antigone is a play about a war between different values as much as it is about the struggle between two strong-willed people. Antigone is struggling against Creon, but she is also struggling against patriarchy, the power of the state, and the rules of larger society. Creon is battling Antigone, but he is also fighting against chaos, disorder, the unraveling of the social fabric. In the twentieth century, the theme of the individual and the individual conscience struggling against the power of law and the state has caught the imagination of audience members most vividly. For modern audiences and the Athenians who first saw Antigone, Creon is the symbol of a certain kind of tyrant. His good intentions, even coupled with his stubbornness and pride, would seem to frustrate shelving Antigone as a play that teaches the cliché lesson of “Power corrupts.” Creon’s mistake is not that he puts lust for power ahead of the interests of the state; rather, Creon’s weakness is an absolute confidence in a certain set of values. Again and again, he praises patriotism, loyalty to fathers, and civil obedience, elevating these values so highly that other kinds of justice are forgotten. His position, however, is in many ways more comfortable for audiences then and now. His view means that there is at least a definite set of guidelines and rules, and the abuses and vagaries of individual conscience are not allowed to pose a threat to social order. Creon fears disorder; in the wake of civil war, his need to establish himself as ruler is clear. Antigone’s struggle is just as single-minded. Her devotion is to her brother and the dictates of her conscience, through which she claims to know the “unwritten” laws of God. But Antigone’s actions are also an affront to important values. The Chorus declares that Antigone is in opposition to “the throne of Justice,” reminding us that her actions are a threat to order and the institutions of law that protect the good of the people.
There are different kinds of justice at work in the play: there is the justice of man-made laws and institutions, symbolized by Creon, and the justice of the conscience and morality not written in law, symbolized by Antigone. Antigone proudly defies the laws of men, and suffers at the hands of those laws. Creon, in his pride, defies the laws of the gods and unwritten morality. He suffers at the hands of fate and divine retribution. The Chorus pities both of them while condemning both characters’ actions.
Anthropologists say, the function of drama was to reflect the subconscious and cosmic patterns by reenacting the everyday world. It was to acknowledge inherent conflicts of civilization that demanded but defied easy resolution. The earliest plays were religious rituals. India’s Natyashastra has origins in yagna ritual manuals known as Brahmanas. Even today drama is an integral component of religious rites. For example, the Nativity plays during Christmas or Rama Leela during Navratri. Through the play one enacts a holy event. As the years pass, the drama remains the same but those watching the drama are growing up or growing old. They discover different layers of meaning in the same play, in the same character, in the same dialogue. With that consistent and repetitive interaction with theatre more light is thrown on the meaning of life. The goat’s song thus joins us in our struggle to make sense of existence.