When Syriza, Greece’s radical party of the left, newly installed in government, formed as a single party in 2013, its stated goal was “to end the modern Greek tragedy that the Greek people are living through.” Here, Kym Beeston examines that “tragedy” through the prism of the Ancient Hellenic stage and, aided by Dr. Mark Chou, author of Greek Tragedy and Contemporary Democracy, asks what lessons contemporary Greece can learn from it s weighty theatrical traditions.
Like many of the ancient tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the modern Greek tragedy has been formulaic, yet multidimensional. The central characters are those colloquially known as diaplekomenoi [the entangled ones], a small group once described in a US WikiLeaks cable as people having ‘made or inherited fortunes’ who are ‘related by blood, marriage or adultery to political and government officials and/or other business magnates.’ These families have, since the early 1990s, dominated Greek politics through old fashioned favouritism and control of the media.
The epeisódia [episodes], in rough chronological order, have unfolded by way of a political system marred by long-standing and deep-seated dysfunction, endemic corruption and tax evasion, a historical €350 billion bailout and five years of extreme austerity measures.
The pathos [suffering] has infected all corners of society, and manifested in myriad ways. With a 50% youth unemployment rate, young people have turned to sisa – a kind of cocaine for the poor, brimming with battery acid and engine oil. As wages have fallen by 30%, married women have turned to prostitution, and single women are giving up on the idea of marriage. As swathes of professionals leave the country in search of jobs, Greece faces the biggest brain drain of modern times. Poverty is ubiquitous. National morale is at an all-time low.
The khoros [choral interludes] that would ordinarily embellish the story have fallen silent, for the economic crisis has severely impacted live music venues and entertainment. (In any event, it’s likely the music that has emerged in recent years would be dubbed too angry to be played in public.)
The so-called ‘troika’ – comprising the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund – is the tragic hero of this stage. A benevolent dictator with a neoliberal heart, it came to the rescue on numerous occasions. It gave multi-billion euro bailouts, and imposed drastic austerity measures to bring order to the Greek house. Like all good potential ‘heroes’, the ‘troika’ no doubt acted with the best of intentions. But, as with heroes who came before it, a hamartia [tragic error] was made. For the Greek people have revolted against austerity and anti-austerity and Syriza has now claimed victory and taken hold of the government in a dramatic exodus [final scene] that may reverberate across Europe.
No one knows what will happen next, what will become of this troubled birthplace of democracy. But instead of looking forward, perhaps we should turn back to the original tragedies of fifth-century Athens. For it transpires that democracy could have learnt a few things from the theatre, a forum some say emerged as an alternative site of politics back when democracy was finding its feet.
Dr. Mark Chou, an Australian interdisciplinary scholar, is the author of a book on the links between Greek tragedy and democracy. I was interested to find out what he believes this modern Greek tragedy could have learnt from its tragic roots.
Kym Beeston — First things first, how did tragedy promote democracy in fifth-century Athens?
Mark Chou — We often forget today that ancient Greece was hardly democratic at all, at least not by today’s standards. However bad you think the democratic milieu is in contemporary Greece – or Britain or the US for that matter – we should remember that the West’s first great democracy was one which precluded all but men of Greek heritage. Women were excluded, and there’s no point in even mentioning the slaves. So the actual democratic experiment, and democratising momentum, only went so far.
Tragedy, however, was a dramatic device used to bring out a variety of characters as well as different forms of expression, language, and situations. It explored social situations from a number of perspectives – that of the tragic hero, but also the choruses which represented women and slaves and other people invisible in Athenian society, through song, which was a different form of expression again. Tragedy is thus inherently democratic because of its truly multi-vocal form.
KB — In this regard, tragedy brought what was often private or ignored into public view?
MC — Yes. Through this type of theatre, dramatists often cast the city’s affairs for all its inhabitants to see and helped the demos see these events – the way perhaps social media does today – to give a more diverse range of people access to the affairs of the city.
Tragedy also brought situations which were quite taboo to the public. In Aeschylus’ Suppliants, the Greek city of Argos is literally taken hostage by a band of 50 Egyptian women. They claim refuge from would-be grooms, cousins really, and in the end they more or less barge their way in. In much of the play, there’s a role reversal – men cast as indecisive and powerless and women as strong-willed leaders.
There was a sense of discomfort in bringing these taboo issues to the public, but as there were often ten or twenty thousand people in the theatre audience, the public shock factor impacted on the statesmen, inevitably forcing people with decision making capabilities to confront these elephants in the room.
KB — In your book you argue that ‘recovering aspects of democracy which have become lost or disassociated from contemporary democratic discourses, through resorting to tragedy’s multi-vocal form, may potentially facilitate our efforts to revitalise democracy in our current age of globalisation.’ What takeaways are there for us, now?
MC — I think looking beyond oneself, and being humble, which is key in tragedy, has great relevance to democracy. Tragedy tells us to cast aside our own opinions even if we think we’re the most qualified to make a decision; to look at those who are underrepresented in debates and resort to the insights that they can bring to bear on the situation. That’s relevant to society today because in debates we tend to only hear the voices of people who are articulate and educated. Democracies need to bring people who aren’t so articulate into the discussion, and make their lives more visible the way tragedies did.
Tragedy also acted as a reminder that all great protagonists are insignificant and limited. When men saw themselves as great and powerful, tragedy would seize on their hubris and the downfall that was to come. Trying to ignore or foolishly out-muscle these limits is the beginning of the end and I think there’s much here for politicians and political leaders, especially in the 21st century.
KB — What else can 21st century leaders learn from Greek tragedy?
MC — In tragedy, both men and women were often shown as powerless against the whims of the gods. We are merely their playthings. We might not think it, but these gods still rule over us today – albeit in a different form. I’m referring to something like capitalism, which casts such influence over our lives, yet we have little control over how it goes. Particularly for a country like Greece, which has been subjected to austerity measures enforced by the Troika, simple things like having say over one’s own affairs and future have never seemed so impossible. No one, however powerful, has managed to escape the clasp of global capital.
KB — So are you saying that if Greek politicians had turned their minds to the tragic canon, they might have been better prepared for this catastrophe?
MC — Perhaps. But always remember the irony of tragedy is that a step we think is going to be in the right direction turns out to be anything but.
KB — You mentioned that tragedy’s multi-vocal form has some parallels with social media as an alternative democratic forum. Can social media play the same role today that tragedy did in Greece?
MC — This answer will disappoint classicists, but I think social media is a little like the choruses in Greek drama. The chorus was often used to give voice to the unrepresented masses. It provided the counterpoint to that offered by the key characters and social media performs much the same function today.
In the age of monitory democracy, a term used to describe the tools everyday citizens now possess to monitor those who exercise power outside of election cycles, platforms like Twitter can instantly give voice to the masses. Hashtags and Retweets can build momentum and even start a movement. You need possess nothing more than a smartphone to potentially influence the rich and powerful. There’s no need to wait for elections, or even be a citizen, to have your say.
KB — Why does this make the classicists unhappy?
MC — There’s a school of thought that the classics are distinct from our world – and deserve to be approached on their own terms as bodies of art specific to that time. Back then, tens of thousands of everyday people were attending theatre festivals and engaging with these works of art. Tragedies were an art form that spoke to everyday concerns. Art is much more separate from the general public in today’s world; art is now something that’s accessible to a privileged few.
KB — So perhaps that’s the main lesson for today – greater engagement with art will enhance democracy?
MC — You’ve said it all.