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Tragedy and politics, new and old

Last week I saw something that I never thought I’d see: a new Greek tragedy. I don’t mean an adaptation of a Greek play or a modern drama inspired by a Greek myth. This was a new play, with no direct overlap with any ancient drama, but which was structured and written exactly like a fifth-century Athenian tragedy. The staging itself was in many ways very modern, but when you stripped that away and looked at the script itself, it was stylistically almost perfect. Okay, one could quibble: I’m not sure they could have staged it with just three actors; the choral odes were split across episodes (though they were composed in strophes and antistrophes). But everything else was pretty much spot on. We got formal features such as prologue, agôn scenes, stichomythia, messenger speeches, and sung monody. Even on the level of language and metaphor, there was little that would feel out of place if you tried to pass it off as a translation of an ancient text.

The play was called Hyllos, and was, of course, written by a classicist: Herman Altena, a Dutch scholar and translator, who also runs a theatre company. I saw it in Amsterdam in conjunction with a colloquium on the role of Greek tragedy in ancient and modern political debate. (And yes, I do do things other than go to avant-garde performances of Greek tragedy in European capitals, but I reckon a blog post on “how I spent a day setting some beginners’ Greek grammar exercises” or “the time I finally found that elusive journal article and then realised it wasn’t relevant after all” wouldn’t be particularly interesting.) It was in Dutch, but I was given an English translation to follow along. Which was great, except for the parts where a scene was done in low lighting to make a dramatic point, and then things got very confusing.

One of the things I found exciting about the play was Altena’s flexibility with Greek myth. I think this is something where it helps to be a classicist: people who adapt Greek myths often worry about getting them ‘right’ (or are criticised if they are thought not to have). But if you’ve spent any time working on Greek literature and art, you quickly come to the realisation that myth is there to be played with – it’s a lame duck of a poet who just tells it the way his predecessor did.

Hyllos is set in Trachis after the death of Heracles, and describes the troubled succession of his son Hyllos. In this version Heracles isn’t murdered by Deianeira but dies in old age after a lengthy second marriage to Iole - conveniently for Heracles, Deianeira killed herself with minimal fuss when he brought Iole home, unlike her more troublesome counterpart in Sophocles. Deianeira’s son Hyllos wasn’t too pleased about what happened to his mother and so spent his adolescence in Athens, where he witnessed new democratic reforms brought in by Theseus. On his accession to the throne of Trachis, he resolves to try a similar strategy, but comes into conflict with Heracles’ old henchman Lykos, who fears the breakdown of the old political system. Hyllos’ democratic credentials don’t make him immune from a spot of the old-fashioned tyrannical paranoia that tends to affect tragic kings, and he starts to believe that Lycus is plotting against him. Meanwhile, Theseus’ son Demophon arrives as a refugee from Athens with news of civil unrest caused by the unscrupulous demagogue, Menestheus, who has been abusing the new democratic freedoms. When Menestheus demands the handover of Demophon and his mother, the situation escalates into a war with Trachis: a nice reversal of the usual role of Athens in Greek tragedy, where it’s the city that stands up for the weak and dispossessed. There are striking correspondences with Euripides’ Suppliant Women and Children of Heracles, but plenty of subtle evocations of other plays.

There’s obviously plenty here to interest the Classics geek. But perhaps the surprising thing is that a new Greek tragedy seemed to be a great success with a modern Dutch audience. The performance I went to (just one part of a month-long national tour) was sold out, and the audience gave it a standing ovation. Perhaps this enthusiastic acceptance of classical myth and literature has something to do with the way that Latin and Greek are still heavily integrated (and indeed often compulsory) in the Dutch school system. But I think it has still more to do with the inherent ability of Greek myth to convey deep truths. And this goes back to the basic reason that setting plays in the world of myth was such a successful strategy for fifth-century Athenian dramatists: it offers a space to work through disturbing contemporary ideas. At the colloquium before the performance, Altena spoke about what Greek history teaches us about the fragility of democracy, and his concerns about the rise of the far right in Dutch politics. Participants in the colloquium included politicians and journalists as well as academics, and while there were certainly classics students and scholars in the audience, there were others who knew little about the ancient world. The play’s themes seemed to be immediately relevant to their concerns – conversation moved easily to the rise of modern demagogues, the role of rhetoric in political debate, and where responsibility lies for political disengagement. While remaining firmly rooted in the heroic age, the play itself dealt with issues of concern to a modern audience: Is it right to become involved in foreign wars for ideological reasons? How can we stop democratic rule becoming a tyranny of the majority? How can we protect our political system being abused by unprincipled populists, and whose interests do politicians really act in? The fact that these issues are as important today as they were in the 5th century BC is a powerful endorsement of the relevance of all Greek tragedy, whether new or ancient.

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