The stories a truly democratic society tells are tragic ones. They ask questions and offer answers on success and failure, on self-governance and the governance of the self. Not coincidentally, they were born together, with the Greeks serving as their midwife, more than two thousand years ago. Though no one can say which came first, we know that in 510 BCE Athenian citizens overthrew the last Tyrannos (“he who takes power by force”) in anti-oligarchic revolt and appointed themselves to oversee the legislature and the courts. And in 534, scarcely one generation earlier, the first City Dionysia was held.
Perhaps the Greeks were attempting to make sense of their radical and unprecedented experiment in self-government. Or maybe it was the other way around, and the establishment of a new art form led to political change.
Famous now for its tragedy competition, the festival of Dionysus also featured a daylong series of processions in which taxes were ceremonially collected and sons of soldiers killed in battle wore their fathers’ armor. Playwrights were often already prominent people. Aeschylus was a decorated veteran of the Persian wars, Sophocles was a friend of the statesman Pericles, and Euripides, near the end of his life, was hosted at the Macedonian court of Archelaus. A unifying civic ceremony and an aesthetic rite, the Dionysia was one part State of the Union, one part Oscars. (Though it should be noted, only “citizens” could participate, meaning that it was closed to all women, children, slaves and barbaroi, orforeigners.)
Without fail, the Greeks’ tragic stories were drawn from the “age of heroes” that Homer depicted in The Iliad and The Odyssey (c. 750 BCE). These heroes, tricksters of gods and slayers of monsters, embodied the beliefs of an earlier, less lawful age, in which the pursuit of power and murder were indistinguishable, when might and honor closely conjoined. As a result, each king from this age trails behind him (always a “him”) a long line of crimes. Revenge lies in wait around every corner.
Over a thousand years later, this brutal relativity would also serve as the leitmotif of Shakespearean history. “Blood will have blood,” a brooding Macbeth says as his terrified wife looks on. The Bastard in King John sounds a similar tune: “Blood hath bought blood, and blows have answered blows; / Strength matched with strength, and power confronted power.” So does Aufidius, plotting the overthrow of Coriolanus: “One fire drives out one fire; one nail, one nail; / Rights by rights falter, strengths by strengths do fail.” From ancient times up to today, one constant theme has been man’s inhumanity to man, the seeming permanence of power politics.
Seeking to establish new rules for their new, democratic society, the Greek tragedians altered these old stories. Their compressions of Homer’s epic narratives created works still studied today as models of dramatic economy. They tend to show familiar heroes in a tragic light, years after their mythic exploits, returning home as weakened, fallible old men. And when these heroes attempt to maintain control, to impose a rational order on a mysterious cosmos, the tragic playwrights invariably expose them missing the mark. The gods make fools of them. The web of fate ravels them up. Might does not make right and they die ignominious deaths.
For a society where women were second-class citizens, Greek tragedy reveals an acute status anxiety. Powerful and sympathetic females are everywhere: abused by egotistical or insane husbands, arguing with domineering fathers and authority figures. The personal, the Greeks suggest, has always been political. The twin birth of tragedy and democracy seems to have opened up a revolution in consciousness, starting a serious moral tradition in which art reflects on the most flawed aspects of human nature.
The Oresteia has long held a special status as the story of all these stories, the alpha and the omega of the tragic-democratic experiment. All Greek playwrights composed in thematically linked groups of three, yet it is the only extant trilogy, and its action is nothing less than the passing of a corrupt age and the dawn of a new one. The first play in the cycle, Agamemnon, begins with the fall of Troy in the mythic age and the final one, The Eumenides, ushers in the present day in Athenian democracy, with the first, albeit imperfect, attempts at rendering justice. The world is built on poorly concealed crimes and a bitterly divided family, both of which seek to remake themselves with the help of everyone. By the end, something new is happening. The characters are treating one another as humans, not as antagonists.
It is also a world of echo, of actions taken deep in the past that arc far forward into the future, toward the tragic catastrophe. The family portrayed is Agamemnon’s, chief general of The Iliad, but the real family in the play is the House of Atreus, which traces its lineage all the way back to the trickster Tantalus, who sacrificed his son in order to dine with the gods and steal their honey. This house, our house, has been cursed ever since, with one generation after the next complicit in crimes of the most intimate kind.
Shakespeare would reuse this plot for his own play about a murdered king and a son driven to madness, wondering whether to kill or not to kill. And as in Hamlet, the ethical dilemmas of the stage open onto fundamental questions of the self and its relation to society. The play is titled after Orestes, the avenging son, a character poised between the heroic age of honor killings and the new era of justice and mercy. When Orestes and his sister, Electra, come face to face with their Chorus of accusers, they almost seem shocked to have their aristocratic prerogatives questioned.
The resulting trilogy crystalizes both the tragic and the democratic impulse: we are all answerable to one another, a society is only as strong as its weakest link, even the most unforgivable crimes must be acknowledged as part of the human condition. Sophocles and Euripides would write their own trilogies about the story, of which only individual works survive. It was a story the Greeks could not stop writing, a message they kept trying to teach themselves.
Aeschylus’s audience in 458 BCE would not have known that the Peloponnesian War would start in 27 years, the conflict with Sparta bringing an abrupt end to classical Athens—just as we sit in the darkened theatre, today, unsure of what crimes from our past will prove our undoing in the world to come.
Ellen McLaughlin’s adaptation is decidedly secular and contemporary. None of the gods are represented explicitly, though they are certainly real to the characters who hear them, such as Cassandra, or who are driven by them, like Orestes. Our own American gods—Money, Power, Justice—are similarly elusive but just as real. And like two millennia ago, humanity finds itself at their mercy.
In the history of the theatre, truly tragic works have always been few and far between, much as democracy has often proven an unrealizable ideal. It is easier to tell stories of triumph or escape, revenge or romance, or to dazzle audiences with music and spectacle, a tastelessness Aristotle derided just after the classical moment had passed. But in certain stories, we can recognize the precious, fragile, ultimately fleeting nature of our collective human bond. Such a truth can only be apprehended in that realm where tragedy and democracy are one and the same thing.