Tragedy's decline and fall

How tragedy evolved from Oedipus to Kim Kardashian’s cellulite and Amy Winehouse’s struggles.

A scene from The Bacchae by Euripides at the Olivier Theatre
A scene from The Bacchae by Euripides at the Olivier Theatre in London. Photograph Tristam Kenton/ Lebrecht/ Contrasto

King Oedipus appears at the door of his palace to listen to the Chorus of Old Men of Thebes, who have come to him in their time of terrible trouble. They are asking for his help, they say, not because they think of him “as a god”:

. . . but rather judging you the first of men in all the chances of this life and when we mortals have to do with more than man.

It turns out that, unwittingly (as more or less everything in the play is unwitting), the Chorus is right. Oedipus alone can help. The cause of the trouble is himself; the chances he has had in his life are precisely the source of the plague. He righteously refuses to avoid discovering his guilt, and when Tiresias finally reveals the truth, Oedipus removes himself, banished, blinded and bereaved, and the curse on Thebes is lifted. Oedipus Rex strikes me as the most tragic of Greek tragedies: ignorance and benevolence, however sincere, are no protection against guilt for wrongdoing and subsequent punishment.

Picking up and playing with the myth in the early 20th century, Freud uses Oedipus to deny original innocence. We are all, from the outset, guilty of desire. But the play written by Sophocles in the 5th century BC knows nothing of this. Aristotle, writing a hundred years earlier, insisted that tragedy required an essentially good person who is brought down by a mistake (hamartia). (The idea of hamartia being a character flaw in the hero is a mistranslation that was used by Shakespeare in, for example, the tragedies of Hamlet, Othello, Lear.) In other Greek plays the protagonists have clear and conscious motives for their behaviour. Clytem - nestra in the first part of Aeschylus’s Oresteia has a reason for her anger when she kills her husband, Agamemnon, on his return from Troy. He isn’t an innocent, either, having killed their daughter in order to gain a fair wind. Euripides’s Medea, fleeced and forsaken after loving and helping Jason, is neither innocent nor motiveless when she kills their children in revenge. But Oedipus at the opening of the play has no idea, nor any reason to suspect, that he has done anything wrong, let alone what it is. His only conscious act, his mistake, was to try to avert the foretold disaster of killing his father. It was this challenge to fate, rather than a desire for worldly power or revenge, that brought catastrophe to the city and his family.

What the Greek protagonists all have in common is social status: they are kings, queens and heroes. Tragedy requires a fall, and a fall from a high elevation and great fortune makes the tragedy all the more pronounced and delectable to onlookers. This was another of Aristotle’s requirements for tragic drama, that its suffering subject be a person of worldly importance. The truth about the crime Oedipus committed can be revealed by the Theban herdsmen, but the fall has to be taken by the king. As far as I know, until modern times there were no tragic stage dramas involving the equivalent of rural English virgins, bourgeois Scandinavian housewives or American travelling salesmen.

Another particular aspect of ancient Greek drama is that it was played out on a stage with actors who were masked in order precisely to prevent any of the specificity and individuality we prize so much today. Some masks were sad, some laughing, but there were no close-ups of the suffering or tearful faces of the fallen, or of horrified witnesses, just fixed expressions speaking anguished and resigned words. The plays pitted men and women of good fortune and worldly power but no fleshly face against circumstance and misfortune – call them gods, who by their nature are unconcerned by and disinclined to make a distinction between group or individual suffering, or ignorance and guilt. The higher and prouder the mortal, the more powerful the message to be taken away by the 12,000-strong audiences at the theatre of Dionysus in ancient Athens.

The playgoers observed that even the likes of King Oedipus were “mere mortals” when confronted by the “more-than-man” hazards of fate or accident. Since then, our various modern versions of stages have become bigger so that huge numbers of people can witness the dramas, and smaller, too, in their intricate detail, in that today heroes and men and women of fortune are much more widely defined, while being subject to far greater and more close-up scrutiny.

Small screen

Greek tragedy hasn’t had much of an airing on our most popular medium recently. In June, the BFI screened a season of previously televised Greek dramas, including a 1958 extract (the earliest it could find) from Women of Troy, an Electra shown in 1962 in modern Greek and without subtitles (would any channel dare to do that now?), King Oedipus with Ian Holm from 1972 and most recently Iphigenia at Aulis, broadcast by the BBC in 1990. Since then, the BFI says, television adaptations of Greek drama have disappeared from our screens.

So have most TV adaptations of stage plays from all periods. It might be largely due to the futile race for audience figures that are supposed to justify funding or bring in advertising. But perhaps another reason for the dearth of televised stage drama, beyond the lack of belief in an audience for it, is that television has started to take itself more seriously as a form. It now offers quite a new kind of drama to the world, mostly from the US, conceived for viewers prepared to put in the time (as well as wait years for any conclusion) to watch the lengthy, complex interplay between human doings, relationships and circumstances. The Wire, The West Wing, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Weeds, Breaking Bad and Mad Men all have the kind of political, social, emotional and psychological weight that staged drama is supposed to have, and in addition take enormous amounts of real-world time to develop their stories and characters. Even though they don’t conform to Aristotle’s unities of action, place and time (was 24playing with that somewhat?), they are not a million miles from the intentions of the Greek tragedians. While soaps such as EastEnders and Coronation Street offer the supposedly “ordinary life”  ratcheted to melodrama, HBO and AMC series are the form in which we are now inclined to watch the rise and fall of influential or favoured individuals (Mad Men, The West Wing), dynasties (The Sopranos), power groups (The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire) and occasionally mere mortals (Breaking Bad, Weeds) who seem to be so placed, by fortune, family or choice, as to “have to do with more than man”.

The masks have been taken off, and in the personal relationships we follow on our television screens we want extreme close-up characterisation and expression, but what we see is still not a plain view of individuality. The most admired shows present common stereotypes in order to elaborate on them, and also to comment more broadly on the society in which they operate. The parallels between the drug and police worlds in The Wire, the frustrated idealistic and corrupted intentions of well-meaning or cynical politicians in The West Wing and the quotidian and extraordinary trials and dark necessities of running a family and Mafia organisation in The Sopranos all double as masks, pseudo-documentary and socio-political analogy. Deadwood depicted the goodies and baddies manoeuvring around each other as society and the law emerge to chasten and politicise unbounded human drives in an anarchic goldrush settlement. As the writers develop the dawning of American civilisation from wayward origins, they query both.

Perhaps the least Aristotelian of them, Breaking Bad, looks into the malleability of the decidedly unheroic, unimportant, decent enough common man, as through both circumstance and choice he turns into a monster, bringing disaster down on himself and his family. Walter White is neither great nor innocent; what we watch is an ordinary guy losing control of human decency (somehow hilariously) through a misbegotten attempt to take responsibility for his family. What all these shows, presented in the most popular form of their time, have in common is the moral weight of classical tragedy underscored by a more modern sense of daily human comedy.

Bold and beautiful

Still, before we get too pleased with ourselves and our sophisticated viewing habits, we should consider how such innovative dramas might have come about. I find myself thinking that the giant glamour soaps of the 1980s, Dallas and Dynasty, lurk in the origins of The Wire and The Sopranos. Young and developing writers who watched them must have seen in the group scriptwriting and longue durée all sorts of novel structural possibilities. Even the astonishing insouciance of an entire series of Dallas being written retrospectively as “Pammy’s dream”, rolling back the narrative to the previous year in the blink of an eye, or seeing most of the cast apparently killed off by automatic gunfire in the “Moldavian wedding massacre” in one series finale and then discovering most of them had suffered only minor injuries at the beginning of the next, gave a sense of the potential for talented and ambitious writers to free themselves from the doggedly realistic forms and static formats of old shows (Bonanza, The Fugitive, Rawhide) where a new, contained story had to be told and resolved, within the current moral code, in a familiar setting, week after week. An unprecedentedly large audience was prepared to keep up with or ditch storylines over years; to follow a family and its relationships through generations and to engage with the characters’ internecine battles with each other and the economic and political world. The audience’s willingness to “get” playfulness, as much as its size and its commitment to Dallas and Dynasty, would have alerted up-and-coming writers and producers to drama’s potential beyond those super-soaps’ focus on frocks and melodrama.

Yet Dallas and Dynasty didn’t only transmute into the small-audience classiness of The West Wing and The Sopranos. They continued, too, in their own populist way, flourishing lushly on television both as costume drama and soaps and by allowing complex, classical novels to be transformed into prime-time romantic and historical series with an emphasis on plot, fashion and heart-throbs. They also branched right out, away from actors performing scripts, into what we now call the real world, as the taste for vicariously following the lives of the actual, as well as the fictional, rich and/or famous became ever more indulged, though never entirely satisfied, by technology.

There had always been Hollywood, where a devoted public scrutinised the activities and often invented love lives of the stars, as put out and controlled by the film studios in press releases, and newspaper gossip columnists scrambled to publish whispers from insiders. Gossip, both spun and invented, was never new (“I hear Cleopatra has a new bloke. You’ll never guess . . .”). Hollywood systematised it, but then as the studios lost power and other, more intimate media – television, the popular press, the internet – gained ground hugely, gossip, from the point of view of those gossiped about, and even those broadcasting it, became increasingly uncontrollable.

Gossip seems at first glance to conform quite closely to Aristotle’s demands for classical tragedy. At any rate, it revolves around the rich and the famous, the fortunate of our time, and involves stories about them inviting us to consider that even the great (these days only a few of them kings and queens, but many either heroes or outstandingly fortunate by birth or chance) must also suffer death, loss, failure, disappointment and divorce, and tumble further and land harder than those of us watching, who also suffer such things.

The analogy between the falling darlings of a modern public and the old Greek dramas does not go very deep, however. Both Aristotle and more contemporary literary critics are inclined to think that an essential part of tragedy is that it deals with the weightiest of matters and eschews triviality. It is the human condition on show, but acted out on a high moral plain that equates, in antiquity, to the highest social plain. This does look as if it rules out much of modern gossip as a contemporary version of tragedy, such as the Daily Mail’s revelations that Christina Aguilera and Kim Kardashian have cellulite, on the grounds that cellulite, when you stop and think about it, doesn’t measure up well against a plague in Thebes, the suicide of Jocasta and the self-blinding of Oedipus, however god-given and inescapable cellulite might be in all our lives.

Maybe with gossip we have settled for Schadenfreude in place of catharsis: thank heavens the pointlessly fortunate Kim has cellulite, and that we can watch her more-than-human status crumble on her thighs. Yet, on the other hand, there is a case to be made for such domestically scaled disasters – as being a commonplace version of tragedy writ small, and more suitable for the home-based intimacy of television, newspapers, magazines and internet-linked iPads on the breakfast table, rather than the grander scale of the Theatre of Dionysus. The loss of youth and beauty, from whichever social stratum you view it, is a universal experience, pointing to entropy and our common end. Just being young and becoming old was not tragic enough in itself for the Greeks, but death was, and in observing the decaying body that is what we must at some level become aware of.

In present, less reverential times, when we can look at the great and the good and imagine ourselves more directly, perhaps we understand better the power and implications of apparently smaller sadnesses more generally suffered. The death of kings and the appearance of cellulite in young women might not be so incommensurate if the critics are right that part of the function of Greek tragedy was to display the misfortune of the great as catharsis for the populace. Most people won’t accidentally marry their mothers but we are all going to get older. Knowing that Kim Kardashian (rich, deluded, narcissistic, attention-seeking and -receiving) has cellulite speaks truth to more of us than the fall of Oedipus (unless you bring Freud’s wacky interpretation of the myth rather than the tragic drama into the equation). While gossip seems to belittle tragedy, it also (for better or worse) democratises it –who’s to say that the shiver of inevitable ageing and death felt at the first sign of cellulite is too trivial a signifier of mortality?

Brother love

This modern version of tragedy provides its own royalty and mythic trajectories. The investigative social documentaries of the 1960s and 1970s were transformed in recent decades into reality television. The internationally popular fly-on-the-prison-wall programmes have brought us carefully chosen representatives of purportedly ordinary people, under intense scrutiny for months at a time, hour by hour, in a closed environment, with nothing to do (Big Brother quickly realised its early mistake in allowing people to bring in books and banned them). The extreme life of leisure enforced by the format has brought us closer to the ancient unities of place, action and time. Big Brother invented its own style of mass-acclaimed hero, so that several “housemates” whom it made famous have since become celebrities, known for nothing very particular except being known, and have gone on to become stars in their own reality TV programmes.

Most notable and most fascinating was Jade Goody, who gained fame for her confident lack of education and a hunger for exposure that was satiated only by the most public of unfortunate deaths at the age of 27. Five years after her debut on Big Brother 2002, in a perfect exposition of the nature of modern fame, the celebrity version of Big Brother included Goody as one of its high-profile housemates.

In another corner of the public stage, our something-less-than-heroic times brought us, via a remote royal family looking for a place in the new world and the tabloid press already settled comfortably into it, that strangely modern conflation, Diana –the People’s Princess. The life and death of Diana all along had the quality of a story scripted by a collective of writers using the clichés from a Robert McKee story seminar, and performed by an actor who was allowed to see the script for the day only on waking.

These two more and less than mythic heroes, Jade and Diana, equally innocent and manipulative, are just like us, in that they hankered after something that seems desirable; yet, in having achieved their dreams and being consumed by them, they are as remote from us as it is possible to be. Their premature deaths were not only strangely inevitable in retrospect, but kept them from spiralling downwardly into too much absurdity as they grew inevitably older and sadder. Like Marilyn, both retain the gloss of their glory and tragedy, whereas the continuing popular figures live on to be envied and mocked equally. Their revealed deceptions, divorces and neuroses (Kristen Stewart’s “cheating”, sad Jennifer Aniston who lost her man, poor Vanessa Paradis fallen from the grace of being in a settled relationship with Johnny Depp, idiotic Tom Cruise hiding in a forest of mirrored trees, neurotic Angelina Jolie too scrawny to be happy) cheer us and remind us that it rains on everyone.

The curse of too much

Most recently the spotlight of public tragedy has lit up the Rausings, heirs to the Tetra Pak billions. Something about that repeated description of them takes their wealth down a peg. Untold riches for two generations – inherited rather than made, and based on a cardboard carton to hold milk or fruit juice –makes even billions look a bit sad. There are very much worse things the wealthy scions of the Tetra Pak inventor could do than publish books and fund drug charities, but the existence of the junkie son and his wife, half-living among us like hermits in a grand house and then dying a careless death, offers reams of printed lessons to those of us with much less to lose but who know that their drug and depression problems are very close to our lives. Hans Kristian and Eva Rausing are quite similar to ancient tragic figures, having the most desirable of positions in life but overhung by misfortune in spite of that. With all their opportunities for rehab, they  suffer the curse and anguish of addiction just as much as the more vulnerable in society. Money doesn’t make you happy; indeed, it might even be a cause of misfortune, we cry, with some degree of pleasure.

As the Rausings had money, so Amy Winehouse had talent, which was always going to be cut off short. Talent doesn’t keep you safe, any more than money. The tumbling of those lives, seemingly unstoppable, is available as a lesson in the universality of suffering and difficulty. But once again Schadenfreude appears. What we might choose to envy is not so enviable, perhaps. There is both a sad truth we must learn to live with and a sort of relief to find that no one, not even the rich and famous, escapes some kind of trouble. The insistent gaze of the media, and our equally avid gaze at what they supply on our screens and in our papers, seem to smooth out the discrepancy between major tragedy and minor misfortune and allow some of our responses to the misfortunes of the Rausings or Winehouse to exist on the same emotional plain as Jennifer Aniston’s boyfriend trouble or Kim Kardashian’s cellulite.

In periods of difficulty and at special times of the year, the Greeks nominated a scapegoat – a cripple or beggar – who was stoned and then cast out of the community to suffer in the wilderness on its behalf. Tragic drama offered the great as symbolic sacrifices to misfortune. The Chorus is sorry about Oedipus’s troubles; it honoured him and liked him, but his banishment and blinding are required, and with relief the Old Men of Thebes express pity and return satisfied to their now less troubled life.

We no longer believe that a sacrifice will resolve our difficulties, but we may be in danger of substituting gratification for symbolic catharsis. I don’t know whether the audiences for the ancient tragedies felt a degree of thrill in the misfortunes of distant others, but I dare say it was available. Now, we openly or covertly take heart while, like the Chorus, shaking our head in philosophical sorrow at a falling away
of those who are blessed with talent or extreme good luck from their position nearest to the gods. In substituting celebrity for greatness, we have moved tragedy from the pathos of witnessing and empathising with the pains we all suffer to a bathos that can result in the sort of embarrassed hangover the nation experienced after the hysterical public emotionalism during the aftermath of Diana’s death subsided.

The closest version of contemporary tragic drama may be the recent inquiries on banking and the legality of Britain’s intervention in Iraq and the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the media. They go to the heart of power to examine the behaviour and accountability of those whom Aristotle would probably consider “the great” of our day, who have the power to go to war and to provide our present-day celebrity tragic narratives.

The Leveson inquiry has been performed on television and the internet and in the newspapers as a kind of tragic play. Lord Leveson and the barrister Robert Jay function quite well on our behalf as the Chorus, and their witnesses, those who have been summoned to answer questions in public about their misuse of wealth and power, have had us all gripped. There is not, however, much innocence, goodness or misdirected dreaming in these new dramas. Nor are the protagonists loved or admired by the audience, who watch more in anger than in sorrow as the flaws of the system and of character are exposed. The seductive pleasure of Leveson has been to see the revelations dragged out of those who thought themselves invulnerable. But we also know that these individuals are no more than bystanders in a larger investigation; it is the nature and structure of power and responsibility which are under examination.

Aristotelian tragedy did not deal with the exposure and punishment of the political and financial corruption of individuals who are responsible for their own greed, rather than at the mercy of fate and their unavoidable mortality. We watch these particular great ones falling – politicians, bankers, press barons – with some satisfaction, but without much sense that they might be us. We suspect that we’ve seen hardly half of what they’ve been up to. Not even the most generous member of the contemporary audience could see the essential goodness in the contemptuously forgetful and complacent Bob Diamond or Rupert Murdoch.

I think what we have in the parade of witnesses at Leveson, and in the parliamentary inquiries into the Iraq war and bankers’ behaviour, is not tragedy but a grim parody of it, in which the only universal truth on show is that, somehow, those most responsible for war, financial meltdown and moral corruption in the false name of public interest seem to lose something, but too late and not enough to redeem the damage they have done. If Oedipus Rex portrays the quintessential tragic hero, both responsible for and responsive to the disaster that was unknowingly of his making, the likes of Blair, Diamond and Murdoch, so much more responsible for disasters, and so much less prepared to take responsibility for it, offer us at best an unsatisfactory Schadenfreude, and no sense of humane dramatic closure at all.

Jenny Diski is the author most recently of “What I Don’t Know About Animals” (Virago, £9.99).