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1 Introduction Americanizing Greek Tragedy This is a society dedicated to the proposition that all men can be other than they are created. —Christopher Bigsby and Don B. Wilmeth, The Cambridge History of American Theatre What the American public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending. —William Dean Howells to Edith Wharton For Americans, “human possibility,” the effort to repair and remake the world, stands “as an animating faith.”1 Greek tragedy as a genre, however—and above all Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, paradigmatic owing to Aristotle’s Poetics—has frequently appeared to the American mind to represent fatality, a sense of overdetermination on multiple levels, inimical to the nation’s Horatio Alger–oriented mythology. With the exception of new versions of Euripides’ Medea, Greek tragedy in nineteenth-century America largely met with indifference or resistance on the professional stage. nevertheless, a growing interest in reading and studying the texts both within and outside colleges and universities, and in viewing Athenian democracy as a precursor to America’s own, began to pave the way for a greater receptivity. no longer an image of mobocracy, Athens came in the second half of the nineteenth century to serve as a corrective to Jacksonian-era corruption, materialism , and anti-intellectualism in a fashion that emerged with particular clarity in the 1890 Antigone discussed in chapter 3.1 of this book.2 At the same time, reviews of the limited number of successful United States professional productions in the second and third decades of the twentieth century continued to dwell on thematic tensions between Greek tragedy and American ideology. The revenge theme central to Sophocles’ Electra, the most successful Greek original in this period, was also pronounced anachronistic. After World 2 Introduction War II, America came of age as the protagonist on the world stage. yet it took a series of events in the late 1960s and 1970s, starting with the Vietnam War, Watergate , racial conflicts, feminist politics, and changes in the relation between theater and American society, to inaugurate a longer-term interest that persists until today in the complex relations among individuals and families and the larger community central to Greek tragedy. United States audiences have generally had a narrow view of Greek tragedy, a form that in fact evolved and varied over the fifth century b.c.e. Tragedy was not limited to “the bleakest form of metaphysical pessimism” and human estrangement , as George Steiner argued.3 Gods and fate, as opposed to family history or politics, play a fairly reduced role in many plays, and tragedies can end in survival and at least partial resolution as well as suffering. Tragic protagonists meet overdetermined situations head-on; they are generally not passive victims. Although Greek tragedies confront abuses of power and justice and misjudgments by leaders , the costs of imperial victory, and even post-traumatic stress, Athens’ democratic audience itself preferred keeping tragic suffering or disaster at arm’s length through myth-based plots and through approaching the present through heroes and heroines from locations outside Athens. Tragedies set in Athens or related to Athens with Athenian leaders like Theseus (not the central tragic figure in, e.g., Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus) or future Athenian leaders like Ion in Euripides’ Ion avoid disaster. yet, as we shall see in more detail, Greek tragedy poses a number of additional problems for an American audience. Tragic individuals are fundamentally inseparable from their social world; domestic tensions among its elite characters are observed by choruses that preserve a public dimension to the action . Character is illuminated through public speech, difficult choices, and action; protagonists struggling to live a moral life take responsibility for outcomes that can be imposed on them for a range of reasons from within and without. The plays are not didactic; there is no clear triumph of good over evil; many plays arguably lack a firm sense of closure. The questions they pose are not resolvable, but confronting the past and cultural memory is critical to moving forward. In addition, American theater cannot reproduce the direct engagement between a large citizen audience and citizen actors and chorus members central to Greek tragedy. Drama in the United States is not a public political and religious event, and the composition of its audiences has narrowed over time. Unfamiliar myths, verse drama, choral performance, off-stage violence, and long rhetorical confrontations can make the plays both inaccessible or in the last case suspect. Recapturing a form of total theater like Greek tragedy, which included...


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