Swans Commentary » swans.com February 28, 2005  



Learning From The Classics


by Charles Marowitz




(Swans - February 28, 2005)   The flag flies everywhere, even in the hearts and minds of Hollywood producers. An all-engulfing jingoism is fast devouring the nation and I, for one, recoil from it. It is in times such as these, with much of the world rattled by strife and stiffened by fear, that literary and artistic concerns -- rather than serving as diversions -- should become primary activities. We should turn to the classics as we do to trusted counselors whose wisdom has been proven.

The theatre has been dealing with thorny issues since its inception. For example, we know that what prompted Euripides to write The Trojan Women was not so much the losses in Troy but the Athenian invasion of Melos. Melos was a small, self-sufficient island that, as a result of its refusal to join the Athenian alliance against Sparta, was overrun, starved and thoroughly colonized by Athens in 416 B.C. Men who surrendered were put to death; women and children were sold into slavery. When The Trojan Women was performed in Athens one year later, it was clear to every Athenian that its message concerned the massacres at Melos; presumably, it gave that nation's citizens pause.

The war with Sparta against which Melos had vainly resisted, ended shortly afterward in the total collapse of Athenian civilization, (a harbinger of 21st century events -- who's to say?) Sophocles' Oedipus Rex begins with the question, "Why is a plague ravaging Thebes?" During the course of Oedipus' investigation into this horror, he discovers the answer: he himself, having unwittingly murdered his father and married his mother, is the cause of all catastrophes. Oedipus is a hero for us, not because he gouges out his eyes and endures unbearable personal tragedies but because he has the courage to doggedly pursue the knowledge that brings these things about. He peers directly into the face of disasters in order to divine their true meaning.

Such theatre still resonates. In 1943, in a Paris occupied by the Nazis, Sophocles' Antigone resurfaced in a new version by Jean Anouilh. Seemingly unaware of art's power to reveal through allusion, the occupying Germans didn't feel threatened by Antigone's defiance of a totalitarian bureaucracy that prevented her from burying her dead brother. But every Frenchman in the audience perceived the parallel to the nation's oppression, and they came in record-breaking numbers. The Germans, uneasy, without fully understanding the threat, instinctively shut down the play.

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is, in many ways, a play that speaks to us about our current national crises. Not so much because of its preoccupation with assassination but because one of the questions it raises is: What is the appropriate response to political terror? Is it Cassius's willingness to fight evil with evil? Or Brutus's struggle to balance tyranny with measured resistance? Brutus is swept up in the counter-terror and the result is "havoc" that "lets slip the dogs of war" -- total dissolution of the state which, historically, always seems to precede the downfall of hubristic leaders.

Hamlet, despite its endless revivals, also has some relevant wisdom to impart to us today. One of the most fascinating characters in the play is the "delicate and tender prince" Fortinbras who appears in only two brief scenes but is one of the strongest planks in the play's intellectual substructure.

When Hamlet first encounters him he is requesting permission from Claudius to march his troops through Denmark in order to "gain a little patch of ground" in Poland "that hath in it no profit but the name." His Captain remarks that "To pay five ducats, I would not farm it." Hamlet suggests, if it is so meagre, the Poles will not defend it, but the Captain tells him "it is already garrisoned" -- to which Hamlet replies:

"Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats
Will not debate the question of this straw.
This is th'imposthume [i.e., abscess or ulcer] of much wealth and peace
That inward breaks, and shows no cause without
Why the man dies."

In short, a totally mindless military maneuver for which many will lay down their lives but to no sensible purpose. Rather than condemning the irrationality of the endeavor, Hamlet concludes:

"Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor's at the stake."

The sophomore from Wittenberg (who apparently never returned to obtain his degree and spends five acts trying to gird himself up to oppose the stepfather who has both murdered his father and usurped his own succession) believes (along with our own president) that so long as one can conjure up a stirring rationalization for military invasion, "two thousand souls" may be sacrificed "for a straw." This is the same young man who, having protracted his revenge to the point of discarding it, finally falls under Laertes' envenomed rapier, and is indirectly responsible for the death of Ophelia and the Queen and directly responsible for the murders of Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Claudius. (That's what happens when you rely on an incomplete university education to fend for yourself in the outside world.)

Being blinded by an apothegm is what brings about Hamlet's downfall -- and at the root of that apothegm is the fallacy that "to find quarrel in a straw, when honor's at the stake" is a perfectly justifiable course of action. Hamlet cannot distinguish between a real cause and an imaginary one. There is much that a certain kind of production of Hamlet could bestow upon audiences in this turbulent period of American history.

"Universality is a fundamental attribute of the artistic transformation," wrote Robert Cohen, and "the true artist always perceives in the immediate condition implications that are unbounded in space and time." By presenting us with the ritualization of suffering, by projecting deeply-rooted feelings of "terror and pity," we gain a perspective that helps us deal with terror and pity in our own lives. God knows we have an abundance of both at the moment. Gaining uncluttered insight into our current situation is ultimately more reassuring than festooning our homes and cars with Old Glory or passionately hymning "God Bless America." The higher patriotism in any country comes from enlightened citizens who refuse to be hoodwinked by mind-deadening platitudes. The heat of international crises cry out for cool-headed analysis, ways of doping out the philosophic subtext beneath the furor of partisan passions; to reduce unwieldy abstractions and glittering generalities (God, National Security, Democracy, Oppression) into the lucid paradigms one encounters in the work of writers such as Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, Racine, Ibsen, Brecht, Durennmatt, Frisch, Sartre and others.

The theatre is not the United Nations General Assembly and I'm not suggesting that overwhelming international crises can be solved by actors and playwrights. But I contend that behind every great national crisis, there is a conjunction of philosophical strands that have somehow gotten crossed, and one useful way of uncrossing them is to delve into parallel crises that are found -- microcosmically -- in traditional works of art. Rather than "lose ourselves in art," we should try to use the creative accomplishments of the past 2500 years to find our way out of darkness. Rather than dunning ourselves with partisan jargon (which only withers through repetition), we should apply the insights of art to brush the cobwebs from our minds.

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URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/cmarow10.html
Published February 28, 2005