Ancient drama is great because it is true. The humour is true, the fine analysis of the human condition is true, the problems, conundrums and paradoxes it reveals are all true. We still go back to them. And not just for Freudian explorations, but also for entertainment/problematisations and for a sense that the stuff they explore is still with us today.
I can hardly be more dramatic when I say that all humanity is contained in the few tragedies that have survived from the ancient Greek world. Only a few because far more were produced – but time, that ceaseless lackey to eternity, is also the great destroyer of worlds. Or the minister to their eternal silence.
In ancient tragedy, all human pulsions, desires, weaknesses, strengths, challenges, fears and terrors meet. Questions are asked, but no answers are given. The ancient muses were inquisitive, but not moralising. Sophocles doesn’t tell you what to do when you act blindly, though thinking you’re following an insight, like in Oedipus Rex. Euripides offers you the option of radical revenge, Medea-style, but reveals the cost involved.
Ancient drama puts forward a model of humanity built on agency and suffering. There is no act without a bill attached to it. And we may not always have the right currency to settle it.
After 2,500 years, the questions are still being asked. The Sphynx is blocking the road, its riddles befuddling the path to self-knowledge and self-transcendence.
And we are likely to ask the same questions for as long as there are voices to rise in defiance and settle in acceptance. Only the answers will always be different.
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