NEW ANCIENT THEATER : Writing 'Greek' Tragedies

By Paul Withers
Department of Classics University of Reading
Reading, England
E-mail: P.S.Withers@reading.ac.uk

I began composing 'Greek' tragedies two years ago with a play about Acrisius and Perseus that failed to qualify as 'Greek' drama because the action was spread over about twenty years. Since then I have written two short tragedies, Scylla and Patroclus, and a full-length historical tragedy, Athenians, about the failure of the Sicilian Expedition (415-413 BC). To attempt to write a Greek tragedy and follow in the footsteps of such literary giants as Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides seems a daunting task to say the least. How can one even come close to emulating such playwriting geniuses? But after reading other tragedies and understanding the basics one may at least attempt to soar towards this virtual Olympus.

The two most important laws of Greek tragedy are unity of place and unity of time. By this I mean that action should take place within one day and in one place. Of course this rule has its exceptions - one has only to think of Aeschylus' Eumenides where Orestes and the Furies leave Delphi and immediately arrive in Athens. Rarely, however, is there more than one jump and most tragedies do conform to these laws.

Bearing in mind these laws one can next choose a myth around which to construct the play. It barely needs to be said that the myth should include some tragic action - plays such as the Helen that have a happy ending were usually written in place of a satyr-play. This tragic action need not include a death - Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound is a good example of a tragedy without a death. In order to choose a myth one should bear in mind themes one wishes to bring out in the play and the reason for writing the play. This is all the more important if one wishes to write about a myth which been has used by another playwright. For example, the tragedy I have just begun involves three shorter tragedies describing the emotional destruction of Achilles, which probably was not a theme in Aeschylus' trilogy of tragedies. Thus it is unnecessary to show the physical destruction of Achilles, and I do not include the ransoming of Hector's body which Aeschylus uses in his Iliadic trilogy; in my opinion it adds nothing to the emotional destruction of Achilles.

Once one has chosen the myth one must develop the plot. One should attempt not to stray too far from the bounds of the myth--Hector must kill Patroclus. But one can manipulate the story, as I have done, so that Achilles and the audience see Hector alone as responsible for Patroclus' death. Thus the whole of Achilles' guilt and anger is thrust upon Hector. However, some myths are very ambiguous. Take for example the myth of Scylla, who betrayed her city to Minos by cutting off the lock of her father's hair which magically preserved the city. I found twelve ancient authors who alluded to the myth, and they differed often. Given this tradition I felt justified in creating a different version of the story by combining some elements from each.The resulting theme was love: Scylla loved Minos, as in most versions; her nurse, Carme (taken from Virgil's Ciris ), had loved and been spurned by Nisus; and Minos was undertaking the siege out of love for Carme's daughter , Britomartis. (A separate myth existed which said that Minos had at one time loved Britomartis, but she had spurned him fleeing into the sea, from where she had been saved by Artemis and become her priestess.) In my version the scorned Carme lured Minos with a tale that Britomartis was alive and was being held captive by Nisus. Thus a new version of the tale emerged with two completely new elements - Carme's love for Nisus, and Minos' love for Britomartis, which prompted the siege.

Next comes the task of choosing the episodes. There are usually five or six for a full-length tragedy, but for my shorter tragedies I have tended to use three or four. When writing one must remember that the Greeks had at their disposal three actors at most, thus limiting the number of characters on stage at any one time and forcing a break so that an actor can leave the stage and return as a new character. Even though little is known of the exigencies of choral lyric I also use a developed chorus who participate in the action and whose lyric passages are not mere scene-dividers. The identity of the chorus is important. For my second tragedy, Patroclus, this took some thought. Since the Greeks were fighting for a major part of the play the chorus could not be Greek soldiers; captive Trojan soldiers would have been unsympathetic to Achilles, who would never even consider their advice; captive Trojan women could have been used but would not have given the desired advice; Myrmidon soldiers were ruled out because Patroclus leads them out during the play. Given these restrictions, I chose wounded Myrmidon soldiers: they could advise Achilles, who might actually heed them, and they had a legitimate reason for not fighting.

The final stage of planning is characterisation. I attempt to make my characters human so that an audience will sympathise with them, but also heroic because they are not mere mortals. This heroic stature comes across most clearly in the diction. I believe that heroes should speak in a register befitting their status and so my diction is very formal: '

My noble nature forces me to keep respect, But please consider Sparta's lords' request. I do Not try to trap you - noble men are born above Deception: trust my missive.'
(Patroclus 19-22 )

Metaphor and simile are a major feature of Greek tragedies, especially those of Aeschylus, who focuses on the visual. (Typical Greek images include the ship of state, nature images, sea images, disease and healing, and farming images.) Key words can be used to emphasise an idea. In Euripides' Bacchae the word sophos and its variations of meaning are used to great effect. In my Patroclus I used the key word yield, with its variety of meanings, several times within a short period:

'The Spartan plundered yields procured by me' (215) 'I yield my greaves first' (222) 'Yield? Never! Priam, Troy shall never see me yield' (226)

The absence of the word 'yield' in the context of Achilles re-entering the fray or Agamemnon admitting to Achilles that he was wrong emphasises the fact that neither man does yield. I am using this word to similar effect in the play I have just begun writing, The Arms of Achilles, which developed from Patroclus:

'Bold Achilles, brave who gained the yields alone.'(17)

In a monotheistic, often atheistic, world it is hard to empathise with a polytheistic society such as that of fifth-century Athens. But since religion played a large part in Greek drama and Greek mythology is so interlinked with the gods, an attempt to empathise must be made. Yet it is a hard line to tread: one is eager to give the gods due involvement yet reluctant to be excessive. For a 'Greek' tragedy one must connect events that we would not with the gods:

'But then Apollo tipped the scales: Patroclus thrice Assaulted Troy's walls; thrice Apollo hurled him off.' (371-2)

One should also include appeals to the gods :

' Approach, Hecate, scheming viper-minded queen, Medea's mother-cousin, Circe's midnight nurse.' (Scylla 1-2)

The gods should also have fitting epithets, which can be taken to excess in choral lyrics:

'Ares, broker of bones, God whose spear is battles' scales, Who quaffs a sea of blood per day, Who vends the souls of brayves to Dis, Who sports beyond the bourn in death, In slaughter, carnage, bloodshed, butch'ry, quell, and gore.' (Athenians 492-497)

This quotation illustrates the particular exigencies of tragic style. I have attempted to get as close as possible to the basic form of Greek tragedy. Thus I use the Greek metres--iambic trimeter and trochaic tetrameter catalectic for dialogue and a variety of lyric metres. Although the metres of ancient Greek were not based on stress, but the length of the syllable, I use the same metres merely using a stressed syllable where the Greeks would have used a long syllable, and an unstressed syllable where the Greeks would have used a short syllable. These metres are not easy to understand and take a lot of patience to compose-- on average I complete about ten to fifteen lines per hour. For the lyric passages (choral songs, kommoi, chanted anapaests) I also try to recreate the subtle change of dialect that exists in the Greek by using, in writing, the Middle English y-for-i substitution . Thus in the previous quotation 'braves' becomes 'brayves'. For production I am contemplating a slight extension of the vowel sound by using a sort of iota subscript. I have just begun writing a new tragedy, The Arms of Achilles, which is a trilogy of short tragedies. As is evident, though, I still have a long way to go to equal Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides.

(Paul Withers is pursuing an MA at Reading.)