Epic Drama

by Michael Silk

John Barton's Tantalus is the latest in a remarkable series of attempts to explore the territory between two categories of literary experience: epic and drama. Epic and drama themselves are known things (or so we suppose). We know of epic from ancient India, from still more ancient Sumeria, from medieval Iceland and elsewhere; but, for the Western world, epic is what the Greeks invented or brought to an early perfection in the poems of Homer in or around the eighth century BC. Drama, too, for the Western world is something the Greeks invented, maybe in more than one quarter of the Greek world, but something that reached its perfection in the fifth century BC in the three contrasting types—satyric drama, comic drama, tragic drama—that were featured at the theatrical festivals of Athens.

A hundred years or so after the high point of drama in Athens, and four hundred years or so after the presumed composition of the Homeric epics, Aristotle's Poetics, the first notable work of Western literary theory, offers a theorization of the different kinds of literature ('poetry') known to Aristotle in the Greek world, with particular reference to the relationships between the different kinds of literature themselves, and to the relationships between each kind and the known world of human 'action' and 'life' outside the literary sphere. For Aristotle - who, very properly, is given to making value judgements - drama (that is, the tragic drama of Athens) is the foremost kind of literature, and epic poetry (that is, the poetry of Homer) comes second. (I do not mean that this is necessarily an unassailable value judgement, simply that it is unassailably right to cultivate value judgements: one is not obliged to wallow in ignominious relativisms, like much of our contemporary world, under the sign of pluralist tolerance or nihilist self-indulgence.) For Aristotle, drama and epic are not opposites, but merely different. They are both elevated forms of poetry, and indeed epic is a sort of spiritual ancestor of tragic drama. Homer, says Aristotle (Poetics iv), was the supreme poet of elevated subjects; his successors abandoned epic to become tragedians.

For Aristotle, the difference between epic and dramatic literature centres on their mode of representation: mimesis, in his word. Greek drama is acted; Greek epic is narrated, albeit sometimes narrated with, or as, direct speech, which, for Aristotle and other Greeks, is seen as a kind of impersonation. Greek drama, tragic drama, is also chacteristically more unified (more concentrated, in Aristotle's terms), so that, as he puts it (Poetics xxvi), 'from any one epic' you can make 'several tragedies'. There are also hints in the Poetics of other major points of affinity and contrast between Greek epic and the tragic drama of Athens. Both forms tend to focus on central individuals. Both tend to centre on conflicts - conflicts between one individual and another, or one group and another, or both (or even, arguably, between one individual and him/herself, though this last kind of conflict, in particular, is hardly one of Aristotle's concerns). The scale of epic (we might add) is characteristically grander (though Aristotle never quite spells this out); and epic poetry and tragic drama in their Greek embodiments tend to involve tensions and confrontations between mythological heroes (who are superhuman, or more than ordinarily human) and gods (who are not human at all). But this fundamental characteristic of Greek tragedy and epic, though implicit in Aristotle's data, is never made explicit or in any way confronted by him.

Aristotle's formulations, though historically of great importance, and though deserving respect for various reasons, are not to be thought of as authoritative, albeit taken to be authoritative when the Poetics came to light in the Renaissance and treated as such by most of the critics and some of the writers of epic poetry and tragic drama in the Renaissance. Authoritative formulations, if such exist, are most readily available when the theorist has access to alternative points of reference. When it comes to theorizing epic and drama, Aristotle has the great advantage of sharing a cultural continuum with the Attic tragedians—Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus—and, more distantly, Homer, but the great disadvantage of not knowing Shakespearean or Racinian drama, or Miltonic or Virgilian epic, being born too early, and in any case being born into a culturally impertinent nation which tended to patronize or ignore the works of others - even when, notionally, available.

A more authoritative statement, or re-statement, of the relationship between epic and drama is offered in 1797 by the two great writer-theorists of Weimar Germany, Goethe and Schiller, in a short essay 'On Epic and Dramatic Poetry'. [1] For Goethe and Schiller, as for Aristotle, both epic and drama are almost always verse epic and verse drama, and, for all three, drama means primarily tragic or (as many people these days are inclined to say) 'serious' drama. For Aristotle, epic and drama are different but related. For Goethe and Schiller, they are opposites. Epic is narrated; drama is acted. Epic is set in the past; drama is set in a notional present. Epic is, or may be, expansive in time and place (as, say, Homer's Odyssey takes place in several locations over a period of years); drama is, or may be, very limited in scope - and Greek tragic drama markedly so. Epic centres on individual action as physical interaction with the world (in battles or journeys or whatever); drama centres on individual suffering, where the individual interacts with himself or herself - or so say Goethe and Schiller. (One might well query that last formulation, though its suggestive value is apparent.) Epic assumes a reciter who is detached from the tale told, and invites a contemplative response; drama assumes an actor who is involved in the events enacted, and invites an empathetic response. 'Objective' epic, then, is opposed to 'subjective' drama. (The suggestive value of the contrast is, again, apparent, though Plato, for one, would have been unconvinced by any such assumption about 'epic detachment': his celebrated depiction of an epic reciter, the rhapsode Ion in the dialogue of that name, unequivocally assumes a passionate, empathizing actor.)

According to the Goethe-Schiller thesis, there is one large area of common ground between epic and drama: both forms deal, or should deal, with 'significant' subjects and with characters living 'during a cultural period in which spontaneous actions are still possible.' [2] The epic and tragic heroes, that is, have the power to make choices and must inhabit a universe in which it makes sense for them to have the power to make choices. This important common element, however, in no way undermines the opposition. For Goethe and Schiller, epic and drama are antithetical categories.

Seventy-five years later, epic and drama are again seen as antithetical categories in the boldest and most celebrated formulation of their relationship, in Friedrich Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy (1872). For Nietzsche, epic is the sphere of Apollo: of wonderful illusion and beauty; of lucid, contemplative, sculptural delineation. Serious drama—and, in particular, tragic drama—is primarily the sphere of Dionysus: sphere of appalling truth; of dark, immediate, musical, possession. And the two, the Apolline and the Dionysiac, the epic and the tragic-dramatic, are separated, in Nietzsche's words, 'as if by a tremendous chasm' (The Birth of Tragedy §16). Tragic drama itself, however (so Nietzsche argues), is not purely Dionysiac. It is primarily Dionysiac, but in its triumphant embodiments, it presents the complete reconciliation of the two antithetical tendencies. In the tragedies of Aeschylus, of Sophocles, in the tragedies of Shakespeare (apparently), and in the music-drama of Wagner (Wagner's 'near-tragedy' as George Steiner put it) [3] - in all these theatrical manifestations, or so Nietzsche assures us, 'Dionysus speaks the language of Apollo, and Apollo, finally, the language of Dionysus, whereby the highest goal of tragedy and all art is achieved' (§21). In practice, this means that, for instance, in the Greek tragic tradition of Aeschylus and Sophocles, there is a perfect balance between (on the one hand) the lucid delineations of the dialogue, of the articulated and articulate heroic individuals and their hopes and aspirations, and (on the other hand) the enigmatic wisdom of the singing chorus, of dark myths, and the terrors of irrational truth which are there beneath the articulate and the articulated.

In Nietzsche's celebrated view of Greek literary history, however, this perfect balance is famously, insidiously, irrevocably upset by Euripides - a view of Greek literary history that owes something to ancient tradition (not least the ambivalent representation of Euripides in Aristophanic comedy), but a view that finds its justification in Nietzsche's own inimitable terms of reference. For Nietzsche, Euripides is the enemy of Dionysus, the dark god Dionysus, the creative god Dionysus, the creative-because-dark god Dionysus. Euripides, says Nietzsche, needs to understand everything. He has to explain, to make sense, to rationalize.

By way of explaining Euripides, Nietzsche appeals to Socrates and the Socratic. Had he known the work of Keats, at this point in his argument he might well have cited Keats's magnificent concept of negative capability: 'when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude, caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge'. [4] And for Nietzsche, Euripides is very like Keats's version of Coleridge: irritably reaching after fact and reason. Nietzsche's Euripides cannot abide enigma, dark wisdom, irrational truth. This is a strange reading, one might think, of Euripides' Medea, or Hippolytus, or Heracles (none of which Nietzsche discusses), or Euripides' Bacchae (which he does discuss, albeit briefly). But it remains Nietzsche's reading: his Euripides confronts and challenges the Dionysiac, as Euripides' Pentheus confronts and challenges the character Dionysus in the Bacchae. His Euripides seeks to eliminate the Dionysiac basis of tragic drama altogether, in favour of a new, experimental, audaciously rational drama, based on the Apolline without the Dionysiac - which is, however, an impossible goal because, it turns out, the Dionysiac is the precondition of the Apolline, and without it, the Apolline atrophies and withers.

In Nietzsche's phrase, Euripides' doomed ambition is to reconstruct tragic drama as 'dramatized epic'(§12). Hence, for instance, Euripides' undoubted liking for two distinctive features: the divine expository prologue at the beginning of a play, and the deus ex machina—the god on the machine—at the end. With a play like Hippolytus tacitly in mind - a play which begins with an epiphany by the goddess Aphrodite and ends (more or less) with an epiphany by the goddess Artemis - Nietzsche writes (§12):

Aeschylean and Sophoclean tragedy employed the most ingenious devices in the opening scenes to place in the spectator's hands, as if by chance, all the threads necessary for a complete understanding. . . Yet Euripides thought he could see that in these first scenes the spectator was so anxious to solve the problem of the background history, that the poetic beauty and emotion of the exposition was lost on him. So he put the prologue even before the exposition and placed it in the mouth of a person who could be trusted; often some deity had to authorize the tragic plot to the public to remove any possible doubt about the reality of the myth, rather as Descartes could only prove the reality of the empirical world by appealing to the truthfulness of god and his inability to tell lies. Euripides makes use of the same divine truthfulness once again at the close of his drama, in order to reassure his public about the future of his heroes. This is the task of the notorious deus ex machina. Between the epic preview and the epic prospect lies the dramatic-lyric present - the drama proper.

Anyone familiar with Euripidean drama and its striking diversity will note in Nietzsche's characterizations of Euripidean experiments the element of caricature - if only, though not only, because the epic preview and epic prospect don't always occur, or don't occur in the same plays, and so on. For all that, Nietzsche offers us an incisive image of the broad tendency of Euripides' experiments and, more widely, an unforgettable dramatization of the sense in which what he calls 'dramatized epic' can be felt to be a contradiction, a paradox, a problem, just as for Euripides, supposedly, traditional tragic drama - with its enigma and its lucidity all bound up in one - was all of these things.

Contradiction, paradox, problem, dramatized epic: does the configuration ring any bells? Jump forward a couple of generations-sixty years or so-but stay in Germany and within the German traditions of dramatic theory, and the bells ring loud and clear for Bertolt Brecht and his 'epic drama' - or 'epic theatre,' or 'dialectical theatre,' or 'dialectical drama,' or 'non-Aristotelian theatre,' or 'non-Aristotelian drama' (Brecht calls it all of these things, and other things too). Brecht and his epic drama (to stick, for convenience, with that name) is full of contradiction, paradox, problem, just as it is all about the contradiction, paradox and problem that Brecht, as revolutionary playwright, director, and Marxist theoretician, detects in the capitalist, bourgeois world of the twentieth century, and seeks to expose, in his new, experimental drama, from The Threepenny Opera to Mother Courage and beyond. In his voluminous writings on the theatre and his new theatre, on Aristotle's ideas about drama and German ideas about drama, Brecht says not a word about Nietzsche's version of Euripides, though it is clear that he knew Nietzsche's argument perfectly well, and though in certain striking ways, per contra, it fits his own case. Nietzsche's version, or vision, of the subversive genius Euripides, who so appals Nietzsche, is in certain striking ways the prefiguration of the great experimenter Brecht, who would have appalled him more.

When Brecht calls his new type of drama 'epic', he refers both to dramatic and production technique, and to audience reaction. In the first place, a dramatic entity need not, in fact must not, be unified in the Aristotelian sense. Writing in the mid-1930s, he says:

Many people suppose that the term 'epic theatre' is a contradiction in terms, because the epic and dramatic ways of telling a story are assumed, with Aristotle, to be fundamentally distinct.

It would (one notes) have been more apt to say 'with Goethe and Schiller', but Brecht says 'with Aristotle', because he tends to appeal to Aristotle, both in particular and as a kind of cover term for all dramatic theory and practice before Brecht himself. [5] Brecht carries on:

[Actually, there is a] dramatic element in epic works, and an epic element in the dramatic. The bourgeois novel in the [nineteenth] ... century developed much that was dramatic, by which one means the strong centralization of the story, a momentum that drew the separate parts into a common relationship ... The epic writer Döblin came up with an excellent characterization when he said that with an epic, as opposed to a dramatic, work you can as it were take a pair of scissors and cut it into individual pieces which remain fully capable of life. [6]

For Brecht, this epic decentring is crucial, because it fosters the spectator's sense of distance and critical thought. In traditional drama, sequence is consequence: everything follows inevitably, everything comes to seem natural, and the spectator is swept along in a spirit of identification and empathy ('Einfühlung' is the German word). For the Marxist Brecht, the opposite is called for. The spectator must be provoked, must be made to think, must be brought to a stage of realization in which his sharpened critical faculties cry out for action: 'Change the world - it needs it', in the words of one of the slogans that Brecht liked to display in his auditorium for his audience to be provoked and awakened by. The technique-one of consciousness-raising, but more than that-Brecht summed up in the word 'estrangement' ('Verfremdung'). The spectator must be awakened to action by being shocked and disturbed into awareness of the underlying laws of life-notably the assumed Marxian laws of class-conflict-as they are seen to be latent in the drama to hand. Looking back in the mid-1930s to his own earlier theatrical work, Brecht comments:

The spectator was no longer ... allowed to submit to an experience uncritically, and without practical consequences, by means of simple empathy with the characters in a play. The production took the subject-matter and the incidents shown and put them through a process of estrangement, the estrangement that is necessary to all understanding. When something seems 'the most obvious thing in the world', it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up. What is 'natural' must have the force of what is startling. This is the only way to expose the laws of cause and effect. Human activity must simultaneously be like that and be capable of being something else.[7]

Throughout his career, Brecht experiments with a variety of production techniques calculated to help achieve the required goal, from stage narration to simultaneous film projection, techniques which, thanks to Brecht in particular and others of his circle like Piscator, have become commonplace in modern theatre, albeit often without Brecht's clear logic behind them. Here, for instance, is part of his frank account of his production of Antigone (loosely based on Hölderlin's classic translation of Sophocles' play), which took place in Switzerland in 1948. The account is revealing, on various levels, of Brecht's preoccupations, of his self-criticism, and not least of the urgency of his sense of the present as dictating artistic choices:

The Antigone story was chosen for the theatrical project in hand, because it offered a certain topicality of subject matter and posed some interesting formal questions... The present-day analogies turned out to be surprisingly powerful, but on the whole they were a handicap ...[when it came to grasping] the really remarkable element in this Antigone play: the role of force in the collapse of the head of state. The Antigone story unfolds the whole chain of incidents objectively, on the unfamiliar level of the rulers. This possibility of presenting a major state operation objectively is due precisely to the fact, fatal in another respect, that the ancient play is historically so remote that no one is tempted to identify himself with its principal figure. Here too its elements of epic form were a help... Greek dramaturgy uses certain forms of estrangement, notably interventions by the chorus, to try and reclaim some of that freedom of calculation that Schiller is uncertain how to achieve.[8]

And Brecht goes on to discuss the set design by Casper Neher:

There are long benches for the actors to sit on and wait for their cues in front of a semicircle of screens covered in red-coloured rush matting. In the middle of these screens there is a gap left, where the gramophone apparatus stands and is operated in full visibility. Through this gap the actors can go off when their part is done. The acting area is bounded by four posts, with horses' skulls hanging from them ... At the start, a board with the time and place on is lowered above the wall: there is no curtain. The reason why the actors sit openly on the stage and only take up the poses appropriate to their parts once they enter the ... [lit] acting area is that the audience must not be allowed to think it has been transported to the scene of the story... As for the style of presentation, we agree with Aristotle that the story is the kernel of the tragedy, even if we disagree about the point of performing it.[9]

And then Brecht moves on to the acting, and what he calls the actors' 'stylization':

[The] object [of this] stylization is to show the audience, as a part of society, what matters for society in the story... To keep performance subordinate to story, we gave bridge-verses to the actors at rehearsals, for them to deliver in the manner of a narrator. Before stepping onto the acting area for her first time, Helene Weigel [as Antigone] said (and in subsequent rehearsals she would hear the prompter say): 'So then Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, went gathering dust in her bowl to cover the dead Polynices.' The actress playing Ismene, before she entered, said: 'And her sister Ismene came upon her as she did this.' ... And so on. Each speech or action that is introduced by such verses comes to seem like their realization in practice, and the actor is prevented from transforming himself or herself completely into the character. Instead they are showing something.[10]

Thinking back from Brecht to Nietzsche, and from Nietzsche to Nietzsche's Euripides, one might well raise the question whether the label 'epic' might not be illuminatingly attached to aspects of Greek tragic drama itself, as Brecht attaches it to choral commentary. There is, of course, the familiar element of messenger speeches in Greek tragedy, which do precisely narrate an event or a sequence in more or less epic fashion. Then there is a case for the proposition that the connected trilogy form introduces an epic quality into the dramatic arena. By the time of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, Greek playwrights offered in competition sets of three, or strictly four, new plays: three tragedies plus a satyr play. But the idea of making the three into three sequentially linked parts of one myth seems to have been peculiarly Aeschylean, and we have indeed one surviving example by Aeschylus, the Oresteia. Here at least, though, the epic quality of the drama has less to do with epic in the Brechtian sense, and more to do with the grand scale of the new whole.

In precisely this way, of course, the label 'epic' is used in that most familiar species of modern epic drama, in the cinema, where indeed the individual drama tends to be called simply 'an epic'. From D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915) to Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible films of the 1940s, cinema has explored the extended, grand portrayal of heroic events, and, among the instances, classical or Greco-Roman subjects figure prominently, in the Hollywood epic above all, where 'heroic', in turn, implies a focus on Hollywood heroes. Prime examples include Ramon Novarro's Ben Hur (1925), Kirk Douglas's Spartacus (1960), Russell Crowe's Gladiator (2000). And even in such a popular success as Gladiator, something survives of the sense of the special and the experimental that seems to characterize the epic-dramatic as a whole.

From The Greeks (1980) to Tantalus today, John Barton has attempted to stake out this territory in his own way, by exploring the notion of drama as cycle, drama indeed with an epic scope and range, drama with the latitude of myth, not only but not least the myth of ancient Greece. If epic drama, or dramatized epic, is (and remains) a paradox, we can celebrate John Barton's Tantalus as the latest in a long and remarkable series of attempts to bring the paradox to new life and to our attention.

Prof. Michael Silk
Department of Classics
King's College London
London WC2R 2LS, UK