Playing God: The Rise of the Actor and the Decline of Tragic Art

In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche argues that through his protégé Euripides, Socrates had injected into Greek tragedy the seed of questioning doubt that brought an end to the religious animus of drama, the fire that fueled its creation and sustained it. Thus, cold reason killed tragedy. Although he would later modify this view, it remains a powerful and influential polemic in the history of aesthetics.

I would like to propose a variant explanation for the death of drama in the ancient world — one that, while not necessarily throwing out Nietzsche’s conception, standing as it does more upon the musical and mthological aspects of tragedy rather than actors or characters, is grounded more on the evidence and authority of history, and is thus less complicated than the apparatus of the Apollonian and Dionysian principles Nietzsche used to define tragic motivation. Nevertheless, I hope to show that, despite this, Nietzsche might have agreed with at least some of my conclusions.

Tragedy before Euripides was very much an art that raised important questions. Sophocles’s Antigone, which Hegel pointed to as the high point of Greek drama, involved questions concerning the individual conscience and the state, and whether personal values can come before the perceived greater good of the community as a whole. So it would be unfair to say that, at least in this broad view, that pre-Euripidean tragedy did not involve itself with questioning. After all, it was this very desire to give meaning to the suffering of life through a religious rite that, as Nietzsche recognizes, brought it into existence.

However, there was indeed a change that came with Euripides. Nietzsche perceived this change as due to the influence of Socrates, whose need to undermine all certainties, in turn, undermined the very origin of tragedy as a religious ritual, of the universalizing qualities of myth. This may be so, but I would go further in specifying a type of reasoning, in particular, that involving the political sphere, that marks the true, and perhaps inevitable, alteration in tragedy’s fabric.

As the last of the great triad of dramatic poets, Euripides was born in an Athens expanding into an empire — born, according to tradition, on the very day of the Battle of Salamis, the great naval action that forever destroyed Persian hopes of conquering Greece. After winning this decisive victory against the Persian invasion, Athens was emboldened by her command of the seas to branch out and increase her territory and influence. By the start of the Peloponnesian War, Athens had become such a power in the region that she began to appear a threat to neighboring Sparta. The ensuing period of conflict was reflected in the subject matter of Euripides’s dramas.

Whether one interprets the early plays to be patriotic in content and the latter plays to be antiwar is of little concern in this discussion. What matters is the obvious contemporary political commentary Euripides directs to his audience. Tragedy was no longer the expression of the eternal but had begun its slide into the earthly and the ephemeral. My purpose here is not so much to pass judgment on Nietzsche’s claim that this slide meant the death of Greek tragedy, as it is to draw attention to the new dynamic between the stage and its reflection of the realities of life and the political world.

At around this same time, in the last flowering of the Athenian stage, being a tragic actor had grown into a true profession, with all the weight of ego and pretension that came with it. The Artists of Dionysus was established, a guild that both offered organized support to professionals, and protected established actors’ interests by controlling who could and could not perform. The social status of actors attained a level of respectability it would not see again until the modern-day, and as we shall see this newly achieved status made possible new forms of abuse.

The ancient world, where mass media did not exist, was a world in thrall to the spoken word. This was especially true of Athens, and later Rome, where great orators not only used their rhetorical skills to win court cases but as an essential tool for political advancement as well. Just like the orator, the actor was a trained speaker and had developed skills for performing convincing emotional states, facts that led the Roman rhetorician Quintilian to recommend observing actors as a form of rhetorical study to his pupils. Therefore, it is not at all strange that, with the rise of the actor’s social status in Greek society, the actor’s involvement with the political world of the orator began to overlap.

I think this is nowhere better illustrated than by the career of Aeschines, the archrival of Demosthenes, and one of the greatest Attic orators, whose career began on the stage before moving to the law courts. Demosthenes himself, the greatest orator of any age by some assessments, was rumored to have been taught elocution by the tragic actor Polus of Aegina, his equal in fame. No shame was involved, as the actor was viewed as the practitioner of a holy religious ritual, and their persons were considered inviolable, allowing them to move through war zones and foreign territory with complete immunity. This high esteem, along with their speaking skills, made them excellent ambassadors, and we have many examples from antiquity of such embassies of actors speaking on behalf of their cities on the most important of diplomatic missions.

The power to draw the masses together and to influence those masses were acceptable and necessary powers of the actor and orator; they help ensure a democratic society and, for these very reasons, remained a threat to absolute power when democracy was dead. In the wake of King Philip of Macedon’s quest to control the whole of Greece, a quest aided in part by the turncoat actors Aristodemus and Neoptolemus in their capacity as ambassadors, we might contend that among the first liberties to be curtailed was the liberty to dissent. It is telling that, with the ascent of the Hellenistic monarchies that arose upon the death of Alexander the Great, among the changes in literature was the development of New Comedy.

New Comedy represented a break with the outrageous and bawdy style of Aristophanes’s Old Comedy, a comedy meant to satirize and poke fun at politicians and other public figures who were perceived by Athenian society to have become too big for their britches. By contrast, New Comedy was tame, domesticated. In fact, it is the very source of the domestic kitchen-sink comedy we still enjoy today. No longer were satire and invective used to lampoon the mighty. Instead, stock character types with broad universal appeal and no political commentary became the order of the day.

For tragedy, this fate was suffered twice over. It could no longer be allowed to address the contemporary but, in addition, with the rise of the actor, the content was no longer important. Whatever serviced the actor’s needs was now paramount. What was more important were stories pleasing to a mass audience, subject matter that was easily understood outside the social and political context of Athens and, above all, roles that gave the actors the best opportunity to display their versatility.

Such an example we find in another treatment of the myth of Antigone, this time by the very popular Astydamas the Younger. Much of Sophocles’s plot remains but, instead of the bleak ending of the original that raised uncomfortable questions for the audience to answer for themselves, we have the introduction of a deus ex machina in the form of Heracles to bring the play to a less unsettling conclusion. Drama, once the showcase of free speech and arresting ideas, had become merely the vehicle for the actor, a spectacle of inoffensive and unenlightening mass entertainment.

At this point, the reader may be led to protest at the perceived illogic of such a proposition. Did not drama, including tragedy, revive at the start of the Renaissance? And did not Europe see a continuous succession of great dramatists from Shakespeare to Ibsen? This is so, and it would be ridiculous to contend that King Lear or Racine’s Phaedra are not tragedies in the highest sense. No, again it is the actor upon whom I wish to focus — the political context that he inhabits and how this pattern affects drama today.

We have already seen the Greek stage devolve into something less than divine with the fall of the Athenian empire and then the development of the Hellenistic monarchies. With the rise of the Roman Empire, this pattern becomes even more pronounced. It is well known that Roman theater abjured tragedy in preference to comedies derived from the Greek model of Menander. But even this rather sophisticated dramatic writing paled in terms of popularity with the pantomime.

A truly Roman art, pantomime evolved from having limited speaking and singing to a totally wordless presentation. This was the very best form of acting in an authoritarian society. Unlike the Greeks, Roman actors were held in contempt at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. Nevertheless, their popularity with the crowd and their symbolic quality as signals of a patron’s wealth and pretensions to Greek culture gained them entry to the very highest perches of imperial power, even as friends and advisors to the Emperor himself (Mnester under Claudius, if not Caligula, and Paris under Domitian representing some of their greatest excesses).

With the fall of Rome in the West and the growing adoption of Christianity, the reputation and status of the actor reached its lowest point. Even as drama revived with the stirrings of the Renaissance, acting as a profession was looked upon with disdain and suspicion. Until the nineteenth century, the word actor was a near-synonym of prostitute and clown. How far from being the votaries of Dionysus they had fallen!

This Christian-inspired view kept actors out of high places in the intervening centuries, royal actress mistresses notwithstanding. It could almost be said that between the ages of Nero and Reagan the actor stood apart. With the twentieth century, however, increasing secularization and the growing popularity of film began to change this view. Once more the actor had become a “star,” and the cult of celebrity has almost come to take the role once played by religion, filling the void left over by the death of God.

It is here that we look back to Nietzsche and his own comments upon the death of tragic art:

A people which takes as its point of departure the absolute validity of the political instincts will just as necessarily end up following a path of extreme secularization, whose greatest but also most terrifying expression is the Roman imperium. Situated between India and Rome and forced to make a seductive choice, the Greeks managed to invent with classical purity an additional third form, admittedly not one they used personally for long, but for that very reason they achieved immortality. For that the favorites of the gods die young holds true in all things, but it is just as certain that they then enjoy eternal life with the gods. One should not ask of the noblest thing of all that it have the toughness and durability of leather; stout perseverance, as is typical for example of the Roman national drive, is in all probability not one of the necessary predicates of perfection. But when we ask which remedy enabled the Greeks in their period of greatness, at the time of the extraordinary strength of their Dionysian and political drives, to avoid exhausting themselves either in ecstatic brooding or in a consuming pursuit of global power and prestige, and to achieve rather that glorious mixture resembling a noble wine, which both inflames and induces contemplation on the part of the drinker, then we must remember the tremendous power of tragedy which stimulates, purifies, and discharges the whole life of the people; whose highest value we only sense when it draws near us, as in the case of the Greeks, as the epitome of all prophylactic healing powers, as the mediator which holds sway over the strongest and in themselves most disastrous characteristics of the people. (The Birth of Tragedy, trans., Douglas Smith)

What should we take from this? At least in part, it would seem to suggest that Nietzsche agrees that there was a political component in tragedy’s demise. Further, it is telling that he singles out secularization, a decline in the spiritual, as a factor.

This is not to say that a return to religion is enough or even can revive tragedy. On the contrary, as we have already demonstrated, religion in the form of Christianity witnessed a series of great playwrights. Rather, it is this turning away from the author in preference to the actor, in conjunction with the rise of imperial aspirations and authoritarian governance, as well as the death of faith and its comforting illusions that make for such a noxious mixture. Nietzsche confirms this role for religion in tragedy’s birth when he writes:

I feel myself compelled to the metaphysical assumption that the truly existent primal unity, eternally suffering and contradictory, also needs the rapturous vision, the pleasurable illusion, for its continuous redemption. (The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Walter Kaufmann)

The hopes of the worldly rather than the otherworldly begin to intrude; the concerns of the moment, replacing the contemplation of the eternal, render the tragic into mere melodrama.

With this, we begin to see the true nature of things. The actor, symbol of free speech, ironically becomes just another mouthpiece of power; the troublesome questioning poet is shouted down — at best. The worst is most ironically demonstrated by the career of the actor turned bounty-hunter Archias. Hired by a Macedonian strong man to capture the great orator Demosthenes, he tracked his quarry to the island of Kalaureia and the Temple of Poseidon where the aging statesman had taken refuge. Archias made many assurances to the wanted man that no harm would come to him, but the experienced politician was unconvinced:

“…Demosthenes, in his sleep the night before, had seen a strange vision. He dreamed…that he was acting in a tragedy and contending with Archias for the prize, and that although he acquitted himself well and won the favor of the audience, his lack of stage decorations and costumes cost him the victory. Therefore, after Archias had said many kindly things to him, Demosthenes, just as he sat, looked steadfastly at him and said: ‘O Archias, you never convinced me with your acting, nor will you now convince me with your promises.’”

With that the greatest orator of his age, the last voice for Greek freedom, gave his final bow and made his exit, drinking the poison secreted in the hollow shaft of a stylus.

Tragic art must inevitably die anywhere the performer has been given precedence over the creator, and this precedence is almost always initiated were the factors cited above press back against the desires of unfettered creation.

For the actor does not create, but only interprets what another has made, as a musician does with a composer’s score. For the actor, the content of what is acted is never so important as how it is acted. The words are merely a vehicle for the actor’s performance, a demonstration of his or her versatility. Consequently, any opportunity to appear before an audience is acceptable regardless of context or ethical implication. So long as the star is allowed to shine, damn the consequences. A similar observation was made by T. S. Eliot in his essay “The Possibility of a Poetic Drama”:

A struggle, more or less unconscious, between the creator and the interpreter is almost inevitable. The interest of a performer is almost certain to be centered in himself: a very slight acquaintance with actors and musicians will testify. The performer is interested not in form but in opportunities for virtuosity or in the communication of his “‘personality’”; the formlessness, the lack of intellectual clarity and distinction in modern music, the great physical stamina and physical training which it often requires, are perhaps signs of the triumph of the performer. The consummation of the triumph of the actor over the play is perhaps the productions of the Guitry.

Seen in this light, the death of tragedy is no longer merely of academic interest, but a sign that of something that the average individual should heed. More than anything, art — a phenomenon that is an inescapable part of every person’s life, and, one might argue, the crowning glory of our species — should not be viewed so casually as mere passive entertainment.

The drama began as an act of religious observance in honor of the god Dionysus and, through the experiment of democracy, became the supreme art form of an age, the actor being but a mere officiant. It should alarm us, then, when through some perverse dialectic the actor becomes the focus and not what is enacted. The actor, once a servant of a god, has now become a god; a miraculous blasphemy for our time that has perhaps already given us reason to repent.

The preceding was previously published in a different form at The Partially Examined Life.


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