5 Questions on Theater’s Role in Democracy

Politics has always been theatre; in fact, it started that way
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Apr 10, 2009

Peter Burian, professor of classical studies and theater studies at Duke, answers questions about the role of Greek theater in the development of Athenian democracy.  In addition to recently giving a series of six lectures on this topic in Sardinia, Burian has written numerous articles and books on Greek theater and new translations of Euripides’ Helen, The Suppliants and Aeschylus’ Oresteia and other ancient plays.

Q: What is the connection between theater and democracy?

It takes two forms.  One tries to isolate particular bits of plays that support politicians like Pericles and democratic policies.  You can find direct support for democracy in many comedies, for example, but in tragedies, such direct discussion is rare.

More recently, scholars have emphasized the civic ideology of the festivals in which dramas were presented and suggest there is a contrast between the sitting institutions embodied in the festivals and the questioning of so many ideological, moral and religious values in these places. 

What I’m trying to add to this discussion is a focus on how participation of the audience in theater helped promote democratic life in Athens. The Athenian conception of democracy gave a central role to frank and open speech, and the theater was a privileged locus of such speech. The Greek theater’s democratic character is not so much a matter of taking ideological positions that are certifiably democratic, but of participating in a culture of democratic discourse and expanding it to make heard the voices of women, foreigners, and slaves who had no place in the political institutions of the polis — speech mediated of course by the fact that male citizens acted all the parts.  Greek drama includes a large number of powerful, dynamic and dangerous women! 

Q. What is the role of tragedy in this process?

I think Greek tragedy had a neglected but tremendous role in the development of Athenian civic life. My job is to some degree to counter people who say that although there is a strain of civic ideology in Greek tragedy, nothing about it is necessarily or exclusively democratic.

What tragedies do is retell the stories of the traditional Greek heroes in a way that suggests a meaning of these old tales for a new democratic and civic audience.  The Greek heroes are part of the shared identity of the Greeks, but in democratic Athens there was a question of what to do with these old role models in a new political culture.

In Sophocles’ tragedy Ajax, for example, the hero has lost face in the contest for the armor of Achilles.  He realizes the only thing left for him to do is to kill himself since he can’t accept the loss of his honor.  And halfway through the play, he does so.  This is seen as a problem, because there’s an entire second act without the hero.

What happens in the second act is a debate about whether Ajax should be buried or not.  It’s a debate won by Odysseus, who represents a model of a new kind of hero.  The play suggests that Ajax, may be the traditional Greek hero, but he belongs to a world that is past.  Something else is needed, and that something is suggested by the arguments of Odysseus.

Q. Which came first, democracy or theater?

The evidence is that theater came first.  My old friend Bob Connor (former Duke faculty member and former director of the National Humanities Center) has an interesting argument that theater came later as part of the development of democracy.  I’d love to believe it, but what little evidence we do have suggests otherwise. 

Q. How are the origins of Greek theater echoed in theater and democracy today?

At its best, drama engages you with different characters reacting and dealing in different ways with the challenges they face.  There’s no guiding narrator. You’re invited to step outside yourself and listen to and think with the different voices in the play.  That’s a very democratic process, and I think that’s part of nature of Greek drama as a democratic institution.  Theater today can still play that role. It doesn’t always happen that way, but it can.

People also wonder if other media can play the same role that theater did in ancient Greece.  Where is the Internet leading us?  On a good day, we think it can revolutionize structures and allow every citizen to participate in national discussions.  On a bad day, we think it’s simply dumbing us down.

The answer is something that has to come from us. Only our own will and hard work can insure the persistence of vigorous, informed and thoughtful democratic dialogue in our media.

Q. So then, what was special about ancient Athens — why then and why there?

The answer from my perspective is a sort of "perfect storm" at Athens in the fifth century BC: the swift and concurrent development of a democratic ideology based on ideas of freedom of speech for all citizens and equality of all citizens as (at least potential) participants in governance, the flowering of a theatrical practice that formed the centerpiece of a festival dedicated to the god Dionysus — associated in Greek belief with ides of breaking down boundaries, loosing of tongues and liberation in general — and one of the most important civic as well as religious occasions of the Athenian calendar.

There were festivals (including festivals of Dionysus) all over Greece, but only Athens developed the tradition of tragic and comic performance and put it at the heart of a great civic celebration. This in turn is fueled in some mysterious way — all "golden ages" have something mysterious about them – by a particular self-awareness and self-confidence among Athenians as victors over the mighty Persian Empire and as heads of an important island "empire" of their own. By the time of the Peloponnese War, when some self-doubt began to enter the mix, the theater was firmly established as a place for serious (tragic and comic) dialogue, where thoughts could be thought and things could be said that might otherwise never enter public discourse.

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