Can Playwrights Write a Modern-Day Greek Tragedy?

I apologize in advance for the several posts I’ve recently been posting that have been related to ancient Greek theater, but that is what I’ve been studying in two of my classes and my thoughts have been going about ancient Greek theater and its styles in the modern world.

One thought that did occur to me was whether or not current, contemporary playwrights could write a modern-day Greek tragedy, but with a common man as the tragic hero, similar to what Arthur Miller did with “Death of a Salesman.”

I ask this question because I don’t think that there are any current playwrights that have written a modern-day Greek tragedy. If someone is willing to argue that “August: Osage County” is, I’d be willing to have that debate, but I don’t think it is.

What I am asking for is not a show that the audience members could sit in the audience and go, “Ah ha! This is like an old Greek tragedy.” Because that would be a bit too heavy handed.

What I am asking for is a play with a tragic hero, a character who neither inherently evil or inherently good that has a tragic flaw, that follows Aristotle’s idea of a tragedy. A play that is a bit more plot driven than character driven, and has a revelation of a secret to the tragic hero and/or a reversal of fate. A play that is able to produce catharsis in the audience and make them pity the tragic hero’s fate and fear for their fate occurring to them.

I don’t think it’s too much to ask. But that might be because I am presently trying to write a contemporary Greek tragedy. If tragedies written more than 2,000 years ago still have the ability to pull at the audiences emotions and hold the same power it used to have, then I see no reason why modern playwrights can’t write a play that is done in the style of a Greek tragedy.


9 thoughts on “Can Playwrights Write a Modern-Day Greek Tragedy?

  1. The answer is of course yes. And audiences LOVE it.

    But I don’t think the problem is the tragic hero, or sympathetic fate victim… it’s the universally known cast.
    Greek tragedies had the benefit of stock characters in their cosmology and shared oral history.

    I’m not sure what the modern equivalent would be. If you didn’t want to avoid politics you could use the Bushes or Kennedy’s.

    how do you plan on avoiding the secondhand-narrative aspects while maintaining the style? (this was the point of our recent adaptation of Orestes)

  2. The success of both plays is debatable, but Oleanna and Craig Lucas’s The Dying Gaul are both deliberately structured as tragedies. (The Player, also like Lucas’s play, is a tragedy set in the corridors of power, in Hollywood.) The plays have antagonists, but it is a character trait of the protagonists that bring them down in the end.

  3. FENCES?

  4. Sam: I think that “Fences” bears quite a few of the similarities to “Death of a Salesman,” which is basically a modern Greek tragedy, and also has several characteristics of a tragedy. My main problem with classifying it as a modern day Greek tragedy is that it does not occur within the course of 24 hours, as per Aristotle’s standards, and I’m also not sure if there is a reversal for Troy, who is definitely a tragic hero. I don’t think that anyone can deny that Troy does fit the characteristics of a tragic hero who has hamartia. But the production I saw at Theatre Cedar Rapids earlier this year certainly produced a cathartic moment.

    Eric: I’m going to have to read “The Dying Gaul” since I have not read it and people keep using that as an example in this discussion. “Oleanna” could certainly be considered to fit under this category since John does make an error in a decision that does propel his fate. I also do think that the play does have many of the qualities of a Greek tragedy.

    Travis: I have no clue how I’m going to avoid the second-hand narration in my play. And I think that someone could also very easily write a tragedy about the Kennedy family. I think that writing a tragedy about the Bushs is too soon.

  5. Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” seems to fit the requirements for Greek Tragedy.

  6. And that is another play I’ll have to read.

  7. I saw it at Shattered Globe a few months ago. It was a bit over my head. But I reviewed it anyway…

  8. I remember reading the reviews of Shattered Globe’s production and I was thinking about seeing it until I ended up not being in Chicago during its run.

    I was thinking of just making this be of somewhat new plays. However, there are plays that do fit this category that were written in the 80s (FENCES) and the 70s (I will read it, but BURIED CHILD was written, as you point out in your review, Robert, in the 70s.)

    I’m just going to need to read BURIED CHILD and THE DYING GAUL. Which, shouldn’t take me too long.

  9. Awww. It’s sad when the 1970s are no longer considered “modern.”

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