Writing by Naya Sudra. Artwork by Polly Burnay.
It would be difficult to deny that the culture of Ancient Greek theatre has shaped the artistic world as we know it today. In particular, the role of tragedy as a theatrical artform has influenced the stories we tell, the characters we love, and the emotions we feel. The creation of Greek tragedy is thought to have first appeared in a festival celebrating the honour of Dionysus in the sixth century BCE. A key element of this theatre production is that the protagonist must have a tragic flaw which inevitably leads to their downfall. But why are we so attracted to watching someone else’s ruin? The effect of observing this downfall is what gives the audience a sense of release; this is the basis of catharsis. It is the purification of emotions and the sense of momentary peace that is evoked in the viewers that creates a confounding beauty within tragedy.
Aristotle is one of the most well-known figures of Ancient Greece, and his influence has continued to permeate into the 21st century. His work, Poetics, provides us with the earliest surviving criticism of dramatic theory. Here he states that all stories are a product of following a simple three part structure: protasis (beginning), epitasis (middle), and catastrophe (end). The epitasis is the climax of the story where the hero experiences a reversal of fortune and begins their often rapid descent into catastrophe. The strength of emotions of pity, shock, and fear culminates at the end of the play where these feelings are purged in a sense of catharsis. Aristotle claimed that imitation is necessary to achieving catharsis. He viewed tragedies as an embellishment of nature and the divine and believed that at its core, tragedy must represent humanity. Without this imitation, there is no way for the audience to truly connect with the play and so the emotions will not be strong enough to reach a point of catharsis.
‘There is advantage in the wisdom won from pain.’ - Aeschylus
When thinking of Greek tragedy, there are three notable playwrights of the genre that come to mind. The first is Sophocles whose most notable works feature Oedipus and his daughter, Antigone. Euripides is the second tragedian; his works include plays such as Medea, Hippolytus, and The Bacchae. The final of the three revered playwrights is Aeschylus, known as the ‘Father of Tragedy’. His most famous work is The Oresteia, the only surviving complete trilogy of Ancient Greek plays comprising Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and Eumenides. The quotation above was pulled from this trilogy as it captures the overall theme in how the tragic works of the playwrights create a moment of tranquility after disaster - a catharsis.
While these authors' names and titles of their work are more commonly known, their plays' content is less familiar. Shakespearean tragedy, on the other hand, provides household stories understood by the masses. The story of doomed lovers in Romeo and Juliet is the most famous example of forbidden romance, of which countless other stories have been written. While it could be argued that the universality of his work is what makes us feel so connected, his stories are still remnant of real life. The surface level story of two young lovers falling so deeply over less than a week that they are willing to die for each other is unrelatable. The underlying allegory, however, of making rash decisions purely based on emotion alone, is not. This demonstrates Aristotle’s idea that tragedy must be the portrayal of human action if catharsis is to be achieved.
Taking a jump into present day media, tragedy has strayed away from the typical Ancient Greek structure following the protagonist’s downfall and instead focuses on more grounded stories. These stories more closely mimic the everyday troubles of the average person. They highlight the continuous battle of moral ambiguity; there is not necessarily a hero and villain. This change is not to say that catharsis can no longer be achieved through consuming this media. For example, the 2020 mini-series, Normal People, follows the interweaving romantic encounters of two young protagonists over a series of years. The authenticity of their communication and lack thereof resonates with the viewer as it is a very genuine experience.
As humans, we chase this feeling. We crave this sadness and shock and pity. The enthralling nature of observing a tragedy provides us with a strange sense of comfort we can only consume as an outsider. It is highly personal and yet we barely have to lift a finger. This unexpected consequence is what cements catharsis as a central pillar of creating and performing true tragedy. Without catharsis, it’s just a sad story.