Dying Acts

Review by Michael Lloyd

University College

Dying Acts: Death in Ancient Greek and Modern Irish Tragic Drama by Fiona Macintosh Pp. xx + 212. Cork: Cork University Press, 1994. [[sterling]]30. ISBN 1 85918 015 9.

Fiona Macintosh is influenced by the work of Geoffrey Gorer and Philippe Ariès on death and mourning. [1] Gorer's study of 1960s Britain regretted the passing of formal modes of mourning around the time of the First World War. He emphasised the ubiquity of mourning rituals in other cultures, and traced psychological and social ills to the lack of them. He drew the parallel between modern attitudes to death and Victorian attitudes to sex, coining the phrase 'the pornography of death'. Ariès saw the question in a wider historical perspective, tracing the history of attitudes to death from the Middle Ages to the present. The attitude which he favoured was that of the Middle Ages ('tame death'), when 'death was a ritual organised by the dying person himself, who presided over it and knew its protocol'.[2] Death was a public ceremony, with many relatives, friends, and neighbours present. Ariès contrasted modern ('hidden') death: people die in hospital rather than at home, only medical professionals are present, the process of dying is concealed by medical science. Mourning is now solitary and shameful, a morbid state; there is a lack of ritual, death does not involve the community as a whole.

Dr Macintosh thinks that things are done better in Greece and Ireland: 'In ancient Greece and in modern Ireland elaborate rituals make death and dying a part of the processes of living in a way that is now alien to most contemporary western societies' (p. xx). Death itself is a process rather than an event.[3] In Greece, there was little emphasis on the point of death; the process of death could begin while the dying person was still alive, there were elaborate rituals of mourning (in which the mourners share the transitional state), but also ceremonies after the funeral itself, continuing until the thirtieth-day rites (i.e. the person is not completely dead for a whole month); the whole process brings the living and the dead closer together.[4] Ireland, even today, is funeral-conscious to a remarkable degree. Death is more public and ritualised than in most western countries: Macintosh notes such customs as the wake and the removal, and cites a 1986 edition of The Late Late Show as evidence for persisting belief in the banshee. Her most telling parallels with ancient Greece are drawn from rural communities in the late 19th C., vividly described by Synge among others.

The particular subject of this book is the representation of death in the plays of Yeats, Synge, and O'Casey, as compared with Greek Tragedy. This is a matter of affinity as well as influence, and Macintosh illuminates the Greek plays as well as the Irish. Influence, of course, there was, and she interestingly charts the ambiguous relationship of the Irish literary revival to the classical tradition. She is well-informed about the classical knowledge of the various key figures, and has (for example) excavated new material about Synge's classical studies from the Synge MSS in Trinity College. The classical tradition, identified with Unionists such as Mahaffy, could be seen as a rival to the indigenous culture promoted by the Gaelic Revival. On the other hand, Nationalists could find a kindred spirit of freedom in ancient Athens, or compare Ireland to Greece under the Romans, suffering at the hands of inferior but stronger neighbours. Comparative studies of Greek and Celtic mythologies reinforced this view. The influence of Nietzsche (apparent in Yeats, Macintosh shows, as early as 1897) made possible a closer alignment of the Greek and Celtic spirits. Matthew Arnold had regarded the Celt as 'undisciplinable, anarchical, and turbulent by nature', thus doomed to failure and melancholy. The more positive aspects of the Celt, the 'perceptive, emotional temperament', were (Arnold thought) combined by the Greeks with 'balance, measure, and patience' to give the ideal whole. Nietzsche, by undermining such visions of radiant and harmonious Greeks, seemed to bring Greek and Celt closer together, but also (as Macintosh says) provided a problematic and dangerous model for modern Ireland.

Ch. 2 ('Representing Death') examines how the Greek/Irish attitude to death translates into literature. The origins of the Greek tragedians' view of death are traced to Homer's Iliad, where Sarpedon, Patroclus, and Hector have death scenes in which we can see the process of 'dying into death'. In the case of Hector, for example, there are the following stages: oloie moira ('deadly fate') keeps him outside the city gates (Il. 22.5), his parents lament him (22.33-5, 79 f.), Zeus' scales reveal that his death is fated and Apollo leaves him (22.208-13), Hector realises that his death is near (22.297-303),[5] he makes two speeches after the fatal wound (22.337-60), before death finally comes upon him. The problem here is whether an elaborate death scene, appropriate to a major warrior, depends on a specific view of death itself. Homer does, in fact, seem to offer clear examples of 'death as an event', not only in the case of the sudden deaths of minor warriors, but even in the case of Hector himself. There is a precise moment when his soul leaves his body and goes to Hades (Iliad 22.361-2), after which he is unequivocally dead and all that remains is a corpse. The absoluteness of this distinction between life and death is highly characteristic of Homer.[6] Macintosh finds a similar ante mortem process in the deaths of Deirdre and Cuchulain in Lady Gregory's version of Irish saga (1902), where 'the characters appear to die on a number of occasions, and in a number of ways, before their actual death' (p. 50). The material is undoubtedly interesting, but the points of similarity to Homer are rather elusive.

In Ch. 3 ('Dying into Death), Macintosh discusses how tragic characters tend to become detached from the processes of living: they die before they are dead, are absent and present in the world at the same time. Heracles in Sophocles' Trachiniae, for example, is described in apparently contradictory terms as both dead and alive, and his separation from the world is a long and painful process. Euripides' Alcestis similarly occupies an ambiguous position between life and death, her loss of contact with the world of the living reinforced by her 'double death' (at Alcestis 272 and 392). The House of Atreus in Aeschylus' Oresteia is a spectral realm in which few of the characters, least of all Agamemnon himself, are fully alive. Macintosh finds similar ambiguities, a similar process of 'dying into death', in Yeats' The Only Jealousy of Emer and O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. Her readings of these plays are sensitive and illuminating, alive to nuances in the texts and informed by wide reading in the secondary literature. A problem lies in her treatment of tragic death as paradigmatic. Her overall argument suggests that 'dying into death' is a good thing, while her examples from tragedy are of disorder and violation of normality. The literary effect of the (highly undesirable) pervasiveness of death in the Oresteia and in Juno and the Paycock depends on the distinction between life and death normally being clear-cut. Alcestis offers the nearest thing in tragedy to what Macintosh might see as an ideal death, but her ambiguous status cannot be separated from the fact that she will eventually be restored to life.

Ch. 4 ('Last Words') deals with the final 'big speech' of a dying character. Macintosh offers detailed discussion of formulaic elements in these speeches, quoting Yeats' comment that 'slight variations upon old cadences and customary words' are essential to the resonance of such scenes. There is a 'double displacement' during the big speech: the action is suspended, with a vaguer sense of time and place than elsewhere in the play, and the dying characters themselves are alienated from the immediate environment: they tend to personify objects, address the dead rather than the living, and evince an extracorporeal perspective by using the third person to refer to themselves.[7] The big speech is the heart of the tragic action, stressing the detachment of characters from suffering, a liberation from selfhood on the threshold of death. This pattern is found in Greek tragedy, and also in Yeats' treatments of Cuchulain and in Synge's Deirdre of the Sorrows. Elsewhere in Synge, however, and also in O'Casey there is a shunning of the classical model, a denial both of the big speech and of compensatory rituals of mourning.

In Ch. 5 ('Reported Deaths'), Macintosh addresses the old and important question of why so few deaths are represented on-stage in Greek tragedy (Alcestis and Hippolytus are the only certain examples). Her view is that the point of death itself is of little importance to the Greeks. She observes, for instance, that 'there is no need for a full description of the deaths of the brothers in Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes. The outcome is clear with the exit of Eteocles' (p. 136). This is true, but it is not evidence for a specific view of death: there is no description of their duel either; violent action in general, not just death, is verbalised. Greek tragedy does indeed convey death (among other things) more through foreshadowing and response than through description of the actual moment, but this may be more an aspect of tragic style than a symptom of the Greek view of death. Furthermore, many deaths are actually described in messenger speeches, and Macintosh's explanation of this is highly unconvincing. She argues that the point of death is only significant in the case of murders (or at least when the dying character is the victim of others),[8] and that the point in these cases is to call in question the morality of the living. This seems to be the wrong way to develop the argument. It can hardly be denied that the tragedians, like Homer, possessed the concept of death as an event; what Macintosh should be arguing is that deaths of this kind are intrinsically unsatisfactory, with the characters not being given the opportunity of a proper death (as process). The problem, as elsewhere, is that she insists on arguing that the Greek view of death, of which she approves, is straightforwardly exemplified in tragedy. There is no reason why tragedy should not show things going wrong, which in fact is what one would expect. Macintosh observes that Irish drama has more in common with Greek than with Shakespearean tragedy in keeping death offstage, and in laying little emphasis on the point of death itself. Contrast the common stage direction in Shakespeare: [Dies.]. This is true not only of plays such as Yeats' Deirdre, which are self-consciously based on the Greek model, but also in O'Casey's use of 'messengers' in the development of his characteristic interplay of public and private spaces.

Ch. 6 ('Responses to Death') explores parallels between the lament and the big speech: mourners, like dying characters, are abstracted from their immediate surroundings, and their laments also have a timeless quality; these laments are traditional and allusive, a collective rather than individual response. Macintosh brings out parallels in the Greek and Irish threnodic inheritance by means of an extended comparison of Maurya's lament in Synge's Riders to the Sea with Hecuba's laments in Euripides' Trojan Women. The comparison illuminates Euripides as well as Synge, placing both in the context of common human experience. The lament can challenge finality of death, as with Sophocles' Ajax and Yeats' Cuchulain. The mourners' intense identification with the dead leads them to describe themselves as dead (cf. the common o[lwla, 'I am destroyed', in Greek laments). Funeral customs also unite the group, enabling the mourner to return to the world. Macintosh relates this to the paradox of 'tragic pleasure': the repetitive element of ritual lament suggests an order which is itself consoling. Ritual has literary as well as socio-psychological benefits: the 'death of tragedy' is related to the decline of ritual and the denial in drama of the big speech and the lament.

This book is well-informed about both Irish literary history and about Greek tragedy. The discussions of individual passages in Greek and Irish drama, and the comparisons between them, are detailed and illuminating. The issues of death and lamentation in tragic drama are addressed with appropriate seriousness. Macintosh also offers fascinating information on a wide range of topics. She observes, for example, that the stage of the old Abbey Theatre was the size of the average peasant's cottage. She also reveals that the Lord Chamberlain's office barred Sophocles' Oedipus Rex from the British stage, with the result that it was not seen in London between 1679 and 1912.

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