R. REHM, Radical Theatre: Greek Tragedy and the Modern World. London: Duckworth, 2003. Pp. 174. ISBN 0-7156-2916-6. STG £10.99 (Pb).
Review by Carmel McCallum-Barry
This volume forms part of the series, Classical Inter/faces, which aims to show ?how Classical ideas and material have helped shape the modern world? (jacket blurb). The author is active in theatre production and is concerned in a (politically) radical way about issues in Greek tragedy for which he can find parallels in the modern world. He aims to use Greek tragedy in its original form to demonstrate that the ?hard truths that provide the inspiration for tragic performance?..might be particularly timely now?.
Rehm begins with a summary of modern theoretical work and its influences (psychology, science and linguistics). His judgement is that contemporary discussion of drama has a strongly performative bias, and rejects this currently fashionable approach that sees most events, such as processions, public oratory, royal entrances, even paintings, as a type of performance. (He cites Goldhill and Osbornes?s volume, Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy, CUP 1999, as an example of this performative emphasis in the field of classical studies). Since the notion of the world as a stage has been around quite some time we might expect modern versions to repay examination, but Rehm feels that productions which attempt contemporary relevance work to dissolve the distinction between world and stage and so threaten ?real? theatrical performance (pp. 13-14). I must say I have difficulty with his arguments here, ?Soap addicts? and ?reality TV? surely indicate that the dissolution of boundaries between ?reality? and theatre is not just an academic conceit, so I would like to have seen the argument further developed by a practising director and performer. For Rehm, Greek tragedy is radical in itself, and he wants us to take it on its own terms, not in adaptations and interpretations catering to contemporary tastes. The message is in fact a traditional one, no messing with the text. We must think ourselves back to the world that created the plays (p. 39).
The first essay/chapter deals with the theatre environment, in terms now standard in works on ancient drama. The contrast between the open air watching space (theatron), and the modern enclosed, artificially lighted theatre is emphasised as is the ?aggressively public? and communal nature of Greek tragedy, rooted in the ?natural and civic environment? (p. 22).
The next four essays deal with Fear, Fate, Ideology, and Time, both in Greek tragedy and in the modern world. He finds that in Greek tragedy words connected with fear ?evoke? warfare, and examines some of the fears expressed in Greek tragedy in order to find parallels between ?tragic phobias? and our own (p. 44 -?phobias? is rather risky after decrying Freudian influenced theorising in the Introduction). Aeschylus? Suppliant Women (pp. 49-51) has almost everything, but the women?s fears of rape, and enforced marriage, which are the impetus for the action of the drama are merely mentioned and referred to a note. Instead Rehm concentrates on their black (?) asylum seeker status which provides material for attacks on western societies? attitudes towards refugees and especially on current U.S. government policies towards Haitian refugees and (strangely) towards nuclear waste.
The discussion of fate proceeds by rejecting popular views that characters in Greek tragedy are puppets in the hands of fate, and have no concept of will or of moral agency. Such views have been carefully scrutinised over (at least) the last thirty years, and he names some modern critics with a summary of their contribution. However the fact that he still chooses to refute the older views or common misconceptions (naming only Dodd?s work of 1951), blurs the issue. The thrust of this section (pp. 71-81) is to show the drive for mastery and control shown by advanced societies today, in the proliferation of prisons and security, genetic engineering, etc. Monsanto?s genetically engineered seeds, and the U.S. ?missile defence shield? all go to show that today we can have little influence over our lives since they are directed by big corporations and militaristic governments.
The section dealing with ideology points out that Greek tragedy is most often presented from the point of view of victims of the ruling ideology (p. 87): quite true, and worth saying more about, but Rehm is more concerned with modern problems. After a look at the aftermath of the 9/11 crisis in several parts of the world and its effects on the policies of Western governments towards rebels elsewhere, of whatever persuasion, Rehm points out that attitudes and problems familiar today are also located in Greek tragedy. These are dealt with under headings of patriarchy, militarism, democracy, education/indoctrination and identity: the emotional connection is clear, although the logical one is not.
The final topic, that of time, is the shortest, containing few modern references; there is little need as the tragic examples say it all. Perhaps because of this it hangs together better than the preceding sections and is the easiest to read. Reflections on human temporal limits as creatures of a day (eph?meroi) sit well in discussions of drama, a transitory art since every performance is a ?once only?. There is an interesting explanation of the Greek words which differentiate types of time (pp. 121-4): chronos- fixed continuum, ai?n- lifespan, h?ra- season, and kairos - the appropriate time, with a note that in complex tragic plots kairos is of special importance. The notion of a time limit or deadline used to build up dramatic pressure is nothing new, but I like Rehm?s sporting phraseology when he explains that choral songs allow a suspension of real time, ?a time out from the plot?, so that any necessary interval can be imagined before the next part of the action. Out of the plays he selects for examination, the Oresteia trilogy and Trojan Women, where interconnection of events of past and future constitute a significant part of the dynamic, provide the most interesting reading.
Rehm?s is a personal view of both Greek tragedy and of the modern world, but he brings them together by juxtaposing them rather than showing us how to use them in tandem. At the risk of being too concerned with ?performativity?, I was disappointed to find no specific suggestions on how it should be done. In seeking to make his own points he is also sparing with evidence on other views; phrases of the ?some claim?, ?many scholars denied? variety are not enough, we need names and details. Sympathy with the author?s indignation over the appalling injustices perpetrated by Western capitalism is unfortunately diminished by overstatement of his case; long documentation of atrocities in both text and notes becomes tedious, especially as examples speak primarily to a North American audience. There is little sense that the volume fulfils the aim of either author or series.