Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Penn State and Greek Theatre

My professor, Judith McKelvey, was the first to hand me Euripides and make me read him. "Antigone" and most of Sophocles I was familiar with if only through cultural osmosis. "The Bacchae"? Not so much. And certainly, the "Lysistrata" never appeared in an assignment in my high school, homeschool courses.

"The Bacchae" is a sordid, appalling tragedy with dark humor shot through it. It is infused with a divine madness, especially well communicated in Suzan-Lori Park's translation. Dionysus, a young god, wrecks havoc in the name of vengeance on a city in Greece because of an old grievance. But he does this by calling out the folly of the people there and they begin to destroy themselves. Leaders who look the other way when it is time to repent and pay a devastating price for it.

Judy McKelvey always argued that the Greek comedies were ultimately darker than the tragedies. A comedy was ultimately more hopeless because nothing changes. In a tragedy, there is the classic moment of "recognition" where hubris is broken and the world is changed beyond repair. But there is also a conclusion that will prevent any such thing happening again: the event is witnessed in full and we are in the power to not repeat the mistakes.

In a comedy, the goal is to return to normal. To not change. For the world to get cynically turned on its head and watch humanity stay exactly as it was. It is a hopeless genre.


I had been thinking of "The Bacchae" the night that Joe Pa was fired. I thought of the the Bacchinalian madness, and the way the media seemed to tear everything in its path. I thought of the group frenzy of anger against the firing, the group thinking that happened before he was even fired. I thought of the "riot"[that wasn't much of a riot] and the many that came to "see what was happening".

Penn State is not a direct reflection of Euripides "The Bacchae". We aren't dealing with allegory.

We are dealing with some human darkness that the comedic mockery Euripides employed hits true.

I thought perhaps it was a stretch to see Greek Comedy appearing in campus events. And then on Sunday night as I drove over the last mountain and down into Nittany Valley, my radio picked up 91.5, WPSU, our local NPR station. And this was being played: WPSU Panel discussion. It was an interesting and thoughtful conversation. But near the end, Michael Berube shared a conversation he had had with a colleague. He had offered Sophocles as the poet/playwright of the hour. But then his colleague said, "No. I think Euripides is our playwright." The master playwright of the dark comedy and the mockery steeped tragedy.


I hope not. I hope to goodness that we have not been exposed to the world for exactly what we are if we are to stay the same. I hope this is not Euripides, but I fear that we have already embodied his narrative too completely to come out of it with anything other than the ancient leaders limping blindly into exile.

1 comment:

Annie said...

i think you have connected these two vastly different topics in such a profound way. & it is there that penn state does what it intends: to educate, to instill the skills of critical thinking.

i believe from here, there is a choice to make. because those of us who have watched, and especially those of you who attend and work for penn state, have a choice. we can pretend this never happened and return to normal. or we can graft this into how we go out into the world, as part of a platform to speaking out against injustice and doing what we can to right wrongs.

& i think this essay of yours, so clearly written and humbly offered, in a first step in choosing sophocles as the playwright of the hour.