Scholia Reviews ns 13 (2004) 30.
Rush Rehm, Radical Theatre: Greek Tragedy and the Modern World. London: Duckworth, 2003. Pp. 174. ISBN 0-7156-2916-6. UK£10.99.
Betine van Zyl Smit
University of the Western Cape
According to the cover of this learned and engaging addition to Duckworth's series of Classical Inter/Faces, the author is 'Associate Professor of Drama and Classics at Stanford University and works professionally as an actor and director when he can'. These two qualifications, academic knowledge and practical experience, plus some serious political convictions, provide the foundation for a passionately argued, yet always scholarly, work. Rehm has a dual focus. First, he describes Greek tragedy and its performance in the theatre of Dionysus in ancient Athens and then he compares this with modern interpretations and performances in modern theatrical spaces. This is, however, no bland description or comparison, but sensitive and provocative in the best sense of the word. Rehm provides food for thought for scholars of the classical texts as well as for modern producers, adaptors, and actors. He states that his purpose in this book is to explore 'the challenges of engaging the original form of ancient tragedy as best we can, rather than altering the material to fit contemporary tastes' (p. 17).
In his introduction, entitled 'Timely Thoughts' (pp. 9- 20), Rehm overviews the meaning and history of performance studies, performance theory and 'performativity'. He notes the influence of linguists, sociologists, and cultural anthropologists in this field. In his view their work has resulted in a blurring between the meaning of events in the real world and representation of them. In contrast, a review of what constituted 'theatre' and 'performance' in ancient Athens makes it clear that the Greeks drew a distinction between real events and theatrical representation.
Chapter 1, 'Theatre, Artifice, Environment' (pp. 21-39), starts from the premise that tragic form is not only embedded in the text, but also intimately connected to the performance practices of ancient Athens. Rehm examines the difference between what is understood by a theatre today, (a walled and roofed building that enables stronger aesthetic control since the natural environment is excluded), and the theatre in the Greek world. Even outdoor performances today are generally at night and enhanced by artificial light and sound. The theatre of Dionysus was open to its natural and civic environment. Rehm cites examples from the extant tragedies where a character refers to the natural world and emphasizes that both character and audience would be aware of the meeting of the real sky, sun, and so on, with the illusion of these phenomena in the tragic performance. Rehm also adduces instances from the tragedies where the civic world of Athens, which was before the eyes of the audience, is implicit in the text.
'Greek drama deals with terrifying stories that have stuck to Western consciousness like leeches' (p. 40). This is the opening sentence of Chapter 2, appropriately called 'Tragedy and Fear' (pp. 40-64). Here the author links the threats and horrors of the modern world to those experienced by the characters in Greek tragedy. Because these characters, forced to confront terror, the destructiveness of passion, the horrors of family murders, incest, cannibalism and other unspeakable crimes, are human beings who overcome their fear and take action, we should be able to identify with them. The fearsome dangers and horrors of our world that we should confront are the threat of the destruction of the natural environment, the exploitative practices of global capitalism, the ethical challenges of genetic engineering, the militarization of nations and proliferation of deadly weapons, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the assault on traditional societies and values. Rehm suggests that the honesty with which Greek tragedy shows individuals facing up to terrors, may enable us in the modern world to face our seemingly intractable and overwhelming problems.
Chapter 3, 'The Fate of Agency, the Agency of Fate' (pp. 65-86), examines the connection between human freedom and constraint in Greek drama. Rehm analyses the depiction of the workings of fate in several tragedies and concludes that although fate imposes harsh limits on human accomplishments, humans do have some choice. The important conclusion he draws from his analysis is that Greek tragedy shows that human progress is possible as long as the tragic is lived through and not avoided. In contrast, in modern consumer societies there is a belief that human beings can control their own destiny. Rehm's view is that people in the modern world would do well to take note of the notions of hubris, moira and tuchê that seem to recognize that 'unbounded expansion (in any direction) does violence to the cosmos, and the cosmos will take its revenge' (p. 76). Here he cites examples related to threats to humankind and the environment already mentioned in the previous chapter. Rehm does not hesitate to draw parallels between events in our world, and the events depicted in Greek tragedy. Although our world is seemingly so different from that of Orestes, Philoctetes, Oedipus or Antigone, we share the human necessity to act as if our actions matter.
After this concentration on personal agency in Greek tragedy and how that may inspire individuals to face the challenges of modern life, Rehm in Chapter 4, 'Tragedy and Ideology' (pp. 87-118), broadens the net. Here he analyses how the ideology of the Athenian polis is dramatized in tragedy. The chapter starts with an extensive description of what Rehm sees as the dominant ideology in the United States and its sphere of influence at present. He considers that the crisis of 9/11 has resulted in the stifling of opposition. It is here that a close reading of Greek tragedy shows a prospect of different possibilities because even in the state-sponsored performances of fifth-century Athens there was never an unquestioning replication of the state ideology. Frequent challenges to the dominant norms in the words and actions of their victims offer the potential of resistance. Rehm thus hopes that if we were to honour the radical potential of Greek tragedy in all its complexity we would create similar effects disturbing to the reigning ideology.
In Chapter 5, 'Tragedy and Time' (pp. 119-39), the author deals with the relationship between performance and temporality. He notes the ephemeral nature of theatrical performance and examines the Greek notion of time as reflected in a number of tragedies. For Rehm 'Tragedy captures the complex interplay of past, present and future by drawing together various Greek aspects of time -- extended (chronos), epochal (aiôn), interventionist (kairos), and cyclical (hôra) -- all of which are given presence in the ephemeral art of the theatre' (p. 137). He notes that the texts require moment to moment performance and that this time is not co-extensive with reality. This is a reminder that we, as humans, live real lives and die real deaths. This is a salutary counterpoise to the deaths shown in the media which are sometimes confused by viewers as performance, as virtual reality and not real death. For Rehm Greek drama's focus on the relationship of past to future, and its depiction of wider temporal contexts are a radical corrective to the modern mentality of 'time is money'.
The book has an epilogue, 'Progress and Survival' (pp. 140f.), in which Rehm, noting the miracle of the survival of the texts of Greek drama, observes that he knows that there are many issues more important than the vitality of Greek tragedy, but that he believes that these plays have the potential to help us in our own struggle for survival.
When one reads Radical Theatre it is clear that Rush Rehm has a thorough knowledge of and deep love of Greek tragedy. His disillusionment with the current state of the world is equally obvious. Some may judge his hopes for the potential of a radical reappraisal of the Greek plays to influence modern life for the better as too polemical or too idealistic. However his ideas and interpretations are stimulating and are conveyed in a style that is lively and interesting. There are quotations from many passages of Greek drama in Rehm's own translation. All Greek terms are transliterated and explained in English. The book has endnotes, a bibliography and index.
This is a book that will be read with interest by scholars of Greek theatre and also by modern theatre practitioners.