Why classical Greek drama eschewed depictions of violence

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Random chance enabled a few shreds of the rich cultural heritage of Athens to survive the predations of decay. Although the music of the period is lost forever, we are fortunate enough to have glimpses of its theater.

As in many cultures, Greek theater began as the enactment of religious myth. But as the Axial age progressed, Greek drama transmuted into a means whereby novel ideas could be explored through personification.

The great trio of Greek dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, explored themes central to Greek life. What did one owe to the gods and to one’s fellow citizens? How can we untangle competing loyalties? How should disputes be resolved? Were the old ways of sacrifice adequate to match the complexities of a modern polis?

Even in modern translation, plays such as Prometheus Bound, the three plays of the Oresteia, and Antigone, Medea, and Lysistrata are all profoundly moving and troubling, seeking as they do in their various ways to wrestle with deep social problems that we in our modern world seem little closer to either understanding or resolving.

Anyone who’s seen an authentic performance of any of these plays (or at least, as authentic as it’s possibly to be, given how scant our knowledge is of the manner in which they were performed, and the loss of several key ingredients such as the music) will know that there’s one striking element of Greek drama that is utterly alien to our modern sensibility: the absence of explicit violence.

Our word obscene ultimately derives from the Greek oβ σχέμᾰ, meaning “off stage.” Classical Greek dramatists knew that when we watch violent acts, our emotions take over and thinking shuts down. As they were trying to explore complex themes that were central to Greek society, and as theater still had latent association with matters of mythical importance, depicting violence on stage would have run counter to everything any civilized culture would wish to achieve.

For the Greek dramatists, stimulating the minds of their audiences was uppermost. Emotion was used as a means to prompt deeper thought, not as an easy lever for trivial escapist entertainment aimed at the unthinking masses. The ancient Greek dramas challenged the assumptions of the audience and invited people to engage with complex issues. To ensure that audiences wouldn’t be distracted from the essence of the drama, all violent acts occurred off stage and were simply reported to the audience afterward. Thus the implications and consequences of violence were placed front-and-center, rather than the violence itself.

Today of course our entertainments are diametrically opposite to classical Greek drama. Scriptwriters take it as axiomatic that they are fashioning meaningless distractions for empty-heads who wish merely to gawp as they stuff popcorn into their ever-open mouths. Computer-generated graphics enable astonishing spectacles that have zero intellectual content. Cardboard cut-out characters prance and posture through impossible events, always ready with a fashionable quip as they slaughter dozens (or, better, thousands) of “bad guys” with unerring lethality.

No one today watches an entertainment in order to confront truly difficult issues, nor to wrestle with the many profound problems that lie at the heart of our societies. We want to be distracted. We live in a world of empty clichés and we adore meaningless violence.

Back in 2006 a survey revealed that the typical US child, raised in front of an always-on television screen, witnesses more than 1,000,000 violent events before reaching their fourth birthday. We see so much fantasy violence that we’re seemingly inured to it. From the disgusting pointless slaughter of video games to the repellent fiction of low-IQ entertainments like The Waddling Dead and Pulp Fiction, pretty much everything that is churned out of the Hollywood sausage-factory relies heavily on explicit depictions of violence.

Even supposed comedies produced in the USA frequently feature guns because, hey, what could possibly be more laugh-inducing than deadly weapons and the pervasive threat of mindless slaughter? What better way to prep Little Johnny for all those duck-and-cover drills he’ll do at school, right?

As a result it’s hardly surprising that we’re barely capable of anything resembling coherent thought. Our attention spans are shorter than those of goldfish. We obsessively stroke our smartphones because we’re so addicted to distraction that many people now have serious difficult in abjuring their electronic devices for more than a few minutes at a time.

And famously, the USA is the only country on Earth that is incapable of grasping the simple fact that lethal weapons are not a “right” to be defended but an absurd and totally unnecessary threat to every citizen. That’s why annual US gun deaths are greater than even in those countries around the world currently gripped by armed conflict. Perhaps if US citizens weren’t raised on endless shoot-outs and their heads filled with one-dimensional characters whose answer to every problem is a hail of gunfire, the USA would be slightly less incapable of resolving this persistent and highly destructive social problem. As it is, every obese inadequate middle-aged male fervently believes he can become Squint Eastward so long as he can squeeze a pudgy finger into the trigger guard of his beloved gun.

Citizens of ancient Athens would look at us and shake their heads in disbelief.

Worst of all, no one imposed any of this upon us. We’ve willingly done it to ourselves. We’re so deep in mindless spectacle that it would never occur to us even to question the endless violence we consume every single day of our lives. We believe it is “harmless entertainment.”

The ancient world had a great many flaws. Slavery is one obvious aspect of Greek society we would like to imagine we’ve left behind. Sadly, we’re deceiving ourselves. US agriculture relies on what is properly termed slave labor. Illegal immigrants, predominantly Hispanic, lie at the heart of US agriculture. As they are illegal (thanks to intentionally obtuse US temporary worker regulations, which were fashioned to provide large agri-businesses with a workforce that can persistently be under-paid and over-worked) they can’t complain to anyone of the many abuses they suffer. This is to all intents and purposes slavery by any other name.

We pretend everyone over the age of 18 has the right to vote. Ancient Athens, famously, permitted the vote only to free men whose property exceeded a particular threshold. But in the USA a wide variety of Republican Party practices ranging from gerrymandering to census-rigging ensure that a great many African-American voters are entirely disenfranchised. So in realty the USA isn’t much better with regards to universal franchise than a city-state that existed more than 2,500 years ago. If that’s progress, we may need to redefine the word in our dictionaries.

So when we look back on Athens, we may discover there are some valuable lessons to be learned. One obvious lesson is that its not wise to pander to the lowest-common-denominator merely in order to maximize revenues.

Perhaps any society aspiring to civilized and humane values needs to be more mindful of its entertainments and of the baleful effects such things can inflict on an unheeding populace when profit is the only consideration that applies.

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