How can ancient Greek tragedy help us to address some of today’s most pressing sociopolitical problems?
“It’s a sad tale, it’s a tragedy / It’s a sad song…. We’re gonna sing it anyway.” So sings Hermes at the start of Hadestown, the hit broadway show that deals with capitalism, demagoguery, borders, and climate change. Based on the ancient artform of tragedy, this musical provokes its audiences to reflect on very modern concerns; it also, as the show’s creator Anaïs Mitchell says, “lets us cry.”
This course is about how and why ancient Greek tragedy provides such a powerful lens for exploring some of today’s most pressing sociopolitical issues. In Athens in the fifth century BCE, thousands would gather at the theater to grapple, through the medium of tragedy, with questions that continue to preoccupy us today: What happens if a woman is in power? How different are we from foreigners? Or what happens to the victims of war? 2500 years later, ancient Greek tragedy is all around us, from Broadway to hip hop to Game of Thrones to TV advertisements. Its adaptations can expose forms of inequity: Luis Alfaro’s play Oedipus el Rey, for example, highlights incarceration rates among Latinx communities in 21st-century America. They can examine recent historical events that have fundamentally affected our understandings of race, conflict, and immigration, from Apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa (Yaël Farber’s Molora) to the ongoing civil war in Syria (Queens of Syria). They can also provide models for explorations of identity—as we can see when Freddie Mercury becomes Dionysus in Queen’s iconic video for “I Want to Break Free.” In this course you will read, watch, and listen to some of the most recent reincarnations of ancient Greek tragedies alongside the original plays. You will think about how such an old artform can change how we respond to 21st-century problems, and how it can make us think differently about ourselves.