online: 13 november 2003
modified: 19 november 2003

12 november 2003 tragedy, ancient and modern

10:02 I select a book by chance - it is Electra and other plays by Sophocles. In it I find a note I wrote a year ago:

Electra shows me something I'd lost touch with, or never yet reached; what is it, I've not got words to say - except that it is the plain joy and sadness, the unchoosing presence or presentation, of the uncreated ... I hardly know why I chose that word...

I've not read any ancient Greek play before with such interest, and acute attention to something there that is I'd say totally absent from any modern play I can think of. What is it? The answer is do it, not to define, and lose the energy.

What does this refer to?


I read more of the play, of Sophocles' neutrality as he gives words to both sides of a tragic conflict between rulers,

Agamemnon, a king who has ritually sacrificed his daughter to obtain favourable weather in a sea crossing to the Trojan war

his queen, Clytaemnestra, who with a lover, Aegisthus, kills Agamemnon for this sacrificial murder and then marries the lover

another daughter, Electra, who resists, and her sister, Chrysothemis, who obeys, their mother

and a son, Orestes, who is sent away by Electra to be taught vengeance and then returns to enact it.

The translator comments:

Sophoclean drama is the drama of living persons choosing their own paths to happiness or disillusion, to success, failure or extinction. my note is something - indescribable but recognised - something to be done, and thought about in the doing - not as a theory but as the integration of thought and action, good and evil, life and death. Are these things absent from the modern play, the modern life - is all disjointed, split, divided, so that the tragic, too, is not attainable?

But what of the tragedy, as I perceive it, of mechanisation - and of our inability, once mechanised, to be fully human any more? In Greek tragedy they have a choice - but when it comes to mechanisation we don't. Is that it?

What would Sophocles write were he living now - and would he be allowed to publish it?

Something must follow.

Sophocles, Electra and other Plays, translated by E F Watling, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1965, pages 69-117.

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