Sunday 20 November 2016

Why Greek Tragedy and Christianity Don't Mix

I’m pleased that a review I had almost forgotten writing is featured as one of the ‘free-on-line’ essays in the current edition of the august Prospect magazine. If you’re interested you can read the  full 2,000-word version here. The book is The Tragic Imagination and it will cause a stir because it is by Rowan Williams, the controversial and uber-intellectual former Archbishop of Canterbury and now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge.

The Brainiest Archbishop Ever
There have of course been historical attempts to subject Greek tragedy to cosmetic surgery which reduces its ferocity to force it into conformity with a Christian outlook. Neoclassical tragedy regularly made Medea kill herself at the end of her play or turned suffering virgins like Iphigenia and Antigone into proto-Christian nuns and martyrs. In one spectacular Christian reading,  Lee Breuer’s 1988 Broadway musical Gospel at Colonus, Oedipus  was indeed implausibly ‘redeemed’ by a  rousing African-American Pentecostal singalong.

Sophocles' Oedipus Gets Christian Redemption at Colonus
Williams’ awkward marriage of Christianity to tragedy emphasises Greek plays and more recent ones based on them, such as Anouilh’s Antigone and Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love. So keen is Williams to show that Anglicans with a penchant for German Idealist philosophy (Kant, Hegel etc.) have a special understanding of tragedy that he needs to water down the potency of both pagan theatre scripts and Christian doctrine.

His analysis can never do justice to the Greeks’ uncompromising honesty about (1) the unfairness of a life in which good people suffer and evil people die comfortably in expensive beds, (2) the excruciating pain endured by so many humans during their brief years of consciousness alive, and (3) the pleasure as well as the moral education bestowed by watching beautiful theatre in which suffering is talked about in exquisite poetry.

Astyanax dragged to Trojan Wall. Can Christianity Explain it?
As Aristotle saw in his Poetics, humans suffer inside and outside tragedy because they make mistakes. They may be mistakes of fact (Oedipus does not know his wife is his mother) or of moral judgement (Creon in Antigone is the worst leader and decision-maker in mythology and wrecks his family and civic unity as a result). To these human causes Aristotle adds the factor of chance or luck. Philoctetes was a good man unlucky enough to step on a snake and get a gangrenous infection which tortured him for years.

Often the good or bad luck in the plays (not in Aristotle) is caused by the partisanship of a childish god. Phaedra was the unwitting victim of collateral damage caused by her stepson's irreverence towards Aphrodite. But Greek tragedy is littered with innocents who suffer and die with no god intervening to help, just like human history.

Helen Faucit as a Christian Victorian Antigone
I have always thought that the great advantage of Christianity, besides making some believers very kind, is that it offers hope. Hope that there may be some providential meaning in suffering; hope of redemption, salvation, the punishment of unrepentant malefactors and of a blissful afterlife. But Williams’ writing repeatedly stresses that human life is consistently crap while advocating Christian worship. He wants to have his classical Greek cake (while never acknowledging its beauty) and eat it at a Christian tea party. That’s what the Professor-ess said this week, with some trepidation, to the ex-Archbishop.


  1. In my great experience, I have found that life more closely follows the ancient Greek POV. Hope is just another one of the ills that was kept in Pandora's box. Romanticism has brought far more bitterness to the world because when the blinders are finally ripped off there will be far more pain.

  2. Your review in Prospect focused to a huge extent on things not covered in Williams' 40,000 word text. I haven't seen that text, but apparently it is an effort to let tragic art speak for itself without imposing Christian frames of understanding.