The dreadful legacy of the Greeks

11 Aug

The ancient Greeks left us a terrible legacy – and I don’t mean the Olympic Games.

They gave us theatre.

It’s a strange art form. Thanks to them, we now take it for granted that we can posit other worlds – imaginary worlds – and then let them run on, night after night. It might be a deep error. After all, not every culture does it.

And theatre is premised on some rather dubious assumptions:

That we can, in any way, represent Life.

That the outside of things – our actions and words – is where we actually live.

That the stories of individuals (and fictional ones at that!) are somehow indicative of something broader.

But of these strange assumptions, more another time.

No, the dreadful legacy of the Greeks is that theatre should be competitive, that it is a type of sport.

At the annual City Dionysia, Sophocles won the first prize eighteen times. Aeschylus won thirteen times. Euripides only managed five victories, and was no doubt appropriately pilloried by his local medea. (Yes, that was a pun.)

So what is the problem with competition?

In a competition, competitors agree on the rules. The point is to be the best. Questioning the rules is not the point. But that type of questioning, of course, is exactly what art does do best.

(And any artist who creates desiring to be the best is already amongst the worst. Or at least the shallowest.)

Competition also devalues art in another way. It makes us focus on technique. But competency as a primary value is problematic. There’s little use in being the best misogynist, or a world beating homophobe, or number one racist. Competency is a secondary virtue. We need it, but not alone.

As theatre makers, we’re in a sad place if we believe that the key aspect of our work is whether it’s done well, or even worse still, merely done better than that of our contemporaries.

Recently, several commentators have compared our society unfavourably with the ancient Greeks (forgetting, momentarily, that the Greeks refused women the vote, kept slaves, and put Socrates to death for suggesting people should think).  But they did give gold medals to artists and we do not. It is assumed that competition, and the attendant prizes, means a society values art.

But there can be a different vision of artists. By focusing on valuing them (that is, evaluating them) we are denying that they evaluate us. They surprise, cajole and shock us into looking at our lives more closely. It is they who teach us how to more fully feel the world, to sing its praises and howl its discontents.

Art is not competition. It is war. A war against our own complacency and conservatism.

May we be blest with artists who do not compete, but who lay to waste our fortifications of indifference, storm our citadels of deadening habit, and in our inner fields of fear, where will grow only weeds, may they sow stinging salt.

Veronica Kaye

Theatre Red

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