by Freddy Decreus
University of Gent
One of the riddles, which, for a number of years, has continued to fascinate me is the relationship between Greek tragedy (as a literary construction) and the tragic feeling (as a philosophical and ontological problem). The classical philologist in me has been trained to study questions like the translation and the meaning of Greek and Latin tragedies, to interpret the way they are interrelated and to discuss their contribution to ‘classics’. However, when this classicist meets the actor and the director in the rehearsal room, or when, in daily theatre criticism, he discusses contemporary arts and the relevance of tragedy for present-day artistic or religious processes, he enters into another world, where he feels alone, orphaned, alienated. He is asked why this capitalist society wants to stage so many tragedies and why this community returns, characterized as it is by so many POST-feelings (post-modern, post-dramatic, post-structuralist, post-human, post-colonial, post-phallogocentric, post-ideological…), to the very confusing notion of the tragic? On top of that, he must try to find out whether or not the heritage of Ionesco and Beckett, Sarah Kane and Botho Strauss can be considerd as tragic theatre. Is it the same, but different? Can postmodern theatre, especially in its postdramatic form, still be considered as tragic? Why is only the West largely dominated by tragic feelings, and not the East? Why is no Western university interested in offering real comparative mythology and philosophy?
In the heat of discussions like these, classicists realize that traditional ‘classics’ never fully explored the philosophical consequences of a tragic worldview and that they are not well informed about the German idealistic 18th century that produced philosophers like Kant, Schelling, Schiller and Hölderlin, who all keep on influencing central European interpretations of the tragic. Neither did they study the Dionysian notions of dismemberment and ecstasy outside of the classical texts. Therefore, this classicist feels uncomfortable when confronted with the theatre of the Fura Del Baus or the Societas Rafaello Sanzio, when provoked by the new anthropological theories of Girard or Bataille, when questioned by the radical philosophy of Deleuze (against totalizing theory) and Sloterdijk (against contemporary metaphysics). He is not used to comparing the tragic depth-structure of the new kinds of drama written by Jan Lauwers, Pina Bausch, Meg Stuart or Jan Fabre with the more classical ones. Hans-Thies Lehmann, in his very provocative book Postdramatisches Theater (1999), introduced him to a whole new way of thinking about drama, but notions like heterogeneity, pluralism, subversion, deformation, gesticulation, seem unfamiliar, although he knows very well that the great directors of today all use postdramatic techniques, even in the staging of classical tragedies. The staging of drama does not necessarily any longer respect clearly recognizable events and characters presented in an Aristotelean way, but privileges moments and climates of anti-mimetic intensity, violence or discontinuity which convey the postmodern lifestyle and its lack of traditional metanarratives. Therefore, contemporary classicists, trained and raised as they are by an episteme that still reflects a nineteenth-century vision of the world (likewise, the organisation of the university curriculum), are often constrained from discussing art, culture and society in a fundamental and enlightening new way. Since they are not thinking in the categories that dominate contemporary intellectual discussions, they cannot share the preoccupations of some of his colleagues and therefore they still situate ‘classics’ in a more old-fashioned paradigm of research.
Talking about the future of classics and the chance that it will be accepted as an important interlocutor both in present and future discussions about cultural politics and identity, one has to consider the need of integrating contemporary visions on aesthetics, philosophy and ideology into our curricula. Bridging the distance between old and new has always been one of the central aims of Western ‘humanities’, and especially in an era which has been accused of creating a “Bonfire of the Humanities’ we must investigate where a fight between (neo)conservatives and progressives is leading us.