ElAnt v2n3 - Composing Tragedies in the Greek Style

Volume 2, Number 3
October 1994


Paul Withers,
Department of Classics, 
University of Reading, 
Reading, UK. 
e-mail: P.S.Withers@reading.ac.uk

To attempt to write a Greek tragedy and follow in the footsteps of such literary giants as Sophocles , Aeschylus , and Euripides seems a daunting task to say the least . How can one even come close to emulating such playwriting geniuses ? After reading other tragedies and understanding the basics one may at least attempt to soar towards this virtual Olympus .

The two most important laws of Greek tragedy are unity of place and unity of time . By this I mean that action should take place within one day and in one place . Of course this rule has its exceptions - one has only to think of Aeschylus' Eumenides where Orestes and the Furies leave Delphi and immediately arrive in Athens . However , rarely is there more than one jump and most tragedies do conform to these laws .

Bearing in mind these laws one can next choose a myth around which to construct the play. It barely needs to be said that the myth should include some tragic action - plays such as the Helen that have a happy ending were usually written in place of a satyr-play. This tragic action need not include a death - Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound is a good example of a tragedy without a death. In order to choose a myth one should bear in mind themes one wishes to bring out in the play and the reason for writing the play. This is all the more important if one wishes to write about a myth which been has used by another playwright. For example, the tragedy I have just begun involves three shorter tragedies describing the emotional destruction of Achilles. Thus it is unnecessary to show the physical destruction of Achilles, and I do not include the ransoming of Hector's body which Aeschylus uses in his Iliadic trilogy; in my opinion it adds nothing to the emotional destruction of Achilles.

Once one has chosen the myth one must develop the plot. One should attempt not to stray too far from the bounds of the myth - Hector must kill Patroclus. But one can manipulate the story, as I have done, so that Achilles and the audience see Hector only as the warrior who killed Patroclus. Thus the whole of Achilles' guilt and anger is thrust upon Hector. However, some myths are very ambiguous. Take for example the myth of Scylla, who betrayed her city to Minos by cutting off the lock of her father's hair which magically preserved the city. I found twelve ancient authors who alluded to the myth, and they differed often. Given this tradition I felt justified in creating a different version of the story by combining some elements from each.The resulting theme was love:

Scylla loved Minos, as in most versions; her nurse, Carme (taken from Virgil's Ciris ), had loved and been spurned by Nisus; and Minos was undertaking the siege out of love for Carme's daughter, Britomartis. (A separate myth existed which said that Minos had at one time loved Britomartis, but she had spurned him fleeing into the sea, from where she had been saved by Artemis and become her priestess.) In my version the scorned Carme lured Minos with a tale that Britomartis was alive and was being held captive by Nisus. Thus a new version of the tale emerged with two completely new elements - Carme's love for Nisus, and Minos' love for Britomartis, which prompted the siege.

Next comes the task of choosing the episodes. There are usually five or six for a full-length tragedy, but for my shorter tragedies I have tended to use three or four . When writing one must remember that the Greeks had at their disposal three actors at most, thus limiting the number of characters on stage at any one time and forcing a break so that an actor can leave the stage and return as a new character. Even though little is known of the exigencies of choral lyric I also use a developed chorus who participate in the action and whose lyric passages are not mere scene-dividers. The identity of the chorus is important. For my second tragedy, Patroclus , this took some thought. Since the Greeks were fighting for a major part of the play the chorus could not be Greek soldiers; captive Trojan soldiers would have been unsympathetic to Achilles, who would never even consider their advice; captive Trojan women could have been used but would not have given the desired advice; Myrmidon soldiers were ruled out because Patroclus leads them out during the play. Given these restrictions, I chose wounded Myrmidon soldiers: they could advise Achilles, who might actually heed them, and they had a legitimate reason for not fighting.

The final stage of planning is characterisation. I attempt to make my characters human so that an audience will sympathise with them, but also heroic because they are not mere mortals. This heroic stature comes across most clearly in the diction. I believe that heroes should speak in a register befitting their status and so my diction is very formal:

'My noble nature forces me to keep respect, But please consider Sparta's lords' request. I do Not try to trap you - noble men are born above Deception: trust my missive.' ( Patroclus 19-22 )

Metaphor and simile are a major feature of Greek tragedies, especially those of Aeschylus, who focuses on the visual. (Typical Greek images include the ship of state, nature images, sea images, disease and healing, and farming images.) Key words can be used to emphasise an idea. In Euripides' Bacchae the word sophos and its variations of meaning are used to great effect. In my Patroclus I used the key word yield , with its variety of meanings, several times within a short period:

'The Spartan plundered yields procured by me' (215) 'I yield my greaves first' (222) 'Yield? Never! Priam, Troy shall never see me yield' (226)

The absence of the word 'yield' in the context of Achilles re- entering the fray or Agamemnon admitting to Achilles that he was wrong emphasises the fact that neither man does yield. I am using this word to similar effect in the play I have just begun writing, The Arms of Achilles , which developed from Patroclus : 'Bold Achilles, brave who gained the yields alone.'(17)

In a monotheistic, often atheistic, world it is hard to empathise with a polytheistic society such as that of fifth-century Athens. But since religion played a large part in Greek drama and Greek mythology is so interlinked with the gods, an attempt to empathise must be made. Yet it is a hard line to tread: one is eager to give the gods due involvement yet reluctant to be excessive. For a 'Greek' tragedy one must connect events that we would not with the gods:

'But then Apollo tipped the scales: Patroclus thrice Assaulted Troy's walls; thrice Apollo hurled him off.' (371-2)

One should also include appeals to the gods: 'Approach, Hecate, scheming viper-minded queen, Medea's mother-cousin, Circe's midnight nurse.' ( Scylla 1-2)

The gods should also have fitting epithets, which can be taken to excess in choral lyrics:

'Ares, broker of bones, God whose spear is battles' scales, Who quaffs a sea of blood per day, Who vends the souls of brayves to Dis, Who sports beyond the bourn in death, In slaughter, carnage, bloodshed, butch'ry, quell, and gore.' ( Athenians 492-497)

This quotation illustrates the particular exigencies of tragic style. I have attempted to get as close as possible to the basic form of Greek tragedy. Thus I use the Greek metres - iambic trimeter and trochaic tetrameter catalectic for dialogue and a variety of lyric metres. These metres are not easy to understand and take a lot of patience to use - on average I complete about ten to fifteen lines per hour. For the lyric passages (choral songs, kommoi , chanted anapaests) I also try to recreate the subtle change of dialect that exists in the Greek by using, in writing, the Middle English y-for-i substitution . Thus in the previous quotation 'braves' becomes 'brayves'. For production I am contemplating a slight extension of the vowel sound by using a sort of iota subscript.

I began composing 'Greek' tragedies two years ago with a play about Acrisius and Perseus that failed to qualify as 'Greek' drama because the action was spread over about twenty years. Since then I have written two short tragedies, Scylla and Patroclus , and a full- length historical tragedy, Athenians , about the failure of the Sicilian Expedition (415-413 BC).

I have just begun writing a new tragedy, The Arms of Achilles , a trilogy of short tragedies which I shall excerpt here. It will be evident that I still have a long way to go to equal Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides.

The play centres around the character of Achilles and his gradual emotional destruction. It initially portrays a confident, happy Achilles who enjoys war because it helps others, for the glory it brings him, and because he believes it will provide him with a life of happiness--albeit a short one. The strong friendship between Achilles and Patroclus is emphasised from the start, as is Achilles' hatred of Agamemnon. The mutual antagonism between the two warriors stems from Agamemnon's insecurity: Agamemnon needs to be in control and Achilles challenges this control impudently. Worse yet, Achilles challenges Agamemnon's authority through his popularity and glory. The excessive emotions of both men aggravate the problem: both become enraged easily and both prefer to use force to settle disputes. Thus Agamemnon threatens to take Briseis by force and Achilles to keep her by the same means.

Besides these main characters are more minor characters who struggle to assert some restraint over Achilles, Agamemnon, or one another. Odysseus is the prime example, using eloquence and guile to dominate situations. He attempts to persuade Agamemnon not to steal Briseis, and when he fails he persuades Agamemnon to allow him the chance to procure Briseis peacefully. Later he persuades Phoenix to offer overtures to Achilles, and also persuades Patroclus to offer to fight in Achilles' stead. He is resigned to the fact that he cannot persuade Achilles of anything and does not try. Patroclus' attempts to get Achilles to fight fail during his lifetime and succeed only after his death. Towards the end of his life he begins to assert some control over Achilles, however, persuading Achilles to allow him to fight in his stead. Indirectly, by means of his own death, Patroclus persuades Achilles to return to battle, but Achilles soon takes control of the situation once again.

Phoenix also attempts to control Achilles, and tries all the harder after Patroclus' death. In each case he fails and his impotence in this mirrors his impotence in life - he has killed no one in battle, he has saved no one, and he has no wife or children. Thetis' attempts at control, however, succeed. But her success has dreadful repercussions. As Achilles leaves Scyros she reassures him with the knowledge that he may have a short life at the Trojan War as the greatest warrior ever or a long, inglorious life in Phthia. Achilles misinterprets this and believes he will always have the choice of fighting or returning home. Thetis fears Achilles' reaction when he learns the truth and so allows him to continue in his mistaken belief. When Achilles does decide to go home (which represents the Golden Age and childhood) Zeus must take action. He ordains Patroclus' death so that Achilles will fight again. The scheme works, but Achilles insists that once Hector is dead he will return home. Zeus therefore compels Thetis to tell her son the truth.

Achilles' reaction is one of horror and humiliation. He sees himself as a laughing-stock amongst the gods and feels betrayed by his mother, the person he least expected to betray him. All his emotions have been turned sour: love for Patroclus has become guilt at causing his death; love for his mother has become disappointment and a sense of betrayal; love of war and the happy life it gave has become hatred of war and the pain it brings. His confident, happy outlook has gone and only hatred is left. And once this hatred has been expended on Hector he is emotionally dead and his physical death is a welcome release.

Desire for reputation and glory are a major theme within the play, affecting almost every character. Achilles claims to abandon both once Briseis is lost but his concern for reputation destroys him. Nevertheless he abandons thoughts of glory and it is this which secures his supreme glory. Agamemnon's concern for reputation and desire for the appearance of glory is evident in his seizing of Briseis. Patroclus loses his life because of his desire for glory to expunge his guilt for killing Amphidamas' son and thereby regain his own honor. Hector too loses his life through desire for glory and concern for his reputation. Odysseus, on the other hand, admits to a moderate desire for glory but does not allow himself to be controlled by it. And Phoenix abandons any thought of glory because he knows he can never attain it. It is only the characters who do not allow themselves to be controlled by desire for reputation and glory--Odysseus and Phoenix--who die a natural death.

The play is loosely based on the Iliad , but because of the themes I have chosen to emphasise and my motives for writing the play, not to mention the rigours of the form of Greek tragedy, the work differs substantially from Homer's version of the story. Prior to the action, Patroclus outlines the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon. Achilles then enters from his tent, once more eager for war. He tells Patroclus he is going to the beach to relax and reflect on the argument with Agamemnon. Whilst he is away Patroclus is to guard his prizes, especially Briseis - a beautiful and glorious prize. Achilles then exits for the beach and Patroclus into the tent. The chorus of wounded Myrmidon soldiers enter, out of armour, and sing an ode about Achilles and the Trojan War.

(Enter Odysseus, also out of armour.)

Chorus: Laertes' seed, Odysseus, foxy statesman chief, What Spartan service charged by Argos' tyrant chief Compels you hither? Rule your tempting tongue and speak.

Odysseus: My fellow warriors, fellow Greeks, and, surely, friends: You hurl harangues like jav'lins, hold your tongue a shield. Why? Atreus' spawn appals you - duly so, I yield. His rage controls his parlance: thus his frenzy burns, Affrighting subjects, oft-times spewing sanguine spates. Of course you snarl irately, justly too - at him . Is Argos' lord here? Surely good Laertes' son, Odysseus, hails you. Why effuse pugnacious floods?

Chorus: You preach a suasive sermon. Pray, forgive our rash And apish onslaught. Prithee, voice our fireside's lure.

Odysseus: I seek Achilles, Peleus' child, on matters grave.

Chorus: He sits beside Poseidon, brooding deep on all this previous eve's proceedings: thence we spied him stride.

Odysseus: I feared his gait I sighted marching hence this morn. Is calm Patroclus, brave Achilles' friend, within?

(Enter Patroclus, out of armour, carrying a sword.)

Chorus: Menoetius' child, Patroclus, Peleus' second son, I bid you welcome. Shrewd Odysseus craves a word.

Odysseus: I trust you feel peace.

Patroclus: Zeus preserves my soul to fight, Preserves Achilles, all his reaped reguerdons too. Our camp is cheerful, full of spirit: all is well. But you, my comrade? All is calm within, I hope.

Odysseus: Alas, Patroclus, Strife invests our camp again.

Patroclus: And Strife dictates your mission? Pray,unsheathe your tongue.

Odysseus: So Priam's spawn alleges, Strife implanted seeds. Within Olympus' ladies, all with just a fruit. But here she culls a harvest sown with helmless words. And here the bait is mast'ry, there conceit the charm. Agamemnon, Hellas' captain, master sole of Greece's host, Our liege, whose rageful order butchers spotless men, Believed Achilles' censure questioned Argos' sway, Defied his rule in public, maimed his bright repute. Like bloodstained Ares, courted aye by vultures keen, By rav'ning jackals, shameless harpies too in train, All nibbling corpses, gnawing ribs and crunching bones And licking fingers ripped from hapless slaughtered boys: Thus Atreus' issue, wrathful, thundered round the camp And none would speak against him, none would rule our lord. He called for retaliation, death to Peleus' spawn Or vile abasement, humbled yielding, dour amends. I know our gen'ral: deadly, wild in such a fire. At Aulis thus he rampaged, snarled at Calchas' sooths, Unsheathed his weapon, almost worshipped Leto's girl With Calchas' entrails; slowly reason mastered rage, His madness yielded. Thus I thought calm sense would rule, But no: this morning Argos' czar was warlike still. I dared placating speeches, peaceful, brave advice That stabbed and wounded. Atreus' heir persisted still To claim punition. Orpheus' songs would scathe our khan. He fin'lly ordered Brises' maid be yielded forth And threatened martial violence just to snatch the girl. I quelled his godless sally, swayed his battling mind. I planned to charm Achilles, rule his warlike heart And reap Briseis, yields to heal the maimed prestige, The wounded mast'ry. Argos' king is close at hand With warring intrigues. Please Patroclus, yield the maid, And flee from bloodshed. Atreus' spawn will spill your blood, And mine for counsel. You, Patroclus, hold control. Act. Choose with prudence. Please, Patroclus, yield the girl.

Chorus: His tongue is suasive, wise his fluent parlance too. Patroclus, heed his guidance. Yield him Brises' maid.

Patroclus: No! Wordy Lord Odysseus, deafness rules my ears. My friend Achilles yielded no control to me. This ship awaits it captain ere it picks its course And you and Argos' tyrant too must calmly wait.

Chorus: But martial weapons never yield to peaceful sense When roused to battle. Argos' czar will drain our blood, Not calmly tarry. Yield the maiden, yield control.

Odysseus: Their prayer is sapient: Argos' despot never waits. When warlike rage controls him. Well I know our chief, A deadly thug when fettered, slaying virtue too. I plead, Patroclus, kneel for you and kneel for me , Implore for all Danaans. Know that this response Reprieves or hangs your fellows, aids or else betrays: A bloodless yielding, bloody war of Greek at Greek.

Chorus: My chief, Patroclus, yield the maiden, yield in peace.

Patroclus: No! Brave Achilles bade me reign his reaped rewards. And yield to none his harvest. Friends obey behests And never play the traitor. Loyal feelings rule, I banish treach'ry. Thus I help my fellows best: For Ares favours Peleus' son ere Atreus' spawn, The feeble 'warrior' ord'ring others slaughter foes. Achilles sends to Hades millions more then he . You spout betrayal , name me vilest knave of all? You wound my spirit. Never call me traitor more.

Odysseus: I crave forgiveness. Martial fear controlled my tongue. But hear me further. Prithee, rule your warlike heart.

(Enter Agamemnon, armed, followed by three or four armed soldiers.)

Agamemnon: No! Silence, half-wit. Atreus' spawn is seizing charge.

Odysseus: I sought a bloodless yielding.

Agamemnon: Failed and squandered time.

Odysseus: I would have controlled him. Peleus' martial son was gone.

Agamemnon: You ruled proceedings, planned your chance and still were drubbed.

Odysseus: Persuasive speech needs patience. Agamemnon: Apish prattling fool! Your words could injure no one, like an ethereal sword. This sword can butcher, governs all, and waits for naught. I want avengeance, not orations. Chain your tongue. The girl Briseis, yield her. Now your lord is here.

Patroclus: My lord is Peleus' offspring.

Agamemnon: Rein your cursing tongue. And yield Briseis, Atreus' issue's plunder now.

Patroclus: Await Achilles.

Agamemnon: Yield the maiden, yield to me.

Patroclus: Await Achilles.

Agamemnon: Yield the girl. Defy me not.

Patroclus: Await Achilles.

Agamemnon: Others still can publish all. Odysseus, subject, name the virgin's refuge - now!

Odysseus: He uttered nothing. Suasive talk needs time to rout.

Agamemnon: Zeus! All are half-wits. Wounded braves, announce her keep.

Chorus: Patroclus, rule us. Fear essays to sway our tongues.

Patroclus: My sword will parley.

Agamemnon: Soldiers, rule his foolish sword, Or slay the traitor.

Chorus: Please, Patroclus, yield your sword.

Patroclus: Allegiance sways me.

Odysseus: Prithee, rule your warlike heart. You die for nothing: Argos' king will reap the girl. Let Pallas wage war if Agamemnon does transgress. Pray, yield to Zeus' law. Only traitors claim control.

Chorus: He preaches wisely. Pray, be ruled and yield to Zeus.

Patroclus: I have no option. Brises' maid awaits within.

Agamemnon: Go, seize the virgin.

(Exeunt soldiers into tent.)

Patroclus: Zeus, destroy the martial czar. If Justice rules you. Send his soul to hell, or mine.

(Enter soldiers from the tent.)

Agamemnon: Farewell, Patroclus.

(Exeunt Agamemnon, Odysseus, and soldiers.)

Patroclus: Damn you, dog, to Tart'rus' depths!

(Exit Patroclus into tent.)

Paul Withers
e-mail: P.S.Withers@reading.ac.uk

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 2 Issue 3 - October 1994
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606