Of all the gifts left behind by the Greeks, no two are more enduring than our politics and our theatre.
[T]he Greeks conceived of stage and assembly, and through the innate gifts we have to enchant and believe, they both have endured.
Like two indelible marks left behind from the civilization born inside the city-states, they both endure as standards and guidelines. Guidelines on man’s capability to lead and organize; on her capacity to incite; on his power to uplift and destroy; on her ability to bring a crowd to laughter, and break them down again.
It should serve as no surprise that Greek politics and Greek theatre have survived and thrived, remarkably unchanged, throughout much of the Western world. The fundamentals are sound, and similar. In both arenas we find a familiar toolkit — a stage, some seating, a script. We find actors and audience. We find a state of collective (dis)belief, suspended realities, and implicit understanding. We find a group of people (sometimes voters, sometimes patrons), who allow themselves to throw their fears and dreams upon an actor, in the hopes that something transcendent may happen. Maybe it’s universal healthcare, or maybe it’s catharsis, or laughter at Christmastime.
Maybe it doesn’t matter but the Greeks conceived of stage and assembly, and through the innate gifts we have to enchant and believe, they both have endured.
Source: The British Library/Flickr
An Actor and a Polis
The understanding developed by the Greeks, in their politics and their theatre, is a profound and fundamental relationship between the whole and the center. In democracy, this relationship allowed a collective of men to come together, on behalf of their interests and their families, to guide the shape of the law. The Athenian Assembly (made up of adult men) was the house where law and war and foreign policy were shaped, by majority vote.
It is a group authority collectively derived from the sum of its parts. In this arena, all men (only men!) are actors, and the play the ever-onward roll of rule and law. When allegiances or factions develop, we see actors rise to defend their beliefs. In a functional democracy, all voices are heard and represented; all opinions voiced and defended; and a consensus reached.
There is an appealing, and there is a listening, and there are decisions-enacted. Laws and wars and such.
In the Athenian theatre, meanwhile, the relationships between comedy and tragedy and gods and men were taking shape, but the rules were much the same. There is an audience and an actor (just men!), and a fundamental relationship between the two. The power of the actor comes from the collective agreement of the audience, not the other way around. For Athenians filing into the theatron, in preparation for a play, the action begins not with the actors but with the crowd. It’s an understanding that the people on stage are, for some time, different than those in the seats. An understanding that the crowd should listen and the actor should speak, and if the actor proclaims that he is god, that the crowd should believe. And if the actor puts on a mask, that the crowd should see a different man. And if that actor dies, that the crowd should not attempt to rescue him.
In the theatre and the democracy there is an appealing, and a listening, and decisions enacted. In the theater we listen to the actor make the case for hope or love or truth or light, and we must internalize the claim and act, if we feel so compelled, based on the truths we’ve been taught.
So, too, in democracy. And the rules in both endure.
The audience and the public assume a certain set of qualities to the performance, and a routine. Actors who break the rules may throw us off. Those who break the fourth wall disrupt the world of the play, at the chance to connect with their audience. Politicians who speak plainly eschew the rules we all expect, at the chance of proving themselves one of us.
Theater of Dionysus in Roman Times | Source: Wikimedia Commons
And in both arenas, the Greeks asserted one of the great weaknesses of Western society, limiting the participation and representation in politics and culture to men. Though women found themselves frequently depicted on the Athenian stage (indeed, some of the most enduring characters from Greek theatre have been female), women were allowed neither on stage nor in the audience. There was a fear of their deception and their power, with many myths conceived as warnings against their influence.
The politics and the theatre the Greeks have made are powers derived from group authority.
The power of theatre and politics is born in the group and driven towards the center, and therein lies a crucial vulnerability. What if the crowd rejects the premise? What if the actor appears on the stage and the crowd sees not an actor but a man, the same as the rest? What if the actor sucks? What if the politician’s a fraud? What if the crowd will not be still or listen, what if no consensus can be found — or worse — what if all members consider themselves the actors? The politics and the theatre the Greeks have made are powers derived from group authority. They function best when the audience is on its toes, at the edge of their seats, clamoring out for hope and change and the beauty. But when the audience no longer believes its actor; or resents the premise; or decides it simply no longer wishes to be an audience, then the thing falls apart. The actor is just a man, and the politician an idea, and the magic there was in collective potential evaporates.
The Price of Populism
It should serve as no surprise, perhaps, that these two institutions have long fostered a similar breed of actors (men at first, then women), and have rewarded a similar set of skills. The actor and the orator must be compelling and honest; they both must be transparent.
They must reflect the will and hopes of their audience, and in them, the audience must be able to see itself.
The most successful politicians are born for the stage. They are charismatic and charming; effortless in their appeals and convincing in their narrative. Many of us can picture in our minds a familiar scene from Germany where a man stands before an audience with his hand outstretched, with many thousands reaching back. There’s a magic here, and in that moment, the man at the center is not so much a man but a god, carrying on his shoulders the collective potential of the thousands of people who have suspended their authority and handed it to him. That is the power of our politics and the height of the stage; that is the burden of democracy, the weight of the crown, and price of populism.
The pitfalls here are obvious. It’s not the bad politicians that we need to watch, but the great ones. An audience member watching a bad play or an unconvincing actor may leave. And a bad play, though a tragedy, is unlikely to wreck the world. So too an unconvincing actor or statesman is unlikely to leave a lasting mark, no matter what the ideas.
Source: The British Library/Flickr
We see the suspense of rage and the glimmer of hope.
Rather, it’s the good plays we have to watch. The good plays are convincing. The good plays are like propaganda — they are subtle and efficient; they are damn compelling and pretty and well-crafted; they are powerful, but not so powerful that we see how powerful. And the best plays, like propaganda, may even compel us to action; like being incited to violence, perhaps, or shelling out $600 for a ticket to Hamilton. We see in Hitler what we see in Reagan, and in Obama, and in Sanders, and in Trump — a gifted actor, a willing audience, and an innate understanding of the scope of the stage. We see the suspense of rage and the glimmer of hope. We see the collective belief in the individual to lead, and make-better. We see the potential for hope and change and better days ahead, and all we have to do is raise up our hands and take a pledge and believe and transfer our agency onto a single actor, because we see ourselves in him. And we believe he’ll make it better.
And so when first it’s the gypsies, and then the Catholics, and then the gays, and then the Jews, we don’t see it. When first it’s the Mexicans, and then the Muslims, it’s okay. Because it doesn’t really matter anymore because the crowd’s arms are extended, and the audience has stopped listening.
A Collision in the Wings
If there’s anything we can take from the Greeks it’s an understanding that there will always be drama, and many who love it. Straight politics is boring and dull plays are the worst, but explosions are fun. Incite the crowds and drive the stakes. For Americans, the onset of new technologies with more expedient drama has decreased the relevance of the theatre. But there is a growing appetite for theatre that is political ($600 for Hamilton, what the fuck), and an exploding theatricality to our politics.
Iowa GOP Debate Stage | Source: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-3.0)
Off-year elections pass by like a fart in the Capitol, while presidential elections are multi-billion dollar reality shows. We vote less on beliefs than on party, and we coalesce around celebrity.
But we vote, which happens much more often when the stakes are high and the candidates are loud.
When we have belief and hope and outrage (AND OUTRAGE!!!) we are more likely to go to the polls. When our votes are negligible and the candidates are quiet and level-headed and equally-boring yet qualified choices, nobody votes. When the whole is enflamed the center is the target — either the recipient of tremendous power, or the victim of a coup. When the anger is high and the disenfranchisement is acidic and the candidates are bombastic and the water’s bloody, then our civic duty starts feeling a lot more important. Because it’ll be Christmas soon and fuck my relatives, I want my team to win in November.
The politics will always need the theatre. But it must be finessed; the politician somewhere mid-way between a man and a god, in the tiers of mediocre celebrity. Any less and she is ineffective; any more and she’s dangerous. And then we must trust her foresight and her wisdom to whip up the crowd to the extent that she needs — and no more — so she can do her work and then be done, and step down from the throne.
Because if there’s one thing the Greeks hated, it’s a king.