Whatever the shortcomings of their civilization, the ancient Athenians obviously did something right. Otherwise, the literary remnants of their life wouldn’t continue to have such a grip on us, two and a half millennia later. We may question the Greeks, argue over them, snipe at their customs, struggle to reinvent their works, and wonder to what extent they actually believed their myths; the one thing we can’t do is get away from them.
The Greeks were interested in direct experience. As a result, their philosophy tends to have an immediate connection to reality; it isn’t abstract or high-flown, like so many later approaches to thought. For them, philosophy was a branch of natural science: It strove to explain the hows and whys of human existence just as one might explain how to construct a lever-and-pulley system or how to navigate by the stars. Though compared to us they could hardly be called a materialistic people, material phenomena were the beginning and end of their speculations; the goal of their metaphysics was always to improve or enhance their sense of being in reality.
David Herskovits’s Target Margin Theater, which has been working through some of the obscurer corners of tragedy in its season dedicated to Greek thought, has now reached a transcendent finale by putting onstage two of the most familiar specimens of Athenian philosophy, Aristotle’s Poetics and Plato’s Symposium. Given that the Greeks viewed philosophy frankly as a branch of public entertainment, linked to oratory, Herskovits’s choice is not so unreasonable as it might appear to us, who’ve pretty much banished philosophy from our stage except for an occasional Shaw revival.
The first half of Target Margin’s double bill is another of those pieces of sheer astonishment, merging theatrical flamboyance and intellectual audacity, that have become synonymous with the name of David Greenspan. Who else would have imagined the Western world’s keystone work of dramatic criticism as a piece of dramatic art in itself? Greenspan streamlines
The Argument, as he calls it, sticking to the passages on the essence of tragedy and its difference from comedy, and dodging the lesser details in which fifth-century Athenian practice is too different from ours for the lecture to be informative. But can “lecture” be the right word for something that’s such breathtaking fun? Passion-—the artist’s passionate faith in the value of art-—provides the molten core not only of Aristotle’s view of drama, but also of Greenspan’s delivery. And he knows, to a hairsbreadth, how and when to vary the passion with irony, with analytic lucidity, and with sly, anachronistic zingers to keep you alert. This is an Aristotle anybody would be glad to study with.
After the lecture, the party: A symposium, to the Greeks, was a sort of philos
ophic game of Twister for the elite; the word literally means “drinking party” (
syn-, with; poton, to drink). Hetairae, those educated Greek geisha girls who were among the few women the era permitted to be articulate in public, were always present; the point of the exercise was to see which guest, speaking on a set topic, could sustain rationality longest before the alcohol took over and the whole thing
degenerated into a sex orgy.
Plato’s imaginary assemblage of Athenian intellectual heavyweights cannily makes the chosen topic love itself, though not in the fleshly sense common to most symposia. In his version, the only woman who speaks (in flashback, within someone else’s speech) is the priestess Diotima, who describes the transcendent union of flesh and spirit. The overall movement of the dialogue is toward a love-—in Plato, strictly a male-male phenomenon—that goes beyond physical attributes and involves the sense of well-being that comes with the imparting of wisdom. With typical Platonic irony, this concept unreels as a confession by a drunken intruder, the least cerebral person present, the warrior Alcibiades.
There have been many attempts to stage the
Symposium. Herskovits, retitling it The Dinner Party, sets it among today’s downtown artists, at a boozy fiesta celebrating an Obie won by a solo performance artist. The analogy has its shaky moments, and the text, a collective creation which clearly could have used a supervising playwright, sometimes lapses into desultory chitchat that would make Aristotle groan in irritation. But Herskovits catches the woozy, visionary atmosphere that links our own smarter parties to the ancients’, and in the best-known passages-—Aristophanes’ fable of the genders, the Socrates-Diotima discourse, Alcibiades’ confession-—the company seems to step aside and let something far greater than themselves take over. Steven Rattazzi, Stephanie Weeks, Mary Neufeld, and Greig Sargeant make particularly strong contributions to this expansion of the spirit. And Greenspan, as the high-flying, plastered intruder, supplies the perfect frosting for this ideational layer cake.
Many modern playwrights have tried to breathe new life into the Greek myths. Until Sarah Ruhl’s
Eurydice, I never saw a writer make such active efforts to snuff the life out of one. Ruhl clearly doesn’t believe in the myth, and displays no interest in its possible meanings. Nor does she, particularly, believe that playwriting involves any obligation to hold the audience’s interest; she changes her story’s ground rules every few minutes, with a tiresomely whimsical fecklessness that suggests she urgently needs to attend Greenspan’s lectures. Les Waters’s production has some beautiful visual moments, but, interestingly, the cast suffers from the same pompous this-is-meaningful-poetry delivery that poisoned last year’s much inferior production of Ruhl’s
The Clean House. What makes this wanly promising novice an artist to be canonized by the MacArthur Foundation and
The New York Times, I can’t fathom. What was it Picasso said about artists who succeed because they look modern but smell of the museum?