Voice of the Warrior: Starting the Conversation

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

This blog takes place the second of Johnny's classes, in an apartment in NYC:

The themes are beginning to emerge in Johnny’s Friday night group. Do we accept death, or do we fear it? Do we accept war, even embrace or value it and celebrate it in society at home and in our art, or do we shun it?

The discussion, something less prevalent in the first session, is louder this time. It isn’t just because the Korean War Veteran has moved from the corner, having recovered from his cold and grabbed a more prevalent part. It isn’t because the scholars are chiming in more, and it isn’t because the text of Frogs reads like a tossed out scene from sketch comedy set at the gates of Hell. Though the group missed a week of interaction the week before, they’d connected in the interim. They sent messages, suggestions, thoughts, and it carried over and into the room on Friday night.

Dispersed into the reading was discussion, understanding of the text and better understanding of the themes and of war. Alcestis tells of moral ambivalence and yet also of self sacrifice. How to rectify, in a room of Veterans and Families, the consideration that, as the group’s scholar Mattia notes: “Admetus’ father describes it as an act of a moron (line 771). Who wouldn’t want to live? Why would you give away your precious life for someone else? And – most importantly – how can anyone actually ask for somebody to die for them?” Death was, as Mattia points out, permanent and Hades was undesirable and the absence of light. Therefore, it was the ultimate sacrifice.

The discussion around this concept, of course, turned to the worthiness of the cause. Athens was constantly at war and so are (at present) current Americans. Is it worth the sacrifice? The Korean Veteran, seeing a family of service from World War II and then beyond into Vietnam and through the spectrum of public opinion, had some thoughts. It is easier to fight when you know who the bad guys are, after all, and when the world can agree the cause is just.  

But this is not a classroom, but developing theater! The purpose here is to create adaptations, to learn and to grow, and that is what is happening. Conversation turns now to the role of the poet, and to is the one composing the play responsible for restoring that sense of nostalgia, the sense of right and the sense of value in war in the public, or are they simply there to record and replay what the sense is out in the world? Do they change opinion, or do they reflect? Should their words be used to justify military action, and is such an idea proper when the idea of right and wrong are murky, as they are in cases beyond WWII, or in regimes other than those considered more authoritarian than the foundations upon which the United States was built. But it seems, at least in the works these Veterans and Families read, there was no consensus for the role of the poet and theater in Athens nor could there be consensus found in the room.

Conversation is passionate and heartfelt, and full of memories. There is no writing this time, shared or otherwise. Topics wander to the new production, but the focus still remains on the role each character plays, both within and outside productions. What is the role of the poet and the playwright, the combatant and the supporter back at home? What does each need, and what dreams are expressed and what is put on hold and what dies and ends up at the gates of Hades?

If they could, they’d talk all night. Discussing characters and attributes, theories and concepts and what should be in the new production. The fact that most of the people in the room had only met two weeks before went unnoticed; everyone had something to contribute, everyone was engrossed in the moment. As the night drew to a close and individuals began to drift towards the door, one would think they’d left a thoughtful salon instead of a discussion of war and death. Far from a feeling of weight and sadness, there was palpable anticipation towards what the next week of Greek theater might bring.

Full analysis (referenced above) by Mattia Roveri

In our second session we read and discussed passages from Euripides’ Alcestis, Hippolytus and Aristophanes’ Frogs. In the following I will discuss briefly what I took to be the major themes of the session: 1. death and coping with loss, 2. Sense of duty and values in war, and 3. the role of poets (widely construed) in society.

Alcestis was an interesting choice to kick off for this session. Essentially, she decides to do (what she considers to be) her duty and to die instead of her husband Admetus. The latter is a morally ambivalent character: while deeply loved by Apollo, to whom he had done previous services (and thus must be a respectable and just man), he is willing to have her young wife and mother of their children die instead of him. Not only that, at the end of the play he is actually ready to break the oath he gave to Alcestis not to marry again and agrees to accept Heracles’ gift of a young woman who – to his great surprise – turns out to be Alcestis herself. So the play ends in a positive note, even though one does wonder what the ‘ever after’ will look like. There is undoubtedly tension in the air, Heracles runs off in rush and Alcestis won’t be able to communicate for three days while she recovers from the transition.

I would like to look at Alcestis’ decision to die in more detail. It could be described as a heroic act, to die for our beloved ones. Alcestis herself makes sure that she will be acknowledged for this and makes demands for the husband about the way in which he should continue his life without her (e.g. not to marry again). However, Admetus’ father describes it as an act of a moron (line 771). Who wouldn’t want to live? Why would you give away your precious life for someone else? And – most importantly – how can anyone actually ask for somebody to die for them?

Even though Greeks seem to have had a sense of some sort of continuing existence in Hades, it is slightly unclear what kind of existence that will be. Alcestis says that she will be ‘nothing’ and that by dying she will cease to exist. An important point to emphasize in this context is the concept of ‘light’ and ‘sunlight’ in particular. From this play, we get the sense that death is primarily associated with the lack of ‘light’. See Apollo: ‘No one except his wife would die for him / and see the light no more’ (lines 21-22), or Alcestis when she says to Admetus: ‘I put you before myself / and gave up my own life so you could live / and look upon this daylight’ (also Alcestis emphasizing darkness in line 412, etc. the play is literally full with references to sunlight). Hades is essentially a place without sunlight and thus, without the circles of day, without change of time or warmth or color. It is monotonous, it is bleak and can be therefore hardly considered worthy of human existence.* Death is to be avoided at all cost. So did Alcestis do a heroic and noble act by dying young for her husband and by voluntarily leaving behind sunlight that the Greeks so valued? There is a sense of honor to die young, Death says (line 59). But I suppose this is true when one dies for a truly important cause (e.g. Achilles for the Greeks in Troy). Is Admetus, based on what we know from the play, worthy of such a sacrifice? Would Admetus be able to justify and glorify Alcestis’ death? Well, it doesn’t look like that at all. Euripides seems instead to be pointing out the problematic aspects of such ‘heroic’ death. And perhaps even to problematize the sense of duty to a husband that Alcestis seems to follow so closely. That’s very fascinating and I think as relevant today as it probably was revolutionary then. From the military perspective, Euripides’ criticism would press us hard to make sure that we do our duty for a worthy cause. That’s a difficult task. Especially in a messy world like ours or like that of the Athenians, constantly in war.

I will now jump to Frogs and look at a few things that stood out to me from our discussion of that play in particular. So one of the major questions is, what role does a poet (or those with access to the public more broadly) have in society? Aristophanes seems to be suggesting, regardless of whether we bring back Euripides or Aeschylus from the dead, that a poet should consider the role they have in, and the impact their work exercises on, society. This in itself is a powerful message and I wonder whether there is a remotely similar sense among authors and artists today when they embark on their work. Is there a sense of moral responsibility quite the same way that Aristophanes seems to demand?

An interesting reading was offered in the session for trying to understand why Dionysus decides to bring back Aeschylus rather than Euripides. With Athens in the last painful stretch of the Peloponnesian War, it just might have been felt that Aeschylus with its force and powerful performances (and let’s not forget that chorus preparation was similar to military exercising, so more forceful dance would perhaps lead to more rigorous training?) might help Athenians keep their spirits high and win the war. Indeed, at difficult times, should we not prefer works of art that help us to victory and eschew those that might undermine our goals? And yet, as a rule this sounds terribly similar to an authoritarian regime, which promotes military might and feels no necessity to justify its goals, subjecting the arts to the promotion and advocacy of those goals. Aristophanes is of course not suggesting that entirely, but our discussion did make me think about the way in which arts support or justify military missions or other political decisions, the way in which arts can subtly work together with the government to manipulate the citizenry. Lastly, an interesting point was made about the sense of nobility of the Second World War, which I think connects somewhat to the previous. Unlike with many other wars in history (including current ones), WWII stands out as a war where it was clear to everyone (at least to the vast majority of Americans) who the good ones were. It was a war relatively easy to justify, it was also easy to mobilize the military, there was a sense of fighting for the right thing. In this sense, it seems that there is nostalgia for WWII and that kind of nobility of purpose that we don’t really see in today’s war.

* The idea of sunlight could be used also for staging the play? A good reading about the importance of sunlight is Edith Hall’s introduction to Greek tragedy: Greek tragedy: suffering under the sun. Oxford, 2010.

Mattia Roveri (in consultation with Laura Viidebaum)