There are clear connections between the classical and modern theater in Greece - just as there are clear connections between the theater of classical Greece and the modern theater of the West in general. Much of what we believe to be proper theater-making comes from classical works: We still use many of the same ideas about character, about motif, about plot. But even as many of the internal structures have remained the same, the culture in which the plays of ancient and modern Greece are written and produced has changed dramatically, thus changing the content and understanding of the plays themselves. We can see how theater has changed (and how it has not) by examining one particular aspect of that runs through so many Greek plays, the concept of free will.
The works of the ancient Greek playwrights are difficult for us to read within the context of the 21st century because most people today believe in the validity of the idea of free will. This inclination towards believing in the importance of free will is especially important for Americans, since we have all been (more or less) raised by the national philosophy that dictates to us from childhood onward that anyone can grow up to be president, that we can - and indeed are responsible - for making of our lives what we will. That each day is the beginning of the rest of our lives. It is difficult indeed to square such an almost inherited insistence on the importance and sovereignty of free will with the idea of fate that runs so deeply through classical drama.
And yet, perhaps we can both be true to our 21st-century sensibilities and also appreciate classical tragedy, because a closer reading of these classical texts demonstrates that perhaps the classical Greeks were not so different in their understandings of human nature as we ourselves are. We shall examine this idea that is important in both ancient Greek theater as well as in so much of modern theater - i.e. that the ancient Greek's insistence on the importance of fate is in fact not so very different from our own understanding of personal responsibility - by examining Sophocles' treatment of the story of Oedipus.
At first glance, the tragic tale of Oedipus does indeed seem to be one driven by fate, with free will very scarce on the ground indeed. A brief overview of the plays will be useful to set the stage for our later analysis of them. Oedipus, so various sources in Greek mythology tell us, was the son of Laius, a part of the ruling Theban dynasty founded by Cadmus, and of Jocasta. He appears as the tragic hero in a number of plays, of which Sophocles are the best known.
In the most often told version of the story, Laius goes to an oracle and learns from it that he will be killed by his own son. To avoid his own death as a parricide, he hammers a spike through his son's feet and leaves him to die of exposure on a mountain. However, a shepherd finds the infant and rescues him, giving him to the king and queen of Corinth, who have no child of their own.
When he grows up, Oedipus in turn goes to an oracle, which tells him that he will kill his father and marry his own mother. To avoid this terrible fate, he flees Corinth, only to come across Laius on the road. He argues with Laius, not knowing who he is, and then kills him. After this he travels to Thebes where, after he successfully bests the Sphinx, he is offered the hand of Jocasta, the widowed queen.
The blind seer Tiresias reveals what had happened, Jocasta kills herself, and Oedipus blinds himself before becoming an outcast and wondering from place to place. In the end, in the midst of his blindness, he will become able to see the truth, and he will become redeemed, both to himself and to the people of Athens, whose city his grave will protect forever.
These plays, some of the most important written in the classical world, are still performed in Greece and beyond today: Clearly the elements that are central to these plays remain at the heart of modern theater.
One of the clear ways in which Sophocles's suggests that Oedipus may indeed have free will is by the way that Oedipus like other characters is always asking for advice. But to ask for advice is not the same thing as obligating oneself to take it, as these characters all-too-often seem to forget. Oedipus asks for Tiresias's advice, in Oedipus the King, but then he is free to take it or reject it.
Teiresias, seer who comprehendest all,
Lore of the wise and hidden mysteries,
High things of heaven and low things of the earth,
Thou knowest, though thy blinded eyes see naught,
What plague infects our city; and we turn
To thee, O seer, our one defense and shield.
But this is not true: Tiresias is not the one defense and shield that Oedipus has: He is simply relying upon him because it is easier than taking responsibility for himself. (This dynamic should be all too familiar to us today.)
The traditional reading of this terrible story is that Oedipus never has a chance: His life, like that of Laius's and Jocasta's - has been determined in advance by the gods. There is no escape for these unhappy souls.
The story of Oedipus brings to mind a shorter and more modern telling of what must be seen to be essentially the same tale, although the tone is far wryer. This story by Somerset Maugham, one of the most perfect stories ever written in English, demonstrates the idea of a perfect lack of fate that the Oedipus tragedy also seems to involve:
certain merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the market to buy some provisions. A little while later, the servant returned looking white in the face. In a trembling voice he said, "Just now in the market place I was jostled by a man in the crowd, and when I turned I saw it was Mr. Death. He looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Please lend me your horse, because I want to go to Samara where Mr. Death will not be able to find me." The merchant agreed and lent the scared man his horse. The servant mounted the horse and rode away as fast as the animal could gallop. Later that day, the merchant went down to the market place and saw Mr. Death standing in the crowd. He approached him and said, "Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?" "That was not a threatening gesture," said Mr. Death. "It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, because I have an appointment with him tonight in Samara."
Both Maugham - whose modern plays are often performed in Greece - and Sophocles seem to be saying that humans have no control over their fate - that if the gods are determined to destroy us they will. But a closer reading of both tales reveals a very different way to understand them.
When we read Maugham's tale, we say to ourselves, as the author intended for us to do, "Oh, if only if had not gone to Samara." And when we read "Oedipus" we say to ourselves, "Oh if only he had not met Laius." But we can also turn these statements around: If only Oedipus had not killed Laius, we might say. Oedipus had free will in choosing to quarrel with a stranger and kill him. He was not compelled to act the way that he did.
There are clear corollaries to human behavior today: We look at someone like the man accused of being the Washington DC-area sniper and we can see elements of his own past that brought him to the point where he is today, and we say to ourselves, he had little choice in becoming this terrible man. But we also believe that he did have some choice: We understand that life limits the chances that each one of us has, and yet we do not believe the fact that our lives were limited gives us leave to act wrongly. Such modern-day tragedies are turned into modern-day Greek plays, teaching us many of the same lessons that Sophocles wished to imbue.
Perhaps Sophocles is saying to us, this is the hand of fate pressing down on the head of Oedipus: He has no choices. But it seems more likely - given that human nature in Sophocles's time is much the same as it is today - what he is saying is that we often have very few choices, and often not very good ones, but we always do have choices.