Greece's Real-Life Drama Is Being Played Out in European Theaters

Alexis Tsipras
Alexis Tsipras sits in the Akropol theater during the presentation of Syriza candidates for the municipal and regional elections in Athens, Greece on February 17, 2014. Maro Kouri/Polaris/Newscom

At the beginning of this year, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras compared the contemporary fate of cash-strapped Greece to Sophocles's tragedy Antigone, written in Athens over 2,400 years ago. In that play, Antigone defies her uncle Creon's edict to leave her renegade brother Polyneices's corpse unburied; she says she is following divine justice, not arbitrary human law. Tsipras likened the blinkered imposition of fiscal rectitude by Greece's main creditors—the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund—to Creon's narrow legalism, and his ruling left-wing Syriza party's stand against austerity to Antigone's noble defiance: "Greece is the country of Sophocles," he declared, "who taught us with his Antigone that there are moments in which the supreme law is justice."

That things didn't turn out quite as Tsipras hoped—he essentially gave in to pressure from the creditors and agreed to a new round of budget cuts—should come as no surprise to aficionados of Greek tragedy, a form built on unhappy reversals of fortune. It is probably no coincidence that three productions of Aeschylus's great trilogy The Oresteia have been showing or are about to open in Britain, two in London and one in Manchester. A production of Antigone, starring French movie star Juliette Binoche, has just wrapped up a world tour. The Almeida Theater in London is in the middle of a "Greeks" season featuring two plays by Euripides.

A growing number of directors and theater managers appear to believe that these ancient plays have important things to say about our contemporary crises. The electrifying production of The Oresteia at Shakespeare's Globe in South London draws a straight line between ancient and modern by evoking the Athens of 2015 with graffiti-scrawled walls and sinister-looking riot police with black berets and short-handled truncheons.

"The plays certainly speak to the modern predicamentand particularly in times of war and displacement and international horror," says Armand D'Angour, a tutor in classics at Oxford University. Adele Thomas, director of The Oresteia, agrees: "It's unavoidable that contemporary issues are there," says. "We live in dangerous times."

The backdrop of The Oresteia is the long, pointless Trojan War, which killed and maimed thousands. For much of the trilogy, there seems to be no end to the cycle in which bloodshed breeds more bloodshed; King Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia; his wife Clytemnestra murders him on his return from Troy; then their son Orestes returns to avenge his father's death by killing her and her lover.

Some of the lines in Rory Mullarkey's sparkling new translation strike contemporary chords, as Western countries continue to engage militarily in the Middle East: "We sent our boys; they came back in boxes." Mullarkey's line is a faithful translation that merely substitutes boxes for the Greek word for urns. In fact, Mullarkey says that he wanted to stay as close as possible to the original. "I wasn't trying to make contemporary references when they weren't there," he tells Newsweek.

The plays, when originally staged in Athens, as historian Paul Cartledge reminds us, were great public, civic events, "paid for in part by the city itself." The current spate of revivals shows that these ageless dramas, and drama in general, can be an essential forum for public debate, as democracy comes under increasing strain, not just in Greece but all over a confused and surly continent. The only fragile hope they hold out is that human beings may eventually "learn through suffering." Maybe Alexis Tsipras already knows that.