April 2012 Archives

What follows is a "walkthrough" that I created for the Fall 2011 Theatre History class. The goal of the walkthrough was to provide assistance in thinking through a particular assignment. Reading this entry will help students think through the act of constructing arguments about theatre history.


What is history for the Ancient Greeks? One method for answering this question is to ask, "What is history for me in the present?" What are some answers to this question? When I ask this question myself, I come up with a two-pronged answer. First, history denotes the totality of events that have occurred before right now. This means that everything that has happened since walking into this classroom is now a resident of the domain of history. Second, and at the same time, history, for me, describes the effort to record, describe, or archive those events that have happened before right now. In other words, it is very hard to distinguish between what happened and the narrative of what happened. This is, in fact, where the practice of historiography comes into play. Historiography makes that distinction between what happened and the narrative of what happened in order to unpack the rationalizations and modes of thinking that have shaped an event in a certain way. Now, having figured that out, I have to make my way back to the main question. If this is my definition of history in the present, should I assume that history was the same thing for Greeks? The answer, as far as I am concerned, is no, at least, not yet. We may discover some similarities, but we have to earn that comparison.

At first glance, history cannot be the same thing for the Ancient Greeks as it is for me because there are too many differences between Ancient Greek culture and my own. As such, we can start addressing the question from the Critical Assignment prompt negatively. What does "history" mean in the world of Aeschylus and Aristophanes? It must mean something different besides the totality of events coming before right now and the narratives that tell of those events. What then is it? How do we start to answer this question?

The best thing to do is to return to our primary source materials: the plays of Aeschylus and Aristophanes that we read in class. Let's take Prometheus Bound as a starting point. What event unfolds for us in that play? We see a Titan from 10,000 years ago (relative to the time of Aeschylus) punished for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humans. By summarizing the story of the play, do we have enough information to help us answer the main question, "What did 'history' mean in the time of the Ancient Greeks?" Not quite, but we are close. All we have to do is to bring in our contemporary working definition of history and see how it compares with the story of this play. Let's start with the first half of our working definition: history denotes the totality of events that happened before right now. From there we should ask, did the Greeks watching Prometheus Bound think that there really was a Prometheus and that he really was bound to a rock for committing specific crimes against the gods? Is this event illustrated in Prometheus Bound something that actually happened before right now?

Let's start with "no": the Greeks understood the story of Prometheus Bound to be a myth, similar to, though undoubtedly different in many ways from, the way we think of it as a myth. In this context, let's say that a "myth" is an event that occupies the terrain of past events but that never actually took place. It is a story that tells an important lesson and, for that reason, people should treat the story it tells as something as real as any event that actually did take place. At this point, we have one possible answer to the thorny question in the Critical Response assignment: History during the time of the Ancient Greeks is no different from myth. History/Myth was a pool of events from which Ancient Greeks drew valuable information about how they as a people came to be.

That's a strong argument, but we run into some problems right away when we try to prove it. Since we haven't read any material on myth in this class, how do we know what myth really meant to the Ancient Greeks? Since I would like you to support all of your arguments in this class with textual support, you wouldn't actually be able to use this argument about myth. In addition to not having any scholarly materials to quote from, Aeschylus's play doesn't provide any help either. While it does present the story, there isn't any proof that the event happening in the story was myth. At this point, we're stuck.

Let's go back to question of whether the Greeks believed they were watching an event that actually took place. Let's change our answer and suggest that, yes, the Ancient Greeks believed that the events in Prometheus Bound did take place. We have proof to support that claim. Look in the text at all the geographical markers. We don't even have to look very far because the opening stage direction provides us with the following: "Scene: a bare and desolate crag in the Caucasus" (Aeschylus 139). According to Wikipedia, the Caucasus Mountains are "a mountain system in Eurasia between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea in the Caucasus region." This event, the binding of Prometheus, as fantastical as it may appear, took place on Earth in a location that people could actually visit. Since we're trying to write a 550-word paper, this evidence is sufficient to lay the foundations for the claim that, though it occurred a long time ago, the binding of Prometheus was a real event, and we could add more evidence such as the names of the places visited by Io on her grueling parade through Eurasia. The easiest one to remember is the Bosporus Sea since "Bosporus" means "Cow's ford." bosporus.gif Prometheus mentions it on page 168 when he tells Io that, "When you shall cross the channel that divides/Europe from Asia, turn the to rising sun..." This channel gets the name "Cow's ford" because Io, inhabiting the shape of a heifer, "fords," or crosses, that body of water. Textual evidence always adds credence to an argument, which, in this case is that Prometheus Bound portrayed an event that did in fact take place.

Given that the event did happen, what does this help us discern about the meaning of "history" in Ancient Greece? Let's argue that the Ancient Greek definition of history starts to resonate more with our own definition at this point. Let's argue that history for the Ancient Greeks referred to events that really took place before right now, which is to say, before the 5th Century BC when Aeschylus was writing. That's still not very interesting, though. What significance did history have for the Greeks? What did it mean for them? To answer this, and to spice up our argument, we should look at the themes Aeschylus portrays through the story of Prometheus's binding. We know that one theme is Justice. Is Zeus--the ruling party--justified in punishing Prometheus for his transgression of the law, or has Prometheus made visible the injustice of Zeus's laws by supplying the humans with an essential tool for cultivating life? Since the only characters who advocate on behalf of Zeus in this play are named Might and Violence, I think that Aeschylus intended his audience to challenge the established law, to view Might and Violence as demonic representations of local Athenian tyrants, and to side with the transgressor, Prometheus. To give more specific evidence, I might even cite the use of the word tyrant that appears in the lines of the Chorus on page 155: "I cry aloud, Prometheus, and lament your bitter fate...This is a tyrant's deed; this is unlovely,/a thing done by a tyrant's private laws." With this evidence, I feel good claiming that Aeschylus is portraying this event, which really did happen, because he wants Athenians to think about their present political situation and to transgress the laws of their tyrant ruler with the knowledge that they are just in doing so.

At this point, with all this textual support and logical reasoning, I can argue that history in the time of Aeschylus was a pool of past events that really did occur from which Athenians were to learn lessons in order to shape their present circumstances. As such, the present was historical insofar as the present was shaped by the knowledge of past events. The major difference between this argument and the similar argument that we made before in the name of myth is that we have textual evidence to back it up and we've added a new dimension. In addition to arguing that history for the Athenians was a pool of events from which to draw lessons, I have taken an extra step to say that the present is always infused with the knowledge of the past and therefore history was the present moment; that is, history was present and active in the space of the theatre where Prometheus Bound took place.

Note that all of these ideas don't constitute my paper. This is just the work I have to do to figure out what my Critical Response would be about. From this point, I have to line up all my evidence and fit it into 550 words.

More importantly, note that this argument I just made is only one possible answer for what history meant to the Ancient Greeks. I could imagine making an argument that history and theatre were the same to the Greeks; that is, history and theatre were active processes through which the city-state learned a plan of action for how to steer a smooth political course. I would probably use The Frogs to support this argument. Another option: history for the Ancient Greeks was any act of knowledge production. I would draw on that Agamben quotation that I used in class to support this argument. The point I want to make here is that there is no right answer to this question about history. There are, indeed, many answers. The strongest answers will be the ones that have textual support to back them up.

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