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The Same Old Story: Greek tragedy as a model for countless dramatic works

Before Mark-Anthony Turnage's Oedipus-inspired opera comes to Covent Garden, a closer look at the composition of a classic tragedy.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

18 October 2013 at 12.04pm | 4 Comments

It's an amazing legacy. Ancient Greek drama flourished for less than a century, in just one city. Only a tiny fraction of the plays written have survived into modern times. And yet the influence they have had – not just on drama, but on every narrative art form, opera included – is immeasurable.

In the Royal Opera House's 2013/14 Season there are no fewer than three adaptations of Greek tragedies (Elektra, Greek and King Priam). A whole bunch of others this Season – Wozzeck, The Killing Flower, Les Vêpres siciliennes, Parsifal, Carmen, Manon, Don Giovanni and Faust – share a raft of distinctly tragic traits.

So what makes a tragedy? Writers from Nietzsche to Arthur Miller have rushed forward with their own definitions, but Aristotle, as one of the earliest writers on the form, remains for most the first port of call (though even he was writing a century or so after Greek tragedy's heyday). Still, the basics of his theory provide a valuable model.

Unity is central to Aristotle's definition of tragedy. The events of Greek dramas usually took place over just one day ('unity of time'). They often happen in just one location ('unity of place'). And they concern one protagonist, the events connected by direct, inexorable cause and effect ('unity of action').

That protagonist must be sympathetic. He or she should be generally decent, neither a saint nor a monster. It's only through an audience's ability to identify with the protagonist that the drama will be able to perform its dominant function; to bring about catharsis, by arousing pity and fear and ultimately providing resolution.

The events of the play lead towards the protagonist's catastrophe, or change of fortune. The catastrophe will be brought about both by some character flaw in the protagonist (what Aristotle called the hamartia) and also by the implacable action of cruel fate.

Simple plots depict just the catastrophe, but the best will include two further plot elements, tightly bound together through cause and effect. A character's actions have the opposite effect to the one he or she had anticipated in peripeteia, or reversal of intention. This leads to the protagonist's anagnorisis, or moment of realization. This move from ignorance into knowledge precipitates the catastrophe.

For Aristotle, the play that came closest to perfecting the form was Sophocles' King Oedipus – the source for Mark-Anthony Turnage's opera Greek. Oedipus is our protagonist. His hamartia is that he does not know his true parentage. Oedipus is worried by prophecies that predict he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. The peripeteia is when a messenger, hoping to allay his fears, informs him that he is in fact not his parents’ son. His action actually prompts Oedipus to ask a series of questions that lead to his anagnorisis: he discovers he really has, in ignorance, killed his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta. This triggers the catastrophe: Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus plunges the gold pins of her dress into his eyes, begging his brother-in-law/uncle to exile him.

There aren't many tragedies that follow Aristotle’s strict criteria to the letter. Turnage and Stephen Berkoff – who wrote the play that Turnage adapted for his libretto – have a last trick up their sleeve that subverts Sophocles' bleak moralistic message. But it's astonishing how many stories from across the intervening millennia map closely onto Aristotle's model, from Hamlet to The Wicker Man, from the Ring cycle to Mayerling. It's a formula for compelling, moving, excruciating drama – and probably will continue to be for as long as people are telling stories.

Which tragedy is your favourite?

Greek runs from 21 - 26 October. Tickets are still available.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

18 October 2013 at 12.04pm

This article has been categorised Off stage, Opera, Theatre and tagged anagnorisis, Aristotle, by Music Theatre Wales, catastrophe, catharsis, drama, Greek, Oedipus, peripeteia, tragedy

This article has 4 comments

  1. DIANA ZAIDMAN responded on 18 October 2013 at 8:29pm Reply

    My favourite opera is NORMA, the tragedy of LOVE....

  2. Music Theatre Wales' Michael McCarthy gave a really excellent intro talk to 'Greek' in their first run of performances. The MTW website says that he will be talking one hour before this autumn's performances, but I can see no sign of this anywhere on your website.
    Is it happening or not? Thanks, Mike.

    • Lottie Butler (Former Assistant Content Producer (News and Social Media)) responded on 22 October 2013 at 3:59pm

      Hi Mike,

      Sorry for the lack of information on our website regarding the talks. We hope to be able to hold a pre-performance talk for performances on Friday and Saturday, and will be able to confirm on the day. We will post on social media and the production page when we have confirmation.

      All the best,


  3. The Greek-amazing and humorous and really thrilled to have seen it.

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