Does Anything Really Happen in Greek Tragedy?

by George Anastaplo

The thing that hath been, it is that

which shall be, and that which is

done is that which shall be done;

and there is no new thing under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9


Some might consider it providential that this lecture, reflecting on the Greek tragedies that we have been studying this year in our Basic Program alumni seminar, should happen to fall on April Fools= Day. This coincidence can be said to license, if not even to oblige, me to speak at some length about a feature of the Greek tragic stage that is not often made much of: the satyr-play which typically followed upon the daylong presentation of a playwright=s trilogy of tragedies. Those epilogues, evidently making much of Silenus (a creature half-man, half-animal?) and his Satyrs, tended to be raucous and prankish, if not even licentious and irreverent. Perhaps such antics, which were much more intense than the typical April Fools= Day shenanigan among us, may have served, at least in part, to relieve somewhat the sombre mood left by the tragic trilogy just staged.

It is the corpus of Greek tragedies that we are primarily concerned about in this inquiry. What, we may well wonder, is the significance of Fate and Prophecy in the stories told by the Greek tragedians? Or, put otherwise, in what ways were those playwrights bound by the stories they inherited and retold? Much, if not even all, of the critical action within the plays could be described as somehow or other ordained. Related to the questions I have already noticed is an inquiry into what is suggested in the Greek tragedies about the workings, if any, of chance in human affairs.

These and like inquiries can contribute perhaps to the clarification, not to the resolution, of our overall question, whether anything Areally happens@ in Greek tragedy.


We can be moved to wonder about all this by Aristotle=s Poetics, probably the most influential text in the tradition of literary criticism in the West. Plot, he tells us, is the most important element of a tragedy. And, he also tells us, the best tragedies are based on the old stories.

Some, perhaps many, in the Athenian audiences, for whom the principal tragedies we have were originally prepared, would have known what to expect when the title or subject of a tragedy was announced. How, precisely, the playwright used a long-known story would vary, just as how a gifted conductor today will present any particular symphony can be expected to vary from the norm. But the main lines B whether of a tragedy then or of a symphony now B would be familiar to the more sophisticated in an audience. Much the same can be said about a Roman Catholic priest=s celebration of the Mass today.

This is not to forget that someone as adventurous as Euripides might depart from the mainstream when he offered a play about, say, the Trojan War or its aftermath in which, for example, Helen did not really run off to Troy with Paris, that instead she had lived, most chastely, in Egypt throughout the Trojan War (with merely a phantom of her at Troy). Even so, when Euripides does something like this, he seems to draw upon a longstanding variant account in the tradition about Helen and the Trojan War. (Euripides does the same with a variant tradition that has Iphigenia not sacrificed at Aulis by her father.) Part of the interest for the audience on such an occasion would come, of course, from its being familiar both with the orthodox version and with its (sometimes perverse) alternative.

The main line of action in a tragedy, whatever version of an old story was drawn upon by the playwright, was likely to be, therefore, something anticipated by the audience, however distinctive the playwright=s characterizations and language may be. Perhaps most distinctive, illuminating thereby the action, would be the Choral songs somehow or other commenting both on what is going on and on how the world is. Those Choral songs probably were not usually dictated by the storyline being followed, however much they too drew upon other stories that the audience was expected to be somewhat familiar with and for which mere references usually sufficed,

It is obvious, of course, that even if nothing Areally happened@ in a tragedy B in the sense that the main lines of the principal action Amerely@ followed an ancient path B, some ways of presenting a familiar action (as with the ways of presenting a familiar symphony today) may be much more interesting and instructive than others.


We may usefully illustrate, and begin to explore, the suggestions I have already made on this occasion by examining the only surviving complete satyr-play from Classical Greece that we have: Euripides= Cyclops. Although, this is not a tragedy, it does have features which can help us see what may be found in tragedies as well.

Satyr-plays. we have noticed, were evidently routinely linked to trilogies of tragedies. Such tragedies would usually run to about fifteen hundred lines (with the longest being a few hundred lines longer).  Cyclops, on the other hand, has only about seven hundred lines. (The other substantial satyr-play material we have is evidently about half of Sophocles= The Trackers, which is about the youth of Hermes and his relations with Apollo.)

Some have said that the satyr-plays may have even preceded the tragedies in the history of the development of Greek drama. Such plays, in which Silenus and his Satyrs evidently figured prominently, were associated with the Dionysian rites. The Falstaff-like Silenus was regarded as the foster-father of the divine babe, Dionysius, who had been fathered by Zeus. And the theatre in Greece is said to have developed from the worship of Dionysius (who is known also as Bacchus).

The satyr-play was considered to be far less serious than the tragedies they accompanied. Perhaps they were meant as relief after what had just been witnessed. Or perhaps they were primarily exuberant Afollow-ups@ to the main action of the occasion, somewhat like the fireworks to which spectators might be treated after a night baseball game today.

It is  not yet clear among scholars how the subject of a satyr-play was related to the subject of the trilogy of tragedies that it followed. It is not certain what the tragedies were that the one satyr-play we do have, Cyclops, originally appeared with. Since Odysseus dominates the action in this satyr-play, suggestions have been made that it was presented along with a play in which Odysseus figured prominently, and not always commendably, such as the Hecuba of Euripides. But, so far, we have only conjectures to go on here.


The action in Cyclops, set in Sicily in front of the cave of a solitary Cyclops, Polyphemus, recalls an episode in Book IX of Homer=s Odyssey. Here, from the Cyclopedia of Literary Characters (Harper & Row, 1963, p. 789), is an account of Polyphemus as he appears in the Odyssey:

Polyphemus. . . . , one of the Cyclops, giants with one eye in the center of the forehead, and the sons of Poseidon. When Odysseus and twelve of his companions seek hospitality in his cave, the monster makes prisoners of the band and eats six of them [two at a time]. Wily Odysseus saves himself and his remaining companions by giving Polyphemus. . . .strong wine to drink and then, while the Cyclops is asleep, putting out his [single] eye with a heated pointed shaft. [This scene is frequently found in Greek vase illustrations.] The Greeks escape from the [barricaded] cave by hiding beneath the bodies of Polyphemus= sheep when the [blinded] giant turns his flock out to pasture.

This account is usefully supplemented, for our purposes, by an excerpt from a standard summary of the Odyssey (Masterpieces of World Literature in Digest Form [Harper & Row, 1952], p. 666); a summary which has Odysseus on his way home from Troy:

Arriving at the land of the Cyclops, . . . Odysseus and twelve of his men were caught by a Cyclops, Polyphemus, who ate them [two by two, and raw], saving Odysseus until last [because of the wonderful wine to which he had introduced Cyclops]. But the wily hero tricked the giant into a drunken stupor, blinded him with a sharpened pole, and fled back to his ship. On an impulse, Odysseus [who had previously identified himself as No-man] disclosed his name to the blinded Polyphemus as he sailed away. Polyphemus [who heaved massive boulders in the direction of Odysseus= voice] called upon his father; Poseidon, to avenge him by hindering the return of Odysseus to his homeland.

Of course, there had to be adaptations when such a Homeric episode is used on the stage. Thus, the eating of only two men sufficed; the escape by means of hiding under the sheep would have been difficult to manage; and the exchange between Odysseus and Polyphemus, during which Odysseus finally identifies himself while safely at sea, had to be located just outside the Cyclops= cave, with the heaving of boulders in the direction of Odysseus= ship also dispensed with, although anticipated in speech.

Of course, also, the audience of the play would have known what had happened to Odysseus before encountering the Cyclops. It would have known as well the many troubles he encountered, partly because of Poseidon, after escaping from Polyphemus. And it probably would have expected the lively Satyrs to be somehow involved in the staged version of this episode.

Here, then, is the beginning of a synopsis of Euripides= Cyclops, as provided in Masterpieces of World Literature (Harper & Row, 1960, pp. 245-46):

As he raked the ground before the cave of his master, the Cyclops, old Silenus [the father of the Satyrs] lamented the day he was shipwrecked [on Sicily] and taken into captivity by the monstrous, one-eyed offspring of Poseidon, god of the sea. About Silenus gamboled his children, the Chorus of Satyrs, who prayed with their father to Bacchus [the god of wine] for deliverance. Suddenly Silenus spied a ship and the approach of a group of sailors obviously seeking supplies. Odysseus and his companions approached, introduced themselves as the conquerors of Troy, driven from their homeward journey, by tempestuous winds and desperately in need of food and water. Silenus warned them of the cannibalistic Cyclops= impending return, urged them to make haste and then began to bargain with them over the supplies. Spying a skin of wine, the precious liquid of Bacchus which he had not tasted for years, Silenus begged for a drink. After one sip he felt his feet urging him to dance. He offered them all the lambs and cheese they needed in exchange for one skin of wine.

Thus, the Satyrs are involved in the staged version of this Polyphemus episode, quite unlike the Homeric version. But the principal action of this satyr-play is nevertheless quite close to that in the OdysseyB and, of course, with the cowardly Satyrs barely involved . That action is recalled as the synopsis from which I have been quoting continues (reporting some incidents already noticed by us) (ibid., p. 246):

As the exchange [of food for wine] was taking place, the giant Cyclops suddenly returned, ravenously hungry. The wretched Silenus made himself appear to have been terribly beaten and accused Odysseus and his men of plundering the Cyclops= property. Odysseus denied the false charge, but although he was supported by the leader of the Chorus of Satyrs, the Cyclops seized two of the sailors, took them into the cave, and [immediately], made a meal of them. Horrified Odysseus was then urged by the Satyrs to employ his famed cleverness, so effective at Troy, in finding some means of escape [for all of them].

After some discussion, Odysseus hit upon a subtle plan: first, they would make the Cyclops drunk with wine, then, while he lay in a stupor, they would cut down an olive tree, sharpen it, set it afire, and plunge it into Cyclops= eye. After that, escape would be easy.

When the Cyclops emerged from his cave Odysseus offered him the wine, and the giant and Silenus proceeded to get hilariously drunk. So pleased was the monster with the effects of the Bacchic fluid that Silenus, without much trouble, persuaded him not to share it with his fellow giants but to drink it all up by himself. The grateful Cyclops asked Odysseus his name (to which the clever warrior replied ANo-man@) and promised that he would be the last to be eaten. Soon the Cyclops found the earth and sky whirling together and his lusts mounting. He seized the unhappy Silenus and dragged him into the cave to have his pleasure with him.

Even in this part of the summary there is considerable activity, relating to the Satyrs, that has no precedent in Homer. But, to repeat, the sayings and doings of the Satyrs have little, if any, effect on the most dramatic action of the play, the blinding of Polyphenus by Odysseus and the subsequent escape of the Greeks. This action is very much like what happens in the Odyssey; that is, it is not, in its essentials, distinctive to this satyr-play. We may even thereby be told, in effect, that such beings or agents as Satyrs (however beguiling and distracting they may be) don=t matter much, if at all, in the disposition of the serious challenges faced by human beings.

And so the summary of Euripides= Cyclops from which I have been quoting ends in this fashion (ibid., p. 246):

As the Cyclops lay in a stupor, Odysseus urged the Satyrs to help him fulfill the plan they had agreed upon, but the cowardly Satyrs refused and Odysseus was forced to take his own men for the task. [That is, I interpolate here, the action portrayed became then simply that described by Homer.] Soon the agonized Cyclops, shouting that Ano man@ had blinded him, came bellowing out of the cave. The Chorus mocked and jeered him for this ridiculous charge [against Ano man@ which echoes an exchange between Polyphemus and the other Cyclops in the Odyssey] and gave him false directions for capturing the escaping Greeks. The berserk giant thrashed about and cracked his skull against the rocks. When the escaping Odysseus taunted him with his true name, the Cyclops groaned that an oracle had predicted that Odysseus would blind him on his way home from Troy, but he [said] also that the clever one would pay for his deed by tossing about on Poseidon=s seas for many years. The Satyrs hastened to join the escape so that they could once more become the proper servants of Bacchus in a land where grapes grew.

We can be left to wonder whether the Satyrs were both as lively and as ultimately inconsequential (with respect to the main action) in the typical satyr-plays as they are in this one. (Consider, on the other hand, the appalling actions by Dionysus in Euripides= last play, The Bacchae.)


We can see that Euripides= Cyclops very much depends upon Homer=s OdysseyB with the eating of the men, the use of the wine, the blinding of Polyphemus, the taunting of him thereafter, and the oracles thereupon recalled by Polyphemus. Indeed, it can sometimes seem, the old stories themselves served as Aoracles@ for the tragedians, providing them the key incidents in the episodes that they would be moved to dramatize for the stage.

No other Greek play that we have uses so much of a Homeric episode as the Cyclops does. Comic elements are added here, through the Satyrs, but (I have suggested) they do not change fundamentally the main lines of the action inherited from Homer, except perhaps to conceal from the general view how much an episode of the sovereign Homer is being retold, a retelling of the Master that the playwrights did not usually venture upon. Thus, even in something as farcical as a satyr-play, the received story is very much relied upon and followed, whatever differences there may be in the character sketches developed and in what is suggested about the very nature of things.

Before I discuss the Cyclops further I should say more about how the satyr-plays were generally regarded. There is a preliminary puzzle here that I can barely, but still usefully, touch upon at this time. Socrates, at the end of Plato=s Symposium, is presented as making a tragic poet (Agathon) and a comic poet (Aristophanes) agree to something that they had evidently vigorously resisted, that anyone who has the techne for making tragedy also has it for making comedy. What is particularly puzzling about this argument is that it was of course known that the playwrights who wrote the tragic trilogies for the Athenian stage also had to provide a satyr-play as well. It seems to have been generally assumed that the same playwright would provide both the tragic trilogy and its accompanying satyr-play. Did Socrates have to make the argument he did because satyr-plays were not recognized as genuine comedies? That is, were they more burlesque then truly comic? Or, a paradoxical way of putting this may be to suggest that the satyr-plays were not serious enough to be comedies of the kind an Aristophanes produced.

These observations can perhaps be illuminated by some 1795 reflections of Friedrich Schiller (On the Naive and Sentimental Literature [Helen Watanabe-O=Kelly, trans.; Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1981], pp. 45-46):

It has often been debated which of the two, tragedy or comedy, should be placed above the other.   If by this one is asking which of the two deals with the more important subject matter, then there is no doubt that tragedy has the advantage; if, however, one wants to know which of the two demands the more important author, then one might decide in favour of comedy. In tragedy a lot already happens through the subject; in comedy nothing happens through the subject and everything through the author. . . .

. . . It is not the area from which the subject is taken but the forum before which the writer presents it which makes it tragic or comic. The tragic writer must beware of calm reasoning and always interest the heart; the comic writer must avoid pathos and always entertain the understanding. . . . If therefore tragedy has a more important point of departure, one must admit on the other side that comedy moves towards a more important goal and if it were reached, it would make all tragedy superfluous and impossible. Its goal is at one with the very highest for which man has to struggle, to be free of passion, to look always clearly, always calmly around him and into himself, to find everywhere more chance then fate and to laugh more over absurdity than to rage or to weep over malice.

We can now return to our satyr-play, reserving for future development the proposition that the Divine Comedy of Christianity, if taken seriously, shakes the very foundations of Classical Tragedy.


Perhaps the most critical departure in the Cyclops from the Homeric original, besides the evidently obligatory use of Satyrs, is that Euripides= Polyphemus is shown to be more Asocial@ than Homer=s. Thus, when he discovers the joys of wine he wants to invite others of the Cyclops to his carousal. This, of course, would interfere with Odysseus= plotB and so (we have seen) Polyphemus has to be discouraged from his would-be sociability.

We can wonder whether such a softening of the character of the villain is needed for the stage, at least if there is to be an overall comic effect. We can wonder as well whether Euripides, in his softening of Polyphemus, is even suggesting modifications in the Athenians= opinions about their wartime enemies, if not also modifications in the Greeks= opinions about barbarians generally.

A different kind of useful softening is provided by the presence of the Satyrs as inedible slaves of Cyclops. Their presence permits Odysseus to learn about the circumstances in which he finds himself before Polyphemus returns to his cave. But the failure of the Satyrs to help in the execution of Odysseus= plot can remind the audience of what the Homeric story is and how much it does depend upon the ingenuity and character of Odysseus.

In fact, the presence and antics of the Satyrs can remind us in turn of how cheerleaders work at a basketball or football game. They may be engaging, well trained, quite talented and even impressive B and yet, somehow, they are not likely to figure in any recapitulation of the action of a game, at least not for the more serious student of the sport. Certainly, they do not enter into even the most elaborate box-scores.

So, we again notice that the vital elements of the plot in this play are taken by Euripides from Homer. In this sense, then, nothing Areally happens@ in such a drama, however distinctive and hence important any particular playwright=s rendering of an old story may be.

Perhaps, indeed, it is not the action B it is not what happens in a play B that truly matters, but rather what the playwright does with characters who are Abound@ to do this rather than that. Thus, Oedipus will kill his father and consort with his mother B but how, precisely, these come about, how he understands what is going on, and how he responds to it in deed, thought and speech B all this depends upon the playwright who can make a character distinctively memorable.

What a playwright does with a character may be seen, for example, in Aeschylus= Oresteia. It is Aordained@ by the tradition, so to speak, that Clytemnestra will kill her husband and will (pursuant to Apollo=s command) be killed in turn by her son, a son who will eventually be relieved of the dreadful consequences of matricide, no matter what his aggrieved mother yearns for. All this Aeschylus was more or less bound by when he decided to stage that story. But it was up to him to fashion such a character as Clytemnestra in a distinctive fashion B and this he did! Thus, in the first play of the Oresteia trilogy, Clytemnestra is a powerful woman who relies on her own ingenuity, disdaining dreams as a guide to action; in the second play, she is terrified by a dream which anticipates the death that awaits her; and in the third play, after she has been killed, she herself (in the sleep of the Furies) becomes a dream desperate for revenge.

It seems, therefore, that it is not the plot of the story used by the tragedian which is distinctively his but rather how he shapes that story=s characters. It is, that is, not the story of either Sophocles= Oedipus Tyrannos or Aeschylus= Oresteia that is most memorable, but rather the character of Oedipus and the character of Clytemnestra, among others.


Chance may affect what we are capable of understanding about particular plays and how their characters are presented. We have already noticed that we do not even know which trilogy was followed by the Cyclops satyr-play, something that it could be quite instructive to know.

Also, it might be instructive to know precisely when any particular trilogy was produced. It is obvious in Aristophanes= comedies that issues and personalities of the day are very much commented on by the playwright (with persons in the audience sometimes singled out, as is done also in Cyclops with the presiding Priest of Dionysus). Our ignorance of the matters and persons thereby commented on by Aristophanes obviously limits our grasp of his comedies.

But, at least, we are aware of this limitation. It may be, however, that critical aspects of the tragedies depended as well upon what is happening in and to Athens when a trilogy is produced–but we may not even be aware of our limitations here. This can lead us to ignore questions (about, say, the sequence of episodes referred to in Choral odes) that we might find illuminating with respect to what is, or is not, happening in the Greek world of the day. We are more likely to be aware of our limitations in this respect when we try to read texts that come to us from non-Western sources.

Consider, for example, how readily we understand and accommodate ourselves to features of life in this country that Europeans find puzzling, such as the proliferation of handguns among us. And consider how difficult it can sometime be for us to grasp things happening in, say, Great Britain, even though we do share a language and a political heritage. For instance, we can be puzzled by a constitutional arrangement which pretty much leaves it up to the Government of the day to determine (as in Britain) when the next Parliamentary elections are held. The mysteries of British political life may be symbolized for us by the mysteries of the sport of cricket: it can be difficult for us to figure out how it is known by cricket fans when a game is over (and perhaps even who has won).


A mystery that we are left with upon reviewing Greek drama is with respect to the status of Odysseus in Fifth Century Greece. Evidently, by that time, the wiliness of Homer=s hero had come to be widely, if not even generally, questioned.

In some plays (such as Euripides= Hecuba and perhaps Sophocles= Philoctetes) he has the makings of a villain. He does come off better in Sophocles= Ajax and in Euripides= Cyclops. And he can be spoken of with considerable respect by Agamemnon in Aeschylus= Oresteia.

We must wonder, that is, what had happened in the political and social life of Greece to make Odysseus seem far more questionable than he had evidently appeared to Homer=s original audiences. After all, Homer=s Odysseus is someone that the goddess Athena, the Olympian epitome of wisdom, finds attractive and worthy of her constant concern and protection. (In the Cyclops, Odysseus calls on Athena for help, as he does in Sophocles= Ajax.) We can be reminded of how difficult it can be to pin down Odysseus when we recall that Socrates, in Book Ten of Plato=s Republic, presents Odysseus as someone with the inclinations of a philosopher.


Homer and others, we have noticed, provided the familiar skeletons that the Greek playwrights put flesh upon. What the playwrights did can only be partially known by us, inasmuch as we do not have the music and dances which evidently were so critical to the overall effects of their plays. Nor do we usually have the Acontext@ of the plays, which would provide a reliable sense of the political and social circumstances in which they were originally staged. AContext@ may be suggested as well by the (now-unavailable) satyr-play routinely provided with each trilogy.

The inaccessibility for us of much of Greek drama is further suggested when we compare the ancient tragedies to their Shakespearean counterparts. The action in a Shakespearean tragedy seems far less determined by any traditional story that may be drawn upon. One can even get the impression in Shakespeare that a premature death is somehow Aearned,@ that it is not simply fated or independent of one=s character. Also, there seems to be in Shakespeare more of a role for chance then there is in Greek tragedy. In Othello, for example, Desdemona happens to lose the handkerchief that Othello had given her, and Emilia (the wife of the perfidious Iago) happens to find it. Thereafter, of course, Desdemona critically missteps in how she responds to Othello=s inquiry about that handkerchief, one of several missteps that contribute to her destruction.

A further comparison of Greek tragedy with Shakespeare may be instructive. Shakespeare, too, can rework inherited characters, such as Odysseus (whom the Elizabethans called Ulysses), as in Troilus and Cressida. That Ulysses is not particularly admirable, and in this he resembles some of the Fifth Century portrayals of Odysseus as well as those of the Romans who evidently influenced Shakespeare. But when Shakespeare sets out to plumb the depths of someone like the Odysseus that Homer made much of, he can end up with the wily Edgar of King Lear, someone who is worthy of admiration.

The Greek playwrights, more than Shakespeare, created the effects they did partly by playing off (perhaps, sometimes, by thwarting) the expectations of audiences who knew the stories that were being adapted to the Athenian stage. These were stories in which the main lines of the action, the things that happened, were pretty much determined by the tradition. And yet what one playwright did with the story could be profoundly different from what others might do with the Asame@ story.

Such differences might very much matter. Thus, even if it should be argued that nothing really happens in Greek tragedy, much of significance might happen because of a Greek tragedy, especially at a particular time and place (the place usually being Athens). Aristophanes has a character argue in his Frogs, for instance, that a much-battered Athens could still be revived by the right tragedian B that is, by a tragedian who would present the old stories in a salutary fashion at the annual Dionysian festival. We can get a sense of what the great tragedians meant to and for Athens (if not also for much of Classical Greece) when we recognize what Shakespeare has meant for centuries in the English-speaking world.


It seems to me fitting and proper that my own performance today, which has made as much as it has of the Greek satyr-plays, should itself be followed by a Asatyr-play@ of its own.

I noticed at the outset of my remarks the providential timing B that is, on April Fools= Day B of this performance, which can be said to have licensed me to say as much as I have about the satyr-plays. I presume, therefore, to round out my remarks today with a catalogue of a half dozen April Fools= Day pranks of note, leaving it to you to discern the principle of order here, (I draw upon Alex Boese=s collection of hoaxes, provided by him both in book form [The Museum of Hoaxes, Dutton, 2002] and on the Internet.)

AIn 1980 [exactly a quarter century ago today] the BBC reported that Big Ben, in order to keep up with the times, was going to [have its face replaced by] a digital readout. [This report provoked] a huge response from listeners protesting the change.@ (Google: April Fool B Top 100 April Fools= Day Hoaxes; Hoax #35).

The BBC figured, four years earlier, in our next April Fools= Day story as well. AIn 1976 [a] British astronomer . . . announced on BBC Radio 2 that at exactly 9:47 A.M. [the planet] Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, and that this alignment of the planets would result in a stronger gravitational pull [than usual] from Jupiter, counteracting the Earth=s own gravity and making people momentarily weigh less. [The scientist] told listeners that they could experience the astronomical phenomenon for themselves by jumping in the air at 9:47. If they did so, he said, they would experience a strange floating sensation. [Sure enough,] when 9:47 A.M. arrived, BBC-2 began to receive hundreds of calls from listeners who [reported] that they had felt the [anticipated] sensation. One woman said that she had been seated around a table with eleven friends, and that all of them, as well as the table, had begun to float around the room. Another caller complained that she had risen from the ground so rapidly that she had hit her head on the ceiling.@ [Boese, The Museum of Hoaxes, p, 150]. These reports from callers are said to Abe chalked up to the power of suggestion.@ (Id.) But might not such callers have been responding in the spirit of the astronomer himself, perhaps even deceiving thereby the broadcasters about what was really happening Aout there.@

A century earlier the print media in the United States had been involved in an adventure of their own, playing tricks not only on the public but also among themselves. AAfter Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, Americans firmly believed [it is said] that there were no limits to his genius. . . . Therefore, when the New York Graphic announced on April 1, 1878, that Edison had invented a machine that could transform soil directly into cereal and water directly into wine, thereby ending the problem of world hunger, it found no shortage of believers. Newspapers throughout America copied the article heaping lavish praise on Edison all the while. The conservative Buffalo Commercial Advertiser was particularly effusive in its praise, waxing eloquent about Edison=s genius in a long editorial prompted by his most recent invention. The [New York] Graphic, [the originator of this story,] took the liberty of reprinting the [Buffalo journal=s] editorial in full. Above it the Graphic placed a . . . . headline: AThey Bite.@ (Ibid., p. 91.) This meant, in effect, that Edison had provided exotic and otherwise most welcomed food, after all.

Six-score years after the nourishing Edison story there appeared another April Fools= Day article also drawing upon scientific interests and evidently responding to contemporary controversies about what should be taught in our grade and high schools. AIn 1998 an article appeared on the Internet [reporting] that the Alabama legislature had voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.12159… to [what was identified as] the Biblical value of 3.0. According to the article NASA engineers in Huntsville, [Alabama] were up in arms about the decision. . . . Before long [the report] had spread across the country, forwarded by people who received it in their e-mail. Soon the Alabama legislature received calls from angry citizens protesting the legislation.@ [Ibid., p. 194] We can be thankful for the vigilance of such citizens: there is no telling what would have happened to the equilibrium of the entire universe if the Alabama legislature had gone ahead with its momentous project, something which (it has been said) the Indiana House of Representatives had also considered doing in 1897. (See id.)

We return to the world of the culinary arts, of which Thomas Edison can now be considered the patron saint, by recalling that Ain 1996 the fast food chain Taco Bell took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to announce that they were purchasing the Liberty Bell and renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell. Their reason for doing this was to >do their part to reduce the country=s debt.= In a related press release the company pointed out that corporations had been adopting highways for years and that Taco Bell was simply >going one step further by purchasing one of the country=s greatest historic treasures.=@ (Ibid., p. 191) The full-page ad, featuring of course the Bell, included these observations: AIt will now be called >Taco Liberty Bell= and [this magnanimous touch I particularly like- – and] will still be available to the American public for viewing. While some may find this controversial [the advertisement continues] , we hope our move will prompt other corporations to take similar action to do their part to reduce the country=s debt.=@ (Ibid., p 192) It seems, however, that not everyone endorsed Taco Bell=s patriotism. AThousands called the National Historic Park in Philadelphia, where the Liberty Bell [is] housed, to angrily protest the selling of the bell.@ (Ibid., p. 191) The vigilance of these citizens, too, was timely, heading off what might have been one corporate feast after another upon the country=s treasures. After all, a White House spokesman had announced, in response to the Taco Bell initiative, that the federal government would be Aselling the Lincoln Memorial to [the[ Ford Motor Company and renaming it the Lincoln-Mercury Memorial.@ (Ibid., p. 191) All this is not to say that Taco Bell=s patriotism was not appreciated at all: Atheir sales during the first week of April [1996] shot up by over half a million dollars.@ (Id.)

Another national monument figures in our next item. A journal (the Parisien) Astunned French citizens in 1986 [a decade before the ringing Taco Bell initiative] when it reported that an agreement had been signed to dismantle the Eiffel Tower. [It would] then be reconstructed in the new Euro Disney Theme Park going up east of Paris. In the space where the Tower used to stand, a 35,000-seat stadium would be built for use during the 1992 Olympic games.@ (Google: April Fool – Top 100 April Fools= Day Hoaxes, Hoax #93) But, it seems, since Paris was not awarded the 1992 Games, the Eiffel Tower did not have to be moved after all. Heaven only knows, however, what had to be done in Barcelona for the Games that year. We can be reminded of the heights B or is it the depths? B that civic-minded developers can go when we see what has happened recently to Soldier Field here in Chicago (which can now be thought of as Euro Disney Theme Park West) which was followed up by the April Fools= Eve dismantling of Meigs Field.

Although the Olympic Games did not go to Paris in 1992, they did go to Athens in 2004. I had not thought to ask my old boss, Nicholas Melas (who is in our audience today and who was in Greece for the Olympic Games last year)–I had not thought to ask him this morning whether the Parthenon had had to be moved, if not even the Acropolis leveled, to accommodate those Games. I am sure that the Greeks would have been as accommodating as the French if such a relocation of a national monument had been considered necessary for the common good. This brings us to the last item of our inventory, one that is particularly appropriate for our inquiry today into the Classical theatre. AIn 1995 the Greek Ministry of Culture announced that during excavation for the Athens [subway] system [B no doubt in anticipation of the 2004 Olympic GamesB ] archaeologists had discovered what they believed to be the tomb of Socrates near the base of the Acropolis. A vase containing traces of hemlock (the poison used to [execute] Socrates) and a piece of leather dating from between 400 and 390 BC were found at the tomb. The news agency Agence France-Presse [atoning thereby for the sins of the Parisien a decade before?] immediately issued a release [reporting the announcement].@ (Ibid., #94)

I offer a postscript to this inventory in the form of a recollection from really ancient history. It was in the Spring of 1948 B it may not have been on April Fools= Day, but it was close enough for our purposes, especially if one uses a Hellenized calendar B it was in 1948 that I, presumed to organize a frolic of my own. I, as a college student in Henry Rago=s Humanities 3 course at the University of Chicago, had been intrigued by his discussion of what made for the comic, placing the emphasis that he did on the Incongruous. He conjured up for us, to everyone=s delight, the spectacle of a Ubangi (in native costume) suddenly walking into our classroom. That was on a Friday. Of course, I Ahad@ to spend that weekend arranging for that Ubangi=s visit. My offer of five dollars B a princely sum in those days B bought the services of Gus Matzorkis, a tall, husky Greek-American from Cleveland. We got body-paint from a theatrical supply store in the Loop and fashioned what we took to be a native costume. Gus was also draped with quite prominent chains. His roommate, David Halperin, also from Cleveland, got caught up in the excitement of our production, volunteering (at no extra cost to me!) to serve as the Ubangi=s monkey, to be led on a rope (in some kind of furry costume), and vigorously scratching himself all over. We did not do any research on whether Ubangis have access to monkeys. (Dave has gone on to be a distinguished Professor of Music in Israel, after having been so spectacularly introduced to the stage as a lively songster on this occasion.)

My assignment, the following Monday morning, was to get a seat near the door (in what was expected to be a crowded classroom), so that I could provide an entranceway for our African visitors. Also, I had to steer the class discussion back to what Mr. Rago had said the preceding Friday about the Ubangi B and this I did when I heard ominous chains clanking in the hallway. Mr. Rago commended my thoughtful question as he launched into the kind of enthusiastic discourse for which we loved him. Suddenly, the door was wrenched open B indeed, almost off its hinges B and, after a booming ASwahili@ obscenity, Karooachikunka, the Ubangi with his Monkey danced in, to the accompaniment of their chant, ABongo, bongo, bongo, I don=t want to leave the Congo!@ They danced all the way to the front of the classroom B and then back out again, by which time the hysterical class was reduced to uncontrollable laughter, laughter which would well up again and again during the remainder of that hour as this or that feature of The Event was recalled.

There are two photographs recording that Cobb Hall episode, pictures taken by a fledgling physicist (from our Burton-Judson dormitory) who was that morning among the many visitors who had heard that Asomething@ was going to happen in this class. One photograph shows Mr. Rago in a state of shock, up against the blackboard. The other shows him, minutes later, laughing uproarishly.

It was some time after our visitors had departed before it was realized that Mr. Rago was holding a piece of paper that had been given to him by the Ubangi. The reading of the paper was demanded by the class, and that revived the laughter, for it said something like this (anticipating perhaps the Political Correctness of our day), ABut not half so funny as would be the visit of a University of Chicago professor to a Ubangi gathering.@

There are postscripts to this tale, but I should not impose upon you much further. One more point should be made, however, drawing upon our experience just now with the April Fools= hoaxes I have relayed to you (most of which I have not been able to verify on my own). It is likely that many, if not all, of you will remember one or more of these hoaxes long after you have forgotten what I have tried to say on this occasion about Fate, Tradition, Chance, and the like in Greek tragedy. Similarly, it can be suspected that many in the Athenian audiences Aappreciated@ and remembered more the things said and done during a burlesquing satyr-play than they remembered what had been done and said during the tragedies featured that day. It can also be suspected that the more skillful and conscientious playwrights, knowing this, would take care to recapitulate, in a useful way, critical lessons that they hoped to convey with their tragedies. But, of course, all this must be left as a (I hope challenging) conjecture on our part, if only because we still do not know what particular satyr-play accompanied each of the various tragedies we do happen to have.

This talk was given in the First Friday Lecture Series of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, The University of Chicago, at the Chicago Cultural Center, April 1, 2005.  It was dedicated to the memory of Gus Matzorkis (1929-2001).

George Anastaplo is Lecturer in the Liberal Arts, The University of Chicago, Professor of Law, Loyola University of Chicago, and Professor Emeritus of Political Science and of Philosophy, Dominican University. His publications include The Thinker as Artist: From Homer to Plato & Aristotle (Ohio University Press) and But Not Philosophy: Seven Introductions to Non-Western Thought (Lexington Books).

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s