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Essay

The American Voice: Goat Songs

By Adam Greenfield, Associate Artistic Director

Brygos Painter. Dionysis and sileni. ca. 480 BC. Attic red figured cup interior.

Brygos Painter. Dionysos and sileni. ca. 480 BC. Attic red-figured cup interior.

Two and a half thousand years ago in ancient Greece, worshippers in the cult of Dionysus would gather annually in the arena, under the punishing Mediterranean sun, to stage the kosmos. Masked and wearing the skin of a he-goat, the Dionysians would process in an elaborate religious ritual of song and dance in celebration of their god, the god of fertility and wine. That ritual evolved to be known as tragoedia, or “song for the he-goat’s price,” and over time began to include the re-telling of myths, sung in chorus. And, to cut to the chase, that’s why I presently have a job at a place called Playwrights Horizons and why you’re reading this.

There’s a long history of debate over the definition of tragedy — capital T tragedy, that is, as a poetic form — but the definition I offer is that it’s what arises when poetry reveals a fissure in the world, a crack or conflict that can never be reconciled; and it plays out as we witness a character recognize that the suffering that results is a condition of the world, which will always be beyond our comprehension. Dealt only vague or nonexistent signs from the gods, tragic heroes are baffled by their suffering, often indignant about it, their belief in a merciful or benevolent god stretched to its limit. (In ancient Greek vase paintings, the gods are placed on the upper level of the vase, looking down indifferently on the suffering mortals below, as if through a window.) Tragedy is a reckoning, an enquiry into suffering: why it occurs, its inevitability, and how we live with it, and at its best it’s a doorway to wisdom. 

If anyone can be called the tragic poet of contemporary American drama, the grand inquisitor of our suffering, it’s Craig Lucas.

“The gods are always punishing people for doing things that they had no control over, and didn’t even mean to do, and often unwittingly did. And the point of them is that, if you’re a human being, you’re going to pay.” Craig is speaking to the workings of Greek tragedy in this 2010 interview for the Huntington Theatre, but he could very well be speaking about the workings of his own anthology, the reach, fearlessness, and profound importance of which can never be overstated. Throughout his body of work, an unpredictable journey through the fragility of the human psyche, each play a total departure from the last, his wide-eyed characters confront the suffering dealt them by a world that coolly defies comprehension and — to varying degrees of success — learn to live with it.

Hollar, Wenceslaus. The Greek Gods, Jupiter. ca 1660. Etching.

Hollar, Wenceslaus. The Greek Gods. Jupiter. ca 1660. Etching.

In the opening scene of Reckless, first staged in 1983, it’s a cheerful Christmas in a town called Springfield, until our heroine Rachel’s husband informs her that he’s taken out a contract on her life. Moments later she’s leaping out the bedroom window, panic-stricken in her nightgown and slippers, setting off on a high-speed nightmare-odyssey, trying to escape her past only to find herself caught in an existential maze where it’s always Christmas, and every town is called Springfield, and that “the past is a nightmare you wake up to every day.” Running like hell from her trauma, Rachel keeps up a brave and plucky face until, in the end, she collapses in exhaustion and is able to confront her suffering, and finally regain some sense of herself. 

In Small Tragedy (2003), an amateur theater troupe rehearses a production of Oedipus, consumed by a hot-house of drama-club egos and anxiety, turning a blind eye to a real tragedy that’s lurking in their midst. Whereas Prelude to a Kiss (1988), his tormented romantic fable about living through the AIDS epidemic, denies his characters this comfort of a blind eye. When the soul of a newlywed bride migrates into the body of a dying old man, the blush of young love becomes inextricably connected to the inevitability of loss, challenging our married protagonists to see love for what it truly is. But where Prelude to a Kiss ultimately offers suffering as a potential source of strength, The Dying Gaul (1998) is the inverse: Grieving the loss of his longtime lover to AIDS, Robert takes up an affair with a married man, whose wife enacts a cruel vengeance that leads the play to a violent and horrific conclusion: a vision of how pain, rather than being a source of strength, can walk the darker path and mutate into bottomless rage. 

Kazantsev, Evgeny. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia. Digital painting. The original statue by sculptor Phidias, completed circa 435 BC, stood about 43 feet high and was erected in the Temple of Zeus in Olympia. It was destroyed during the fifth century AD.

…And then there are the really dark plays. In Stranger (2000), a man and woman are randomly seated next to one another on a flight to Seattle: she reveals that she has a fierce desire to be controlled, and then we learn that he’s just been released from prison, having kidnapped and locked a 17-year-old girl in a trunk for a year: the alchemy between them is uniquely complementary, such that the only outcome is pure degradation. A twisty meditation on the nature of evil, Stranger asks if all human relationships are doomed to play out as a warped kind of power struggle. The Singing Forest (2004) centers on an estranged family in present-day New York, who are each separately haunted by the traumas of their past. Whisking us back to Nazi-occupied Vienna in the Anschluss, and to London in the 1940s, this harsh fantasia reveals an ongoing cycle of cruelty and moral corruption, asking us to accept that the damage we do to ourselves and one another is indelible and ever-present. 

“From Greek tragedy to our own largely unseen ones,” Craig wrote in a 2003 introduction to Stranger’s publication, “man’s ability to choose his or her countenance in the face of fatal blows is the noblest testament to our deepest humanity. Suffering is inevitable, but what we do about it is not.”

As anguished as his characters feel, Craig’s plays aren’t just some chronicle of their pain; his aim is to interrogate suffering, to engage us in how we respond to it.

Suffering may be an injustice, but it’s also a fact. So tragedy, as I see it at work in his writing, is ultimately an expression of hope in perhaps its most exalted form. Because his choice (or his compulsion?) to engage with suffering lifts us up from the futility of our lot, searching for wisdom rather than succumbing to despair. In Prayer for My Enemy (2007), members of a family endure a series of trials from war, addiction, emotional neglect, and then finally an act of senseless criminality at the hands of a neighbor. But in the end they manage to find gratitude — and even a prayer — for the very forces that have caused them harm. “When I am prepared to accept my lack of control,” he wrote in American Theatre in 2014, “I am more apt to tap into a power, into some measure of freedom from fear, and, even, at times, finitude.” 

Gagneraux, Bénigne. The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods (detail). 1784. Oil painting.

In 2009, having confronted a dark moment in his life, Craig was drawn to read the Book of Job, which he writes about two pages back in this bulletin. As the story goes, “there was once a man in the land of Uz, and his name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.” Job is dealt a series of cruel and senseless blows by God, who has casually entered a wager with Satan about his piety. And this mystifying parable on the notion of divine justice inspired the writing of I Was Most Alive with You. Each member of the extended family we meet in this play is tested harshly — in a sense, they are each of them Job — so the action of the play becomes how each chooses to live in the face of this: Do they run away? Do they medicate? Do they stop medicating? Do they fight back?  Or do they write a television show?

Concluding a commencement speech at Boston University in 2011, Craig offered, “We began, as artists, tens of thousands of years ago, by putting our hands to the walls of the caves and leaving a handprint: ‘I was here! This is what it was like! These arrows, these animals, this blood.’ That is still our job.”