The Theater of Democracy (representative versus DIRECT )

According to my high school social sciences textbook and my grandmother, there was a time when the United States citizenry was permitted to ask politicians direct questions. “Keeping’ ’em honest,” it was called. There were these things called town hall meetings where Joe McAverage could stand up and made uncensored inquiries of any public servant.

Oh, also, reporters were allowed to ask the administration tough questions. Oh! And voting actually mattered. You could walk into a voting booth where every pulled lever and popped chad meant one vote for the politician of your choice. The government didn’t eavesdrop on your phone calls, you didn’t need a national ID card, and you were protected by this thing called Habeas Corpus that prevented the government from jailing you for an indeterminate period of time for unknown charges.

No more. It seems the United States government has figured out the perfect formula for keeping a people suppressed without the people realizing they’re suppressed. It’s really quite simple and brilliant. First, you unite a diverse people under the guise of patriotism and nationalism. Then, you make sure to keep just enough bread on the “middle-class” tables to make sure there isn’t a peasant uprising. If any concerns do arise from the “middle-class,” you blame blacks, Mexicans, gays, or terrorists. The middlers then fight the poor disenfranchised, and you can sit back, sip your champagne, and watch the world burn from you private helicopter.

When the dirty communists from the ACLU and United Nations raise eyebrows and start murmuring about totalitarianism, scream “DEMOCRACY” loudly. Stage press conferences ala FEMA and Hillary Clinton. Create the illusion of democracy. Say we’re free, free, free until people believe it, and die for the belief that they’re freeing other parts of the world with artillery and muscle.

Call it the theater of democracy. Mythologize our history so the Founding Fathers seem like righteous, morally infallible men instead of rich elites, terrified of a common citizenry gone wild. Ignore the fact that this country was built at the expense of poor people, indigenous Native Americans, blacks, and females. Claim we’re equals, that the idea of America somehow erases the wrongs of the past and the present. Pretend like the military isn’t full of poor kids, who have nothing, who are sent overseas to blow up poor people, who also have nothing, while the elites of both worlds sit back and watch the circus unfold.

Call it freedom. As you peel away rights, call it freedom louder until the cry is deafening, and all are too afraid to question the process’s validity. As unemployment skyrockets, entire families lose health care, and banks seize blocks of homes, call it the Land of Opportunity.

Change the subject even as massive corporations merge together and absorb what little freedom and equality this country has left, all the while hoping the press blabber about nothing more than Kanye West’s mother dying of vanity.

In this new world of Democracy, there is no need for keepin’ ’em honest. The truth doesn’t even matter. The theater becomes the truth, and those planted students at Hillary Clinton’s conference become our reality. After all, even if the tail ends up wagging the dog, at least something is still wagging, right? We may be a people totally suppressed by our elite, too powerfully colonialist government, but if we call ourselves free, then free we become.

Isn’t that how it works?

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posted   November 13, 2007 12:55 PM



5 Questions on Theater’s Role in Democracy

Politics has always been theatre; in fact, it started that way

Q: What is the connection between theater and democracy?

It takes two forms. One tries to isolate particular bits of plays that support politicians like Pericles and democratic policies. You can find direct support for democracy in many comedies, for example, but in tragedies, such direct discussion is rare.

More recently, scholars have emphasized the civic ideology of the festivals in which dramas were presented and suggest there is a contrast between the sitting institutions embodied in the festivals and the questioning of so many ideological, moral and religious values in these places.

What I’m trying to add to this discussion is a focus on how participation of the audience in theater helped promote democratic life in Athens. The Athenian conception of democracy gave a central role to frank and open speech, and the theater was a privileged locus of such speech. The Greek theater’s democratic character is not so much a matter of taking ideological positions that are certifiably democratic, but of participating in a culture of democratic discourse and expanding it to make heard the voices of women, foreigners, and slaves who had no place in the political institutions of the polis — speech mediated of course by the fact that male citizens acted all the parts. Greek drama includes a large number of powerful, dynamic and dangerous women!

Q. What is the role of tragedy in this process?

I think Greek tragedy had a neglected but tremendous role in the development of Athenian civic life. My job is to some degree to counter people who say that although there is a strain of civic ideology in Greek tragedy, nothing about it is necessarily or exclusively democratic.

What tragedies do is retell the stories of the traditional Greek heroes in a way that suggests a meaning of these old tales for a new democratic and civic audience. The Greek heroes are part of the shared identity of the Greeks, but in democratic Athens there was a question of what to do with these old role models in a new political culture.

In Sophocles’ tragedy Ajax, for example, the hero has lost face in the contest for the armor of Achilles. He realizes the only thing left for him to do is to kill himself since he can’t accept the loss of his honor. And halfway through the play, he does so. This is seen as a problem, because there’s an entire second act without the hero.

What happens in the second act is a debate about whether Ajax should be buried or not. It’s a debate won by Odysseus, who represents a model of a new kind of hero. The play suggests that Ajax, may be the traditional Greek hero, but he belongs to a world that is past. Something else is needed, and that something is suggested by the arguments of Odysseus.

Q. Which came first, democracy or theater?

The evidence is that theater came first. My old friend Bob Connor (former Duke faculty member and former director of the National Humanities Center) has an interesting argument that theater came later as part of the development of democracy. I’d love to believe it, but what little evidence we do have suggests otherwise.

Q. How are the origins of Greek theater echoed in theater and democracy today?

At its best, drama engages you with different characters reacting and dealing in different ways with the challenges they face. There’s no guiding narrator. You’re invited to step outside yourself and listen to and think with the different voices in the play. That’s a very democratic process, and I think that’s part of nature of Greek drama as a democratic institution. Theater today can still play that role. It doesn’t always happen that way, but it can.

People also wonder if other media can play the same role that theater did in ancient Greece. Where is the Internet leading us? On a good day, we think it can revolutionize structures and allow every citizen to participate in national discussions. On a bad day, we think it’s simply dumbing us down.

The answer is something that has to come from us. Only our own will and hard work can insure the persistence of vigorous, informed and thoughtful democratic dialogue in our media.

Q. So then, what was special about ancient Athens — why then and why there?

The answer from my perspective is a sort of “perfect storm” at Athens in the fifth century BC: the swift and concurrent development of a democratic ideology based on ideas of freedom of speech for all citizens and equality of all citizens as (at least potential) participants in governance, the flowering of a theatrical practice that formed the centerpiece of a festival dedicated to the god Dionysus — associated in Greek belief with ides of breaking down boundaries, loosing of tongues and liberation in general — and one of the most important civic as well as religious occasions of the Athenian calendar.

There were festivals (including festivals of Dionysus) all over Greece, but only Athens developed the tradition of tragic and comic performance and put it at the heart of a great civic celebration. This in turn is fueled in some mysterious way — all “golden ages” have something mysterious about them – by a particular self-awareness and self-confidence among Athenians as victors over the mighty Persian Empire and as heads of an important island “empire” of their own. By the time of the Peloponnese War, when some self-doubt began to enter the mix, the theater was firmly established as a place for serious (tragic and comic) dialogue, where thoughts could be thought and things could be said that might otherwise never enter public discourse.


By Peter Burian

Professor of classical studies and theater studies at Duke, answers questions about the role of Greek theater in the development of Athenian democracy. In addition to recently giving a series of six lectures on this topic in Sardinia, Burian has written numerous articles and books on Greek theater and new translations of Euripides’ Helen, The Suppliants and Aeschylus’ Oresteia and other ancient plays.



About sooteris kyritsis

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2 Responses to The Theater of Democracy (representative versus DIRECT )

  1. Pingback: Athenian Women of Ancient Greek Society | Wired Cosmos


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