Mindfulness in Greek Tragedy

Naropa’s MFA Theater Cohort Stages Anne Carson’s ‘An Oresteia’

By Selena Milewski

Photography by Tyler Rost and Jackquelyn Hilliker

“Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” So writes poet and translator Anne Carson in her preface to Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides. Scholar Simon Critchley extends the dialectic: “Why are you full of grief? Because you are full of war.” And, in a recent lecture to members of the Naropa University MFA cohorts of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and Theater: Contemporary Performance program, Professor Jeffrey Pethybridge extended it further still: “Why are you full of war? Because you are full of contradictions.”

An apt encapsulation of the plot escalation of Carson’s An Oresteia, a collection of versions of Agamemnon, Elektra, and Orestes from the great tragedians Aiskhylos, Sophokles, and Euripides, respectively.

How might such a violence-laden and seemingly hopeless world relate to the mindfulness Naropa champions? At face value, the character perspectives of An Oresteia are the polar opposite of mindfulness. Queen Klytaimestra believes only her husband’s death can undo the villainy of his sacrificial murder of their daughter. Their elder daughter Elektra believes only her mother’s murder can pay for her father’s. Finally, the people of the polis at large call for the death of Orestes, the matricidal prince. The cycle of violence seems endless, the characters are unrelenting in pursuit of their desires, and the conclusions drawn on how peace might be achieved are ambiguous at best.

Mindfulness, as celebrated Buddhist author Pema Chödrön elucidates in her book The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, relies on our cultivated ability to “notice that there are gaps in our internal dialogue. … We recognize our capacity to relax with the clarity, the space, the open-ended awareness that already exists in our minds”—in short, to abide in pure presence, allowing whatever emotions arise to exist as energy free from the seductive trap of conscious thought.

Where is the mindfulness in Greek tragedy? The answer, hiding beneath the vehement words and ceaseless statements of murderous intent, is in its silence. In each of Carson’s scrupulously placed em-dashes, in the marvelous performative space for thought and decision within each speech, and in the pause before each desperate appeal to the gods is the character abiding with themselves alone.

The ancient dialogue in Carson’s elegantly accessible translation is relentless to be sure, but what’s most notable in the psyches of these characters is their transformation through suffering. Each figure’s ethos (self-agency) is constantly strained through the uncontrollable forces of daimon (exterior spirit, fate). While death may mark the only great change for some of them, change they must. By choice or circumstance, ethos or daimon, they are all brought to their knees and forced to see themselves more clearly, in victory and in error. The moment of peripeteia (revelation and reversal), while different from the individualist change celebrated in our present age, is a profound depiction of enlightenment. The self seems almost to disappear for a character whose single life-defining goal is achieved or permanently flouted. They are left with nothing but themselves and—for the ones who survive—their entire being must return to presence in their shifting worlds.

If Buddhism teaches us nothing else, it is that suffering is inevitable. It is as foundational to our existence as our capacity for compassion; the former, in fact, underlies the latter. The figures of An Oresteia are humanity writ large in its endless capacity for suffering, be it through rage, grief, war, or internal contradiction. While we may not expect from them as individual psyches a model of enlightenment, we might well look to their larger character arcs for the essence of the road before us: to learn to abide the vicissitudes of existence in a way that acknowledges our suffering without seeking absolution through exterior circumstance.

The Naropa University MFA cohort in Theater: Contemporary Performance will stage An Oresteia Oct. 30-Nov. 9, 2019 at the Naropa University Performing Arts Center, 2130 Arapahoe Ave. Individual plays in the trilogy will be presented Wednesday through Friday of the production’s two-week run, with a Play Festival offered each Saturday featuring all three plays along with a snack and dinner.

For further information and tickets to individual plays, visit https://an-oresteia-naropa.eventbrite.com. For Saturday Festival passes, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/an-oresteia-festival-pass-tickets-75068922167. Please note that Festival passes must be purchased no later than the Thursday preceding the performance date.

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