How relevant to contemporary events should a classical Greek tragedy be? According to the classical Greeks, not too much so: that, at any rate, is what the sad case of Phrynichus suggests. In 494 BC, the wealthy city of Miletus, culturally Greek but located on the coast of Asia Minor, was brutally sacked after a failed insurrection against its Persian overlords. This event had two results: it inflamed the moral outrage that drew Athens ever closer to a war against Persia (which would follow in another few years), and it inspired what was surely one of the first “fact-based” dramas in the Western tradition—a tragedy by the playwright Phrynichus entitled The Capture of Miletus, produced at the annual dramatic festival at Athens two years after the Miletian disaster, in 492 BC. It was a shrewd choice of subject on the dramatist’s part: Miletus had had particularly close cultural ties to Athens, and tugging on Athenian heartstrings was, no doubt, a sure way to move the audience—and, perhaps, the judges of the dramatic competition. But as Herodotus relates, the playwright got more pity and fear than he bargained for:
When Phrynichus produced his play The Capture of Miletus, the whole audience at the theater burst into tears and fined Phrynichus a thousand drachmas for reminding them of a calamity that was their very own; they also forbade any future production of the play.
There can be, it would seem, such a thing as too much relevance.
Not coincidentally, perhaps, tragedies dramatizing real-life events soon ceased to be produced in Athens. (Only one, indeed, survives: Aeschylus’ Persians, produced in 472 BC, which commemorates the allied Greek victory over the Persians at Salamis in 480 BC—an event that inspired the indefatigable Phrynichus to write yet another play.) Instead, the Athenian dramatists thereafter embraced, exclusively as far as we can tell, another kind of relevance, one that was at once more abstract and more enduring than that afforded by detailed allusions to current events. Tragedy would from now on vigorously exploit the rich cultural vein of myth for its plots; these stories, about a relatively small number of divine and human families, could remind audiences of “calamities of their very own” without being mired in the kind of real-life particulars that could cloud aesthetic experience (and that would, in any case, be doomed to a relatively short cultural shelf life). Indeed, even when comment on current events warranted a response from what we today would call “the creative community,” it was myth that provided the ideal armature. As witness, for instance, the well-known example of Euripides’ Trojan Women, produced in the spring of 415 BC, which uses the final, ugly chapter of the Trojan saga to indict Athens’ ruthless annihilation of an unwilling “ally” the previous winter.
The shift from history to myth as a subject for drama was, perhaps, the first and greatest example of tragedy’s special genius for abstraction and distillation—qualities that made it the artistic …