“Greek tragedy is not for the faint of heart.  It reeks of blood and is strewn with corpses.”

–Albert Henrichs, ‘Drama and Dromena: Bloodshed, Violence, and Sacrificial Metaphor in Euripides’


Off-Stage and On-Screen—Violence in Greek Tragedy and Modern Film

By Francis Bartus
Posted 12/17/05

In the contemporary world of film, wholesale violence splatters itself across the screen in increasingly uncompromising and graphic ways.  Faced with an ever-numbing audience, film directors seldom choose to spare a single detail of a in a violent and tragic death scene.  Yet the works that set the standard for so many of todays on-screen tragedies merely described—rather than displayed— these acts of violence.  In fact, in traditional Greek tragedy, no blood—not even that of an animal—was spilled on stage.  In the piece ‘Drama and Dromena: Bloodshed, Violence, and Sacrificial Metaphor in Euripides,’ Albert Henrichs points out that in Greek tragedy “the most extreme forms of tragic violence are presented as off-stage events, out of sight but very much within the emotional reach of the audience.”  He argues that “this prohibition of on-stage bloodshed, which reflects the impracticability of its reenactment, had far-reaching consequences for the representation of violence in tragedy.”  Yet one must wonder whether this tragic convention enhanced or compromised the poignancy of tragic violence.  Could a more modern interpretation strike a balance between the opposite extremes, combining them to create an even more tragic act of violence?  Or have modern filmmakers completely abandoned the Greek tragedians in favor of on-screen bloodshed?

In order to answer this question, it is necessary to examine the affect of off-stage violence in multiple Greek tragedies.  Sophocles’ Oedipus the King provides a particularly notable example of this tragic convention.  At the culmination of the play, Oedipus discovers his wife and mother Jocasta dead and gashes his eyes out with her brooch-pins.  Yet rather than showing Oedipus as he performs this awful deed, Sophocles keeps him out of sight and allows the chorus to describe the act:

He tore the brooches— / the gold chased brooches fastening her robe— / away from her and lifting them up high, dashed them on his own eyeballs, shrieking out / such things as: they will never see the crime / I have committed or had done upon me! / …And the bleeding eyeballs gushed and stained his beard—no sluggish oozing drops / but a black rain and bloody hail poured down.  (Oedipus the King 1268-79)


Clearly, Sophocles’ description spares no detail of Oedipus’ bloody fate—an act so repulsive that it could make even modern audiences flinch.  Yet only after the chorus’ description does Oedipus himself re-enter the stage, blinded.  Just as he comes into view, the chorus gives voice to the audience’s shocked reaction, exclaiming, “This is a terrible sight for men to see! …I shudder at the sight of you.” (Oedipus the King 1297-305)  Here, the chorus narrates the action, informing the audience of the events that occurred offstage.  Their vivid descriptions serve to fuel the imaginations of the spectators, who are left to picture the horrible sight of a man ripping out his own eyeballs in their minds.  Yet the chorus members do not act as impartial observers; they react to the tragic events that unfold before them in the same way the author intends the audience to react.  In effect, they play a dual role: both relaying the necessary information to the audience and modeling the audience’s intended emotional response. 

This subtle method of representing violence may seem anticlimactic, but in certain cases, it forced authors to craft a more tragic plot.  Unlike modern-day directors, Greek tragedians could not rely on the visual cues that enhance the drama of deaths in modern movies.  Instead, the careful arrangement of plot elements determined the tragedy of the death.  Aeschylus’ Agamemnon provides an interesting—but equally tragic—counterpoint to the graphic eye-gouging in Oedipus the King.  Unlike Sophocles, Aeschylus chooses not to describe the violent, vivid details of Agamemnon’s death. Instead, Agamemnon simply cries out to the helpless, confused chorus from somewhere backstage.  “Ah, I am struck a deadly blow and deep within!” he screams, to which the chorus answers, “Silence: who cried out that he was stabbed to death within / the house?” (Agamemnon 1343-5)  Agamemnon cries out once more and is dead.  In this case, the violence itself does not enhance the poignancy of Agamemnon’s death.  To be stabbed to death in a Greek tragedy was painfully ordinary.  Thus, it was the plot alone that lends the scene its tragic bite.  The idea that his trusted wife slew him—in keeping with an inevitable curse and in revenge for her sacrificed daughter, just as he returned home from the Trojan war—renders his death exceptionally pitiable.  The conventions adopted by Greek tragedians reveal their belief that the tragedy lies in the way the act is told, not in the act itself.  The complex relationships between characters—from Agamemnon’s relationship with Clytaemestra to Oedipus’ confused and ill-fated relationship with his mother—play out in a way so tragic as to make their violent suffering wholly secondary.

            These two plays provide different examples of this tragic convention in action—and each of them showcases the distinct advantages of off-stage violence.  In Oedipus the King, Oedipus’ off-stage blinding allows the chorus to describe the act more vividly than it may have appeared if it were acted out inside of the large, exaggerated masks worn by the performers.  This allows the spectators to imagine the hideous scene—perhaps more accurately than if it had been performed onstage.  Additionally, the chorus’ reaction to Oedipus provides a more human touch of tragedy than merely observing the act would necessarily provide.  Agamemnon’s chorus, too, enhances the tragedy of the play, demonstrating that even an ordinary act of violence can be quite tragic under the proper circumstances.  The tragedy lies in the pity that both the chorus—and by extension, the audience—feels for Agamemnon, struck down as he returns to his beloved wife.  Interestingly, the Greek tragedians made the best of their limited circumstances, discovering effective ways to manipulate the emotions of the audience—chiefly through the chorus—conveying a greater overall sense of tragedy.

Yet despite the advantages of hidden violence demonstrated by the Greek tragedians, modern-day cinema often seems to forgo subtlety in favor of a veritable visual and auditory assault.  Nonetheless, a careful examination of even the most blood-soaked movies reveals a somewhat more nuanced interpretation of tragic violence than one might expect.  The film American History X provides an interesting example of this phenomenon.  A scathing condemnation of racism, the film does not skimp on violence: throughout, viewers witness Derek—the neo-Nazi central character—as he stomps a man’s head into a curb and is later raped by gang members in a prison shower.  Yet the most tragic act of violence in the film occurs when Derek’s younger brother Danny is murdered by a young black gang member in the school bathroom.  The tragedy of the scene lies in the irony that Derek, even after being raped in prison and learning the error of his ways, cannot escape the cycle of violence and racism that he entered when he became a neo-Nazi.  On top of that, Derek’s younger brother—whom he tried to protect from this cycle of violence—dies as a direct result of Derek’s mistakes.

Like so many other scenes, Danny’s death immediately strikes the viewer as shocking and blood-soaked, but a closer look reveals interesting but subtle parallels to the tragic conventions of Greek predecessors.  As Danny enters the bathroom, dramatic music starts to build; the camera cuts to a shot of Derek walking away from the school, looking suddenly behind him as though he knows something is about to happen.  The camera cuts back to Danny; as he turns around at the urinal, the face of a young black kid fills the screen.  He aims his pistol and fires past the camera.  Yet rather than immediately showing Danny’s death, the camera cuts to the school cafeteria, where frightened students scream and run in panic—much like the confused and helpless chorus in Agamemnon.  The pistol fires again, and a close up of a screaming girl fills the screen.  Only on the third gunshot does the director show Danny as the blood explodes from his body onto the urinals behind him.  The music swells yet again as Danny’s eyes slowly close in his death-posture, and the screen reveals his brother Derek as he fights his way through the gathered crowd to get to Danny.  As he holds his brother in his arms he cries out, and the camera closes up on the faces of the crowd outside the bathroom, where his grieving principal and anguished girlfriend wipe tears from their eyes.  On the surface, this bloody death-scene seems to owe nothing to Greek tragedy.  Yet the faces, the music, the scattered crowds—all of these play the role of the chorus in a more modern sense.  The close-up shots of Danny’s girlfriend, his brother, and his principal convey the anguish the viewer is meant to feel indirectly, rather than by sheer force of violence.  The swelling dramatic music—as described in a record company press release— serves as “another character in the film, reminiscent of the chorus in Greek tragedy, commenting on the action.”  And finally, the scattering crowds of school kids evoke images of the chorus of Agamemnon, confused and shocked by the humanity of the event.  Echoes of these crucial elements shine through the blood-soaked film and enhance the impact in multiple ways—revealing the lasting influence of Greek convention even on today’s most blood-soaked tragic films.    

Were Oedipus the King and Agamemnon to be remade today, Aeschylus and Sophocles might deal differently with the most violent scenes.  Sophocles’ apparent appreciation for the shock-value of violent imagery might sway a modern director to show Oedipus’ blinding in its full horror.  A modern interpretation of Aeschylus, however, would likely leave Agamemnon’s death-scene unadulterated by distracting violence.  Clearly—though in modern times films rely so often on shock and horror to provoke emotion—the Greek technique proves equally effective.  It should come as no surprise, then, that subtle echoes of their tragic conventions persist to this very day.


Works Cited


Henrich, Albert. Drama and Dromena: Bloodshed, Violence, and Sacrificial Metaphor in Euripides.  Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 100. (2000), pp. 173-188.