I was planning to post a Greek Tragedy 24 as a follow-up to last month’s Shakespeare 24, but it turned out to be much too derivative. Part of the problem seems to be that the two genres being parodied are much too close to make such a union humorous. In fact, I would go so far as to say that 24 is today’s answer to the ancient Greek tragedy. A statement like that requires some explanation.
The most obvious similarity is the real-time format. Ancient Greek drama was, for the most part, presented in real time. The audience of that age would not have accepted the traditional story-telling techniques that we take for granted today, such as flash-backs and multiple locations. Aristotle’s unity of time is often translated as meaning that the action of a play must take place within 24 hours (which would have worked just as well for this comparison), but Aristotle never actually wrote this, and if you read the plays, they could pretty much take place in the time you spent watching them. The plays start after most of the action has already happened, and the main character is about an hour and a half away from the great reversal of fortune and recognition he has coming. During the play, characters come in and out, but the audience usually stays put. Oedipus realizes that he needs to speak with someone and has to summon him and wait for him to come, unless he just happened to have already summoned him on another matter and, oh look, here he comes now. Audiences of the time had no problem accepting that sort of thing, I suppose. Shakespeare did not have to play by these rules for his audiences, shifting his scenes between Rome and Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra, and famously skipping over sixteen years in The Winter’s Tale, to name just two examples.
Similarly, when Briscoe and Curtis (or whoever the current line-up on Law & Order is this year) get a lead on a suspect, we can immediately cut to them arriving on the scene. When Jack Bauer gets a lead on a suspect, he actually has to physically get to the location. It’s worth noting that only the unity of time, not place or action, is observed. The show can easily switch back and forth between Washington DC and Los Angeles, and have multiple story lines going at the same time. But what the real-time format does for both 24 and Greek tragedy is to give an immediacy to the events being depicted. We can feel like this is something happening in front of us in the moment. When our hero is faced with a choice to make, he has to make it right now, even if it is an impossible choice.
This element of the impossible choice is crucial to both 24 and Greek tragedy. Greek playwrights would often show characters torn between their solemn duties to their oikos (family) and their polis (state). Agamemnon is told that the goddess Artemis will not allow him to sail to Troy unless he sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia. He now must choose between his responsibility to the polis to wage war with Troy and his responsibility to the oikos to protect his daughter. There is no right answer, only two wrong ones. In true Jack Bauer fashion, he puts national security first, and offers up the kid. Antigone makes the opposite choice. She is told by King Creon that she may not bury her traitorous brother, and she has a duty to obey. But she also has a duty to bury her brother, and she makes that decision – which she will ultimately suffer for. Actions have consequences, and the characters are willing to accept those consequences even when they did not have a better choice.
Similarly, characters on 24 are often put in situations where they have to choose between oikos and polis, between someone they personally care about and national security. National security on this show is less about “protecting our way of life” and more about “millions of people will die” if we don’t stop the threat. Either way, there will be serious consequences. The show finds just those moments where the “right thing to do” is something that most of us couldn’t do. But Jack Bauer can, and he becomes elevated to the level of the mythical hero.
And there we find another similarity. Ancient Greek dramas were often set at a time when, for the Greeks, the mythological overlapped with the legendary. Gods interacted with humans, and humans were a special breed of heroes. The stories did not have to be realistic – their mythical nature allowed the playwrights to explore larger themes. In 24, events are contrived to fit the real-time format, and we accept it. Jack is able to shuttle around from location to location in record time, and we accept it. Most of all, Jack is able to embody the courage, resolve, and self-sacrifice that we admire in our present-day heroes. He does so far beyond what any human would actually be capable of doing. And we accept that, too. In our post-9/11 world, that’s the larger theme.
To sum up: Shakespeare 24 – Very funny. Greek Tragedy 24 – Too “on the nose” to really be funny. But I enjoyed coming to that recognition, and now I am pleased to share it with you.