NEW YORK – “How terrible it is to know when, in the end, knowing gains you nothing,” laments the blind prophet Tiresias in Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King.” Oedipus had summoned him to reveal the source of the pestilence and ecological disaster ravaging Thebes. But Tiresias knew that the king would reject the truth. Today’s climate scientists and epidemiologists can relate.
Like Tiresias, modern-day scientists know where the planet is headed and why. They found out not through prophecies, but through countless double-blind experiments, randomized trials and rigorous peer review. Their evidence is unimpeachable, and the consensus among them is overwhelming. But their secular augury cannot seem to overcome the willful indifference of politicians or the public. Knowing gains them nothing, because so few are listening.
If there is a way for scientists to get through to people and their leaders, the key will be to change not what they say, but how they say it. The language of science is dispassionate by design. By contrast, the manifold crises our planet faces are urgent and intense, and the individual and collective decisions that are fueling those crises have high emotional and ethical stakes.
A virulent pandemic has taken the lives of 3 million people. The Earth is in the throes of a sixth mass extinction. And the problems are set to escalate.
We need a language to convey the gravity and complexity of the global tragedy that is unfolding — and the ancient Greeks supply it. Their tragedies are stories of people learning too late (usually by milliseconds). Their characters doggedly pursue what they believe to be right, barely comprehending the forces they face: chance, fate, habits, governments, gods and the weather. By the time they do, the characters have unwittingly made an irreversible — and devastating — mistake.
For centuries, Greek tragedies have been viewed as pessimistic expressions of a fatalistic society, which depict the futility of fighting destiny. But, for the Greeks, the effect of these stories may have been counterintuitive. By showing people just how narrow and fleeting their power to determine their own future was, the tragedies discouraged apathy. Highlighting how devastating self-delusion can be encouraged awareness. And providing the language for describing difficult experiences enhanced agency.
Oedipus the King is believed to have premiered in the spring of 429 BC — that is, between the first and second waves of a plague that killed nearly one-third of the Athenian population. For a community that was both processing shared trauma and questioning the extent to which the losses were inevitable, a story of arrogant leadership and willful blindness would likely have struck a chord.
But it is not only ancient Athenians who were inspired by Greek tragedies. Over the last decade, I have directed more than 1,000 performances of plays by Sophocles and his contemporaries in seemingly unlikely places, such as homeless shelters, hospitals, prisons, military bases, halfway houses, senior centers and public parks all over the world.
In the post-performance discussions, audience members were newly able to express the challenges they had endured and the sacrifices they had made. For example, after presenting an audience of 400 U.S. Marines with scenes from Sophocles’ “Ajax and Philoctetes” — two ancient tragedies that take place during the Trojan War — typically stoic modern-day warriors were able to open up about their moral, emotional and spiritual struggles following their return from war.
Saying aloud what was once unspeakable can be unburdening in itself. But naming a problem is also the first step in confronting it. Many audience members later informed me that they had gone on to exercise agency in their own lives, such as by entering a drug-rehabilitation program.
Just as the language of tragedy can help bring about personal change, so, too, can it spur systemic change. “People are suffering,” Greta Thunberg told world leaders, her voice thick with emotion, at the United Nations 2019 Climate Action Summit. “People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
It could have been a speech in a Greek tragedy, a warning from a desperate and angry prophet — someone who knows, as we all know, that disaster is coming and that we have precious little time to avert it.
Thunberg and many of her fellow climate activists know that the language of tragedy is the only way to express the cataclysm we are facing. But, as Thunberg knows firsthand, young people can easily be dismissed as overly sensitive and melodramatic. That is why the adults — especially scientists and world leaders — must urgently join the chorus of young people and speak in the language of tragedy.
Scientists may believe that anything other than qualified statements made in careful, measured tones would undermine the legitimacy of their findings. But humans are emotional beings confronting an existential crisis. The language of tragedy is our best — and possibly last — chance to open the world’s eyes before it is too late.
Bryan Doerries is artistic director of Theater of War Productions and the author of “The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today.” ©Project Syndicate, 2021
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