Ancient Myths and the Limits and Liberties of Innovation

Posted on: 17 July 2023 by Victoria Doherty-Bone in 2023 posts

Ancient Myths mosaic

Victoria Doherty-Bone discusses how Greek myths continue to enchant writers and audiences yet also provide a certain limitation in terms of its content.

With its heroes, monsters and gods, the wealth of Greek myth has enchanted writers and audiences for millennia, and will undoubtedly continue to long into the future. And despite its repeated use through the centuries, it never fails to amaze me how endlessly interpretable the ancient stories continue to be. The fantastical details of these myths can be seen in literature and media as diverse as Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Lizzo’s Rumors music video and the Assassin’s Creed games. Whether you’re writing a novel or programming a video game – for all creators, ancient Greek myth offers a bottomless chest of raw material to flesh out and use as you will.

But this isn’t to say this well-spring of content isn’t subject to limitation. Quite the opposite – much of the success of a project is founded on the ability to trim and discard the ineffective, as much as it is to build from the promising. Such decisions can be hard (as any writer, editor or animator will know), and the coldhearted judgements of what parts are “right” or “wrong”, and then shaping it as you need is anathema to some purists. But it’s a process as old as the myths themselves, particularly when we look at the earliest examples of them being prepared for public consumption. Specifically, the original producers of ancient drama dealt with these very problems I outlined above. Just as the writers of Disney’s Hercules were forced to contend with problems of how to make a very NSFW figure of myth into a child-friendly cartoon, so did the original Athenian playwrights of the 5th century BCE face questions of how to adapt a well-known myth into suitable fare for a stage play.

“The medium is the message” is the famous phrase Canadian communications expert Marshall McLuhan coined in his 1964 publication Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. The phrase deprioritises the intention of the artist or the raw content within a piece of artwork, to focus on the means in which it is delivered. The “medium” is simply the physical form of the genre the artist has chosen to work within, which brings with it a range of basic practicalities, necessities and restrictions. A filmmaker needs to think in terms of angles, lighting and editing, as well as script and plot. A poet needs to think of word choice, metre and rhythm. And a video game designer needs to think about balancing cutscenes and relevant tasks for the player to complete, along with controls and graphics.

In my own research on the phenomenon of drama in ancient Athens, this question of how the creator adapted the material to genre holds my interest. For the genre of Athenian drama was not created from nowhere but was in its turn influenced by the pre-existing forms of performance and story-telling that were popular in Archaic Greece. And their solutions to adapting one type of artform from another can tell us rather a lot about the importance of medium, and how it can carve out new ways to look at stories we feel are so familiar as to be hackneyed.

In the case of ancient drama, stage plays take the larger-than-life, grand figures of myth, and scales them down into animate, “real” human beings. Actors strode before an audience as the characters themselves, their interactions not relayed in report, as in epic poetry, but were shown directly via their own words, actions and countenances. Along with this close-up of the characters themselves, the limits of a stage-play forced a closer look at the events of a particular story. The Homeric epics, told by an omnipresent & omniscient narrator, could span miles, swapping from Mount Olympus and the activities of the gods in one paragraph, to the happenings of a mortal camp in the next, and could cut ahead to hours, days or even years ahead. Such a sweeping panopticon was impossible for drama, which is bound to the modest components of a physical play; namely, the stage space, the props, and the actors’ bodies and voices. These limits slowed down the action, forced the playwright to consider the events of his story moment by moment, line by line, through the play’s plot.

In this way, drama offered a “zoomed in” look at the stories they told. The entire story of the war in Troy could never be relayed in a single play, so a small episode from the epic tradition, had to be selected and fixated on. The result was greater attention on the individual and their own internal lives. The audience saw up close the details of Ajax’s distress at his betrayal by Athena, or Helen’s troubled thoughts on her role in the Trojan war, as the play stayed with them for hours throughout its duration. And as we have seen with new forms of media and the skillful and imaginative ways new creators adapt the old stories, so did the ancient tragedians use their new form to strike on new opportunities for expression. The details of a hero’s emotions as he reckoned with immense travails became the drama’s core, as much of the dramatic action itself was relegated off-stage, impossible as it was to recreate using limited technology.

This reprioritizing of the story’s aspects, from the epic events of mythological Greece, to the individual characters’ all-too-human reactions to it, brought a new depth and dimension to the old mythical stories. These emotional displays, telegraphed through the innovative use of a real, live human being, moving and speaking as though they truly were that particular hero undergoing that particular plight, brought this distant past to a new living reality. The medium, as it were, changed the message. The story wasn’t about the mechanical details of the sack of Troy, or the internecine clash between Polyneices and Eteocles – rather, the plays brought new emphasis on the lived experiences of the characters of myth, and the minutiae of these famous events. This focus on these material details could magnify the dramatic piquancy of the story, as the playwright and actors had new questions on the specifics of each scene. How was Antigone standing before she was led to her death? How did Oedipus walk onstage the moments before he found out the awful truth of his life, and how did his posture and voice change after he discovered the awful truth of his life? How was Andromache brought onto the stage in the moments before her son, Astyanax, was taken from to be killed?

The breadth of the ancient myth’s application and adaptability, in modern media and technology, in cartoons, films and video games, is staggering. But the ancients’ own use of these same myths, particularly in tragedy, show the depth available when imagination is applied to these stories, especially when placed within a medium that encourages new ways of examining the myth. Actors presenting as the ancient heroes themselves, speaking directly on their experiences, enabled a grounded look at the fantastical. The immense reputation of these stories can sometimes convey a grandeur that many creators may feel intimidated by. Drama’s facility in portraying smaller episodes of epic myth, and showing the legendary heroes as walking, speaking, and failing humans, provided a new accessibility to these famous stories, whilst taking full advantage of the dramatic momentum at the play’s climax. Slowing down the action brought a new dimension to the stories, which gave the playwright time to focus on the characters’ individual responses, and so, revealed a key appeal of drama– namely, the use and emphasis of embodied, first-person emotionality.

As new would-be creators encounter the ancient source material and start working it for their own ends, the lessons from the original dramas’ show the importance of flexibility in adapting these works. The ancient material’s longevity is not only due to its engaging story content, but to its multi-faceted and pliable nature, and it is this trimmability that will see us through to the next lease of life granted to these ancient stories. As the next generation of creators meet the classics and start producing new interpretations on these old stories, I look on with eager curiosity as to what fresh angles they’ll present.