Introduction to Greek Tragedy

Bernadette McBride

I begin, of course, with Dionysus—
never a bad idea to bring up wine
and revelry in a Friday afternoon class;
then an acronym for the big three:

Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus,
summarize the sensational:
gouged eyes, children slain,
an eagle pecking out a liver.

In broad strokes, I tell them
about the the three-man rule, the masks,
cotharni, chorus, and the audience
sitting in a bowl; explain acoustic

principles are nothing new.
A sports-med major offers comparison
to our present-day stadiums. Exactly,
I say, adding disclaimers: but these

attendees spent the performance
sweating in the Mediterranean sun—
a catharsis of sorts amid the fun;

no cool-breezed night stagings,
no close-up screens or sound checks,
giveaways, tee shirts, or light shows.

Or flushing toilets. And my modern
students wonder which, the stage
or the bowl, contained more tragedy.

Bernadette McBride, author of four poetry collections (the fourth, Everything Counts, forthcoming from Aldrich Press), is poetry editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal. She is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, a Pennsylvania county Poet Laureate, poetry winner, second place, for the International Ray Bradbury Writing Award, and runner-up for the Robert Fraser Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Cider Press Review, Philadelphia Stories, Ragged Sky Press, The Ekphrastic Review, and The Penwood Review as well as in the UK, Canada, and on PRI’s The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. She welcomes your visit her at her website.

Before the Razor
A look inside the creative process of “Introduction to Greek Tragedy”

For hundreds of years, students have been reading (some may say force-fed) the plays of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, and others and, having leaned toward them from the other side of the desk for most of my adult life, I admit with all confidence to being one of those force-feeders. One of my teaching philosophies has always been “Just keep dishing it out,” based on the notion that the question students have always asked, be it about algebra (that would be me), Argentina’s crops, or ancient Greek theater is “Why do we need to know this stuff”? or “When are we gonna use this in real life?”

I figure, even if they have no interest in the moment of that query, some day they will: for example, should they win a spot on Jeopardy when they’re in their late twenties, find themselves in the panic of parenthood with their own questioning children, or simply look back with nostalgia at their misspent youth, recalling classroom bobs and bits from the lazy, crazy, hazy days (and nights, let’s face it) of college.

Another philosophy of mine has been to get them to relate to the span of world literature by inspiring them to realize people are people are people no matter when or where they live on our spinning planet, and I know of fewer ways to achieve this than by drizzling in large doses of humor. Thus this poem,

“Introduction to Greek Tragedy,” the points of which I used when I taught for years as a high school English teacher before I moved to the college level, thinking it would be easier to engage more mature students (heh-heh). And herewith, I offer you food for thought…and by the way, my college students are exceptionally bright, engaged, and wonderful, as are most. Truly.