A time for tragedy

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Phèdre, National Theatre, London, until 27 August

"For a writer to experience life tragically...there must be in his society a poignant, underlying sense of the times being morally and practically out of joint" (Victor Kiernan).

If that is so, then it is a perfect moment for the National Theatre to present the tragedy of Phaedra (Phèdre), with Helen Mirren in the title role.

This version is Ted Hughes's version of Phèdre by 17th century French dramatist Jean Racine. His classical theatre held rigidly to the rules of Greek theatre, and its formal conventions of language and staging. But, despite these constraints, it is a work riven with tension and internal conflict.

At the heart of Greek theatre was the idea of hubris, the excessive pride that leads to the inescapable destruction human beings face when, out of greed or excessive ambition or simple egotism, they forget their own limitations - or their own humanity - and try to usurp the power of the gods. The effect was, as the Greeks put it, "cathartic" - it allowed the audience to experience fear and terror at the consequences of such insolence, and then provided a kind of resolution, or a warning.

Phaedra is driven by an uncontainable sexual passion for her stepson, Hippolytus. She confesses it to her nurse who in turn tells him. His rejection enrages Phaedra, who then takes revenge by denouncing him to his father, Theseus, for attempting to cajole her into bed. Her husband banishes his son and then arranges for the gods to kill him. Phaedra then kills herself out of regret and remorse.

Phaedra is a tragic heroine, just like her contemporary, Medea (she poisons herself with the same potion that Medea has used to kill herself and her children). Their tragedy, however, is not simply that they come to a bad end or experience disappointment.

Like every tragic hero, both these women suffer from an inner conflict, a battle within and against themselves, and at the same time are engaged in a struggle with their world, their society. Irrepressible passion, a sense of destiny, hatred or love, can drive individuals to go beyond their own limits, whether or not they understand fully what is happening to them or what the consequences are. The other factor in their tragedy, however, is that the social constraints that hold them back have, for one reason or another, been loosened.

Hamlet, for example, asks himself whether or not he should "suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune". It is his own, individual decision; he acknowledges the forces acting on him (the slings and arrows) but he doesn't simply yield to them, even though they batter and claw at him. The England to which Hamlet spoke his words was going through a time of profound change. Racine, too, was writing at a time when the absolute and unchallenged authority of the church, which he personally accepted, was being challenged by new ideas.

The original play on which Phaedra was based was Euripides's Hippolytus. Unlike the great dramas of Sophocles in earlier epochs, the Greece of Euripides was a decadent place, riddled with corruption exposed in the course of the brutal Peloponnesian War. The noble times seemed long past, the gods and the nobility seemed to have become petty and vengeful, and figures like Phaedra and Medea pursued their unrestrained passions to revenge and destruction.

Yet like all tragic figures, Phaedra, Medea and the others die in the end. Their dilemmas and inner conflicts express a deeper discontent or dysfunction - they are "out of sorts with their time". They feel the end of an age and look for the shape of new times, yet cannot see it. They are standing on a collapsing bridge over a chasm, their feelings the sign of an era in meltdown.

It might seem that the only conclusion to be drawn is a conservative one - that anyone who steps outside the framework of the given order is bound to suffer and die. If that were true, they would not be tragic figures, simply foolish or misguided. It takes something else for them to be tragic.

There is nobility in the tragic hero or heroine, a determination to break out of whatever circle constrains or holds them down. The reasons for their resolution need not be noble in themselves, or particularly visionary. In Phaedra's case it is love or passion that leads her to hurl herself against the walls that hem her in; in Medea's it is the pain of betrayal. Their failure is inevitable because, while their own world may be falling apart, the world of the future which will operate according to different values does not yet exist.

At the end of Racine's play, Phaedra (like Cleopatra), announces her own death. But as Theseus says, in his final speech, the world cannot just be put back in place. When such passions are unleashed, the world changes for ever. That is the revolutionary promise of tragedy: it points ahead to a future as yet undefined that will replace this conflict-ridden present.