Monday, 17 August 2009
The Wire as Greek tragedy
The Wire – the US TV crime series set in Baltimore – is a brilliant piece of drama, superbly written, acted and so on. Its creator, David Simon, insists that Greek tragedy is the inspiration for the show:
'Much of our modern theater seems rooted in the Shakespearean discovery of the modern mind. We’re stealing instead from an earlier, less-traveled construct – the Greeks –lifting our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality. The modern mind – particularly those of us in the West – finds such fatalism ancient and discomfiting, I think. We are a pretty self-actualized, self-worshipping crowd of postmoderns and the idea that for all of our wherewithal and discretionary income and leisure, we’re still fated by indifferent gods, feels to us antiquated and superstitious. We don’t accept our gods on such terms anymore; by and large, with the exception of the fundamentalists among us, we don’t even grant Yahweh himself that kind of unbridled, interventionist authority.
'But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason. In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millennium, so to speak. Because so much of television is about providing catharsis and redemption and the triumph of character, a drama in which postmodern institutions trump individuality and morality and justice seems different in some ways, I think.'
In fact, to make Simon's point about The Wire as Greek tragedy, the second series features a powerful, impregnable Greek crime organisation, which runs Baltimore's drugs and prostitution rackets, as one of those postmodern Olympian forces that play with, torment and control humans and their destiny. In the clip above, Baltimore docks union boss Frank Sobotka and his nephew Nick have got in too deep with the Greeks and are going to have to pay the price – to the musical backdrop of Stelios Kazantzidis! Indeed, the second series is liberally laced with Greek music.
Also worth mentioning is that one of the writers/producers for The Wire is George Pelecanos, the Greek-American crime writer. Pelecanos' novels – which include a trilogy featuring PI Nick Stefanos, and another three with Dimitris Karras as the main protagonist – are based in Washington DC and are similar to The Wire in many respects.