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.

7 comments:

Pierre said...

The more I think about it, (just the leadership; though admittedly I have not seen all the episodes) the more I think that "The Greeks" are not Greek at all. This includes Spiro Vondas. It was just a "marketing" tactic they used for "Street Identification."

How easy was it to have people talk about "The Greeks(!)" and mention "The Greeks(!)" in disgust when dealing with them. People seem willing to refer and accept that attitude towards them. Come to think of it, I've never heard the same attributes towards the Italian mafia (THE ITALIANS!! or THE SICILIANS!!), it was much more deferential.
Just my opinion...

John Akritas said...

Pierre. It's true that the 'Greeks' in The Wire are not that Greek, that they may not be Greek at all and certainly there's no attempt at verisimilitude as there is with the blacks in the show. But I don't think Simon's that interested in accurately portraying Greeks in Baltimore (if there are Greeks in Baltimore – I don't know). Like I say in the post, I think he just wants to make a point about Greek tragedy, about powerful Olympian gods controlling the game and what better way to do this than make those Olympian gods 'Greek'.

pierre said...

Oh, I agree with your post. I went a little beyond your subject to discuss certain "suspense" techniques regarding the screenplay and how the audience perceives it (beyond the Greek tragedy theme). I see now that I sort of hijacked your theme, but I wanted to connect The Wire's use of Greeks, who I argue aren't Greek at all, to the use of the Turk Kaiser Sauze in The Usual Suspects, who also is not Turk or even existed.

PS, Baltimore does have a sizable Greek community. And I really enjoy your blog and appreciate the English language commentary and translations of Greek politics and culture. Keep up the good work.

John Akritas said...

P. I know where you're coming from. That which is Greek in The Wire is not 'the Greeks', but the theme of Greek tragedy. And thanks for the good words on the blog. Keep reading.

jo nathan dudley said...

I enjoyed your post. Its great to see that quote from Simon. Very informative. I am doing a project that involves looking into the idea of Greek Tragedy in The Wire. BTW...I was hoping you would let me know if I was correct about Stelios Kazantzidis' song. Is the translation "Now she's gone, Now She's gone?". Thanks.
Great song by the way.
Jonathan Dudley

John Akritas said...

Hello Jonathan
thanks for your comment. Sounds like an interesting project you're doing. In my humble opinion, Greek tragedy is the highest form of art and Simon made a smart move incorporating it into The Wire.

You're right about the Kazantzidis' song lyrics.
They're something like:

Your love tyrannises me
my conscience is heavy
with all my mistakes that drove you away

She's gone, she's gone
I've lost her
now I'm roaming the streets

I wake up wondering where you are
now I understand how much I love you

I'm not familiar with the song, but it sounds to me like Kazantzidis from the early to mid 1960s, when he came out with a lot of songs heavily influenced, like the song in The Wire, by Indian music. Often Greek music producers would simply rip off music from Bollywood films – which were popular in Greece at the time – and tack on Greek lyrics.

jo nathan dudley said...

Thanks!