A Theatre of Pure Stichomythia: Twitter and the Tragic. Nthposition, June 2011

Four years on and I tweet sporadically . I despise the perpetual hype machine that is social media, the endless churning of self-righteousness and cheap enthusiasm. I also tend to get caught up in it all. Hence the despising, I imagine.

A Theatre of Pure Stichomythia: Twitter and the Tragic

We live in an age in which every technological innovation or trend becomes freighted with significance. Perhaps this is because we live in an age of commentary and punditry. In the opening chapter of The Napoleon of Notting Hill, G K Chesterton (having begun with one of the great first lines: “The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up” describes a world of incessant prognosticating in which the ordinary decent citizenry did the decent thing and simply ignored it all. And this was in 1904; long before Web 2.0 either smashed traditional media paradigms forever, or began an empirical test of the old saying about a million monkeys with a million typewriters, according to taste.

Twitter is the latest technology to have a whole world of meaning laden on its under-140-character-sized shoulders; it is still at the stage where a homicide that somehow can be linked with it are described as the “Twitter murder.” The impact of any given technology tends to be overestimated in the short term and underestimated in the long term; despite the hopes of transhumanists, a quick look at the trending topics on Twitter reveals that the perennial preoccupations of humanity – love, sex, murder, money, laughter – are still with us. More prosaically, a good proportion of Tweets reflect what happens to be on crusty old telly at any given moment.

Who knows where Twitter will lead us (or where we will lead it) but we would all do well to recall Charles Peguy’s words: “Humanity will surpass the first dirigibles as it has surpassed the first locomotives. It will surpass M Santos-Dumont as it has surpassed Stephenson. After telephotography it will continually invent graphies and scopes and phones, all of which will be tele and one will be able to go around the earth in less than no time. But it will always be only the temporal earth. And it will even be possible to burrow inside the earth and pierce it through as I do this ball of clay. But it will always be the carnal earth.” M. Santos-Dumont was an aeronaut, as aviators were known –  now we see something thrillingly old-fashioned and romantic about the pioneers of aviation and motorsport, dashing figures as remote from us as Julius Caesar or Charlemange, and yet in their time they were the icons of hyper-modernity. They were the Sergey Brins and Mark Zuckerbergs of their day.

All of this, aside from being a chance to air some of my favourite quotes, is leading up to a point. Can everything be expressed in 140 characters or fewer? Of course, the hashtag and the hyperlink allow communications that transcend this barrier, and help provide Twitter with some of its hypnotic power. It is the internet condensed into a single website. However, the essence of twitter is brevity. I alternate between revulsion and fascination, between periods of Twitter celibacy and promiscuity. This ambivalence reflects a tension between sheer wonder at the breadth of information available online, and fears about its depth. More to the point, do we run the risk of a mass attention deficit disorder, unwilling to engage with anything more than the fabled one hundred and forty?

Like most things, an answer (not the answer) lies in the classical past. It may seem absurd to liken Twitter flame wars with the works of Sophocles or Euripides or Aeschylus. Just as our culture keeps telling and retelling the stories of Shakespeare, we return again and again to the big three of fifth century Athenian drama, the deadest white males of them all in the Western canon. We have feminist Medeas and Freudian Oedipus Rexes, we have the Bacchae in Baghdad and Antigone in Northern Ireland. If there is a primal –  in every sense – bedrock of literature, it is the slim corpus of plays which survived the vissicitudes of time to come back down to us, haunting our imaginations.

Athenian drama is often staged in a manner more to be endured than anything else. One of the techniques of the Athenian stage was stichomythia – the sharp exchange of one liners. A E Housman, in his immortal parody of these plays (or, more accurately, their translations) Fragment of a Greek Tragedy (the whole thing is here –  captured the rhythm of the thing superbly:

ALCMAEON:  I journeyed hither a Boetian road.
CHORUS:  Sailing on horseback, or with feet for oars?
ALCMAEON:  Plying with speed my partnership of legs.
CHORUS:  Beneath a shining or a rainy Zeus?
ALCMAEON:  Mud’s sister, not himself, adorns my shoes.
CHORUS:  To learn your name would not displease me much.
ALCMAEON:  Not all that men desire do they obtain.
CHORUS:  Might I then hear at what thy presence shoots.
ALCMAEON:  A shepherd’s questioned mouth informed me that–
CHORUS:  What? for I know not yet what you will say.
ALCMAEON:  Nor will you ever, if you interrupt.
CHORUS:  Proceed, and I will hold my speechless tongue.
ALCMAEON:  This house was Eriphyle’s, no one else’s.
CHORUS:  Nor did he shame his throat with shameful lies.
ALCMAEON:  May I then enter, passing through the door?
There are of course far more edifying (and somewhat less absurd) examples from the plays themselves. Take the confrontation between Creon and his son Haemon in Antigone:

CREON:  Men of my age are we indeed to be schooled, then, by men of his?
HAEMON:  In nothing that is not right; but if I am young, thou shouldest look to my merits, not to my years.
CREON:  Is it a merit to honour the unruly?
HAEMON:  I could wish no one to show respect for evil-doers.
CREON:  Then is not she tainted with that malady?
HAEMON:  Our Theban folk, with one voice, denies it.
CREON: Shall Thebes prescribe to me how I must rule?
HAEMON: See, there thou hast spoken like a youth indeed.
CREON:  Am I to rule this land by other judgment than mine own?
HAEMON:  That is no city which belongs to one man.
CREON: Is not the city held to be the ruler’s?
HAEMON:  Thou wouldst make a good monarch of a desert.
CREON:  This boy, it seems, is the woman’s champion.
HAEMON:  If thou art a woman; indeed, my care is for thee.
CREON:  Shameless, at open feud with thy father!
HAEMON:  Nay, I see thee offending against justice.

There are plenty of other examples. Antigone seems hardly to communicate in any other mode. Oedipus, in the course of the amateur detective work which he will shortly come to regret, inevitably berates his various interlocuters who are simply trying to warn him off for his own good in the same barking, urgent, angry tone. Devil take the consequences. Anyone who has witnessed a Twitter spat (originally I wrote “Tweet spat”, but that just sounds barbaric. The Brave New World perhaps has a bit of work to do on the beauty of its buzzwords) will recognise the tone – bitter, reproving, not unwilling to play the man and not the ball.

I am sure there are many more elevated and less parochial examples, but my own favourites come from the obscurity of Irish politics. The former Green Senator Dan Boyle (@sendboyle) and former Green TD (id est, MP) Paul Gogarty (@PaulGogartyTD, although he has now taken the precaution of protecting his tweets) used to engage in all-in Twitter rumbles with all comers – and given that the Green party with rather unfortunate timing joined the Irish government just as the Titanic sighted the iceberg, there were quite a lot comers. More recently, Trinity College economist Brian Lucey (@brianmlucey) and finance journalist prospective Senatorial candidate Marc Coleman (@colemanatlarge, and a man who wrote a book on the Irish economy in 2007 entitled The Best Is Yet To Come) engaged in an equally more-heat-than-light fight over comments Coleman made about academics providing value for money.

In all these spats, there was a sense that the protagonists (especially Boyle, Gogarty and Coleman) had gone, in poker terminology, all-in. All this was at a rather less elevated literary level than classical Greek, but there was a similar sense of heightened emotion and a refusal to back down when perhaps more considered advice would be to leave well enough alone. Like Creon’s suggestions that, really Oedipus, why don’t we just leave it there and forget the whole thing ever happened, the idea that sometimes the more dignified and effective form of communication it to refrain from feeding the trolls just wouldn’t take.

Stichomythia can be exhilarating. In the great Athenian tragedies, full as they are of what to modern ears seem stilted choruses and lengthy soliloquies, they mark the crux of the emotional tension. A play consisting entirely of stichomythia would not only be exhausting, but also lose its meaning. The relationship between Athenian drama and the rituals of society was close, although the work of Euripides for one shows that drama was far more than a mere prop of the social status quo.

One can only hope that the stichomythia of Twitter is only one of the modes of discourse which the internet will bring us. The success of the longreads website suggests that the longing for duration, for an experience that goes beyond what can be said in 140 (or fewer) characters, is still with us.

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