Here's to Canny Greeks and Tragedies With Happy Endings
`DON'T forget," wafted the voice from upstairs, "we're going to 'Electra' tonight!"
For the fourth (or was it fifth?) time, I held the long triangular piece of wood horizontally against the pencil mark across the bottom of the porch door and then wondered how to screw it in place without spontaneously growing a third arm. Slick with a fresh undercoat of paint, the wood slid decorously groundward.
"Electra? Oh yes. I forgot," I yelled back. Or even a fourth arm. At almost every point in the do-it-yourself game comes up this precise perplexity: Two hands are definitely not enough.
Electra, that's all I need, I thought. I groaned to myself. Sufficient unto the Saturday is the drama thereof. (Despair makes you liable to misquotation.) No, not just drama - tragedy.
Renovating our house has all the ingredients of tragedy. For a start, it's gone on for an incredibly long time (like Hamlet): We thought it would take three months when we started. It's now been over 11 years, and Act V is still not in sight. Secondly, it involves at almost every turn the Aristotelian tragic emotions of "pity" (self-pity mostly) and "terror." Hammers that slip and break glass; tiles that crack while being cut; cement that sets before used, and, on this special Saturday, slippery lengths
of triangular wood.
Such things are as red rags to the bullishness of my feelings, and many is the time I would have sat on the bottom step of the new stairs (if I had built them yet), buried my head in my hands, and groaned, raged, screamed, and called on the upper reaches of the ozone layer to bear witness that I am, indeed, more sinned against than sinning, weary of the sun. That I am, in toto, an unfortunate wretch with only two arms, that my tools were made by idiots who have never tried to use them, and that the job i s completely beyond me, both ken and capacity, because, after all, I am only an amateur! Macbeth has nothing on the dire sublimity of these outbursts, Othello's invectives tame by comparison, Bertie Wooster's worst diatribes mere after-dinner speeches of thanks.
That Saturday, actually, my state had come perilously close to the madness of Lear - not because I had given away my kingdom to the wrong pair of daughters, but because of the obviously personal vendetta being waged against me by the appalling Glasgow weather - my own version of Lear's storm. It was in fact just this weather, arriving in sporadic outbursts of unstinting drench, against which I was endeavoring to fix the piece of wood to the porch door. For weeks I had tried every combination of wood, gl ue, putty, and sealant known to the do-it-yourself market, and still the water seeped in. Canute was more of a success. "D.I.Y" indeed! More like D.I.M!! (Translated - Do It Myself, though "dim" seems right as a description of people like me who foolishly once upon a time admitted that putting a shelf up was within their range of ability. All praise to those who early established reputations for utter hamfistedness.)
Mops, rolls of paper towel, hairdryers, and blow-torches were called in to desiccate the porch door area because the wood must not be fixed over the slightest dampness. But every time dryness was achieved, the clouds burst and the wind threw itself with a savage laugh at the door, soaking it in, the all-too-familiar puddle forming again on the floor inside as if it had proprietary rights of entry.
After this, the idea of Sophocles did not have the appeal it might have. What did that 2,400 year-old Greek know about the tribulations of of do it yourself? All they ever built were parthenons and acropoli in a land where the sun never stops shining.
In fact, I'd never seen "Electra" before. I assumed it ended in the usual heap of bodies and mayhem. I had forgotten that true tragedy - unlike newspaper-headline type TRAGEDY!!! (Pet Kangaroo Disappears Down Drain, Police Question Plumber) - does not have to involve ultimate disaster for all concerned. It is what it does for your feelings that counts. To quote Aristotle more fully: "A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious, and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself ... with incide nts arousing pity and terror, with which to accomplish its purgation of these emotions."
That's what they call "catharsis," I guess. But I have always been a catharsis-doubter. If it happened to others, it didn't seem to happen to me. Laughter is much more of a relief. The tragedies I've seen and read seem far more intent on building pits of irresistible fate and dejection, than "purging the emotions." Too often they arouse exhaustion rather than light.
So I set off to "Electra" in an unpromising frame of expectation. I thought that the ooze under the door of the porch would only be confirmed by the heartless Sophocles as intransigent and impossible and that I would come home afterwards with a classically doomed conviction of the helplessness of effort.
I was wrong. I think I may even, for the first time, have experienced my own version of the cathartic effect.
The production was intense and enthralling. The vengeful heroine herself started out in a state of ultimate anguish - and built it up from there. My fascination for her performance was intriguingly tinged by the fact that the same actress had also recently given an eccentrically daft, and definitely comic, rendering of an unhinged English school mistress in "Three Men and a Little Lady."
At one crucial point in this absorbing play, I must have forgotten the porch gloom, because, quite suddenly, in a flash of lucidity and positive certainty, I solved the problem of the leak. I knew precisely what I had to do, and how to do it. And the next day I proved I was right. The porch door hasn't let in a drop of moisture since.
So I'd like to chalk up one more success to Sophocles and Aristotle and all those canny Greeks in general, to tragedies with happy endings, to "catharsis." Maybe they knew a thing or two after all.