A script is essentially the blueprint for a life course. Like theatrical tragedy, the life scripts follow Aristotle’s principles of drama. According to Aristotle, the plot of a good tragedy contains three parts: prologue, climax, and catastrophe. To use the example of depression ending in suicide, the prologue in the person’s life is his childhood, and its protagonists are he and his two parents. The climax is the period in adulthood during which the person struggles against the script and appears to be escaping his destiny or catastrophe (suicide) by achieving a measure of happiness. The climax is a highly unstable situation, however. It represents the battle between two forces: the script or self-destructive tendency, and the wish to avoid the catastrophe. The climax in the form of a happy relationship or a period of prosperity suddenly yields to the catastrophe when the person relaxes his battle against the script and destiny takes its course, depression wins, despair takes over, and the person kills himself.
In addition to this three-part requirement for the plot of good tragic drama, Aristotle postulates that the tragic hero is a good man who commits a tragic error (hamartia).1 The tragic error in tragic drama is walking in blindness2 so that the tragic hero who intends to accomplish a certain result with his actions accomplished the exact opposite (peripeteia). After the hero works in blindness to his own defeat he suddenly comes to “the realization of the truth, the opening of the eyes, the sudden lightning flash in the darkness’ (anagnorisis)3 as he recognizes what he has done to himself.
Certain persons’ lives follow the same path that Aristotle prescribes for “good” tragedy, and that is why their scripts are called hamartic. Their lives are walked in blindness, following someone else’s dictates which lead them to destruction. Some have an awakening, when it is too late or as they are dying, in which they see what has happened to them. Some die never knowing what life could have held for them.1 Their audience watches in horror, unable to avert the tragic ending; and to those who can see what is happening the protagonist seems to be destroying himself willingly. Alcoholism and other drug abuse, lifelong depression ending in suicide, madness, all have the qualities of hamartic scripts.
Once the similarity between modern life courses and ancient Greek tragedies is seen, it is possible to better understand human afflictions by looking into the thoughts which Aristotle and, subsequently, Freud had on the subject of tragedy.
In all tragic scripts, and in the Oedipus Rex cycle in particular, a hero, well-known to all, does something that is known to all beforehand, and does it in a relentless, predictable, fatal way, as if walking blindfolded off a precipice’s edge. From the outset, the audience knows of the hero’s eventual demise or change of fortune, yet is fascinated not only by the similarity between events occurring in the tragedy and the events in their own lives, but also by the manner in which the script unfolds in a predictable and relentless manner.
The tragic deeds and outcome of Sophocles’ Oedipus are not only known by most audiences before viewing, but within the tragedy itself, three different oracles concur that Oedipus will commit patricide and incest. In addition, Tiresias predicts the events of the play when he says:
But it will be shown that [Laius’ murderer] is a Theban
A revelation that will fail to please a blind man
Who has his eyes now; a penniless man who is rich now.2
All predictions of the tragedy come true, and this inevitability adds to the fascination of the Oedipus cycle.
In scripts, too, a prediction is made of what is to come. For instance, a forty-five-year-old alcoholic man reported to me that he believed that his alcoholism was the result of a prediction made by a Siamese sage fifteen years before we met. He explained that as a young man on leave from his aircraft carrier, he had visited Siam and been to a soothsayer. The old man predicted, after a few words with him, that he would die an alcoholic. Fifteen years later he found himself irresistibly driven to drink and fearing that he would indeed die an alcoholic. He realized (his Adult knew) that it does not make sense to believe his alcoholism was caused by the old man’s prediction, but he nevertheless felt (his Child believed) that it was, and that he was powerless in the face of the apparently inevitable outcome. This man was like the spectator of a tragedy on the stage. For him, the events of his life unfolded according to the prophesies of an oracle, just as Oedipus unbelievingly saw Tiresias’ prediction come to pass.
A script is a life plan, containing within its lines what of significance will happen to the person; a plan not decided upon by the gods, but finding its origin early in life, in a premature decision by the youngster. It could be speculated that, with the above alcoholic, the wise old man was able to see the patient’s self-destructive bent, which was later to unfold; it is common for persons like clinic intake workers, who interview large numbers of people, to see self-destructive life paths long before the protagonist himself recognizes them. The script guides the person’s behavior from late childhood throughout life, determining its general but most basic outlines, and the trained observer is often able to detect and predict the course of a person’s life quite accurately.
The concept of childhood life decisions is hardly surprising to anyone who has heard the life plans made by young children who later become engineers, lawyers, or doctors. In the area of successful achievement, it is understood that the young child often makes a decision about his life career, but the statement is much more startling when used without prejudice on all life careers, the alcoholic and the suicidal as well as the engineer and lawyer.
Until Freud wrote about Oedipus Rex, judging from his comments in The Interpretation of Dreams,1 the myth was seen as a tragedy of destiny, one “” whose tragic effect is said to lie in the contrast between the supreme will of the gods and the vain attempts of mankind to escape the evils that threaten them.” This destiny view has its origin in Aristotle’s Poetics;2
Freud rejected it in favor of his hypothesis that it is the incestuous content of the tragedy which moves audiences rather than the tragedy-of-destiny content.
Freud postulated that the frequent wish of his male patients to kill their fathers and bed down with their mothers had its counterparts in the Oedipus tale.3 According to Freud, the Oedipus cycle is a source of vicarious fear and pity because it reflects a basic household drama experienced by all children who grow up with their parents.
However, a script analysis of the Oedipus complex would focus rather on the fated, predicted, ongoing destiny-aspect of Oedipus Rex. It would bid the reader to observe and reconsider the theory rejected by Freud that the message which spectators glean from the tragedy and the experience which deeply moves them is the realization of, and submission to, divine will and the realization of their own impotence in the face of fate.
The Child in the spectator is moved both by the similarity of the Oedipus tragedy and the events in his own household, and by the manner in which certain specified destinies unfold in what seems an irrevocable manner. The psychologist as a spectator, both of the Greek tragedies and of present-day human tragedy, learns, or should learn, that human beings are deeply affected by and submissive to the will of the specific divinities of their household–their parents–whose injunctions they are impotent against as they blindly follow them through life, sometimes to their self-destruction.
©1974 by Claude M. Steiner.
Foreword to the Second Edition ©1990 by Claude M. Steiner. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.