I still remember sitting in the uncomfortable plastic chairs, presumably molded to hug someone with a perfectly perpendicular posterior. It was high school Drama Class—1993 to be exact. The overwhelmingly powerful presence of our teacher (and director of every school play and musical), Kathryn Breeden, always commanded our attention.
Drama class was hardly a time for random chuckles, unless we were studying something like Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors. Alas, we were studying Greek tragedies, a waypoint on our roadmap that was nowhere near Shakespearean comedies.
But it happened anyway. Snickers from the peanut gallery. (As I write this, I realize how awful of a pun it is to have the words “peanut” and “snickers” in a sentence, but I’m sticking with it.)
“His hamartia was his hubris,” Ms. Breeden announced.
(It’s important to note that 16- and 17-year-old boys can find a reason to laugh about anything, even if we have to excavate our way to linguistic bedrock to find it. Surely, Ms. Breeden must have known that Deus Ex Machina, if even slightly mispronounced, sounded more to us like something about sex with machines than “God from the machine.”)
“His hamartia was his hubris.” Apparently, not seeing the obvious comedy, she stressed the sentence yet again.
More laughter. She might as well have said “His flibbity-flobbity was his whippy-whap.” I mean, who had ever heard such an insanely funny sentence?
Oh, that we had understood the universal truth hidden within those seemingly unintelligible Greek words.
Pick up any novel that centers on a tragic character and you will find remnants of a Greek tragedy. The hamartia of the main character might not always be hubris, but there’s always a fatal, tragic flaw.
When I set out to write The Perdition of Zephyr Hopkins, my purpose was two-fold: (1) I wanted to exorcise some of my own personal demons and deal with my own hamartia (which does happen to be hubris), and (2) I wanted to see just how far I could go with a traditional “Greek tragedy” thrust into a post-modern setting.
So, I got out my literary mixing bowl, assembled the ingredients, and began baking.
· One (1) tragic figure, over-seasoned with heaping amounts of hubris
· One (1) world of hurt, bent on destroying our protagonist
· Two (2) victims in the form of hapless family members
· One (1) voice of reason, largely ignored
· A million pinches of horrific consequences
· A well-camouflaged Deus ex Machina
I whisked them all together, crushed the protagonist until he could take no more, and when I was finished, something remarkable happened.
When I let some “beta-readers” go through the finished draft, I received some pretty overwhelming responses. Over and over again, I would hear that the tragic circumstances were literally “nauseating,” and that readers couldn’t stop thinking about the story. What I thought might turn out to be “formulaic dramatic tragedy” ended up being poignant, dramatic, and a bit horrifying to readers.
Of course, I just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Once I knew the emotional impact, I couldn’t help but crank up the peril and introduce a few other minor flaws in Zephyr Hopkins.
I’m proud of the finished product. What started as something of a Greek tragedy mixed together with a morality tale morphed into a real-life horror story of sorts. No, not the kind that you would find between the covers of a Stephen King or H. P. Lovecraft book, but mortifying in its own respect, since it could actually happen to someone.
Greek tragedy may be something that thrilled ancient audiences millennia ago, but there is room in the modern pantheon of literature for a little updated hamartia, hubris, and…
JESSE S. GREEVER is the CEO of eLectio Publishing, a Christian publishing company. He is also the author of various works of fiction and full-length non-fiction books on the value of sacrificial generosity. He lives in Little Elm, TX with his wife and two daughters.