Riccardo Giacconi

Excitement in participating.
Greek tragedy, Shakespeare and sports

David Rimanelli (writer and critic)
in conversation with Riccardo Giacconi
New York, February 2010
published on the book Spoilsport

Plastic surgeons have their job because of a conventional system of value around them. So I see a similarity between sport and art because both are non-utilitarian activities, which value is given by a certain system around them.

It’s strictly speaking useless, but there’s a system which validates certain things, and actually certain things get validated absolutely, transcendentally: the Sistine Chapel, the Parthenon, Jasper Johns… Things that are really important even if you don’t like them. And there’s a whole system of rewards, in terms of fame, potentially great wealth, and then you’ve got your eyes on a history book: “maybe I will not be a footnote to a footnote; maybe I will even get a chapter!”. Of course, not many people apart from Manet or Picasso get to know it. Only a few people in sport achieve that kind of validation, enter that domain where they become historical figures.

But it’s more objective.

Yes, it’s much more objective, because it’s a score: win-lose. 41-12. Objectivity of performance.
The excitement and the thrill are immediate. Sometimes it spills over into excess, violence: in some sports – such as rugby, hockey, American football – disobeying the rules is part of the rules, in a way. Part of the expectation is that it’s going to go overboard into something that is actually violent. And that is part of the thrill. I mean, for people who love hockey, isn’t when players go crazy the most exciting part?

It’s like a catharsis. Maybe it has something to do with the social function of Greek theatre. People gathering and attending to a performance that is capable of generating a degree of emotional intensity.

Yes, the Greek tragedy thing has been displaced from art to sport. Even if many people gather in rock concerts, you can watch the recording on YouTube or on DVD. Sports, instead, is inscribed in the present, it’s more about the instant – it’s not the same feeling about recording. Almost nobody wants to see a football match from 1961; instead, you might easily want to see a video of Beatles or Rolling Stones from 1961. And, anyway, if you collect old sport videos, you’re not part of the mass and the catharsis; you become something else, a collector, a connoisseur.

The catharsis happens only because there’s something going on at that time. Theatre is not very interesting for mass culture; television, movies and music can be recorded and played anytime. In Greek theatre, you could see it only if you were there at that time. You had to be there.

You had to be there and it was more than just, “I’m going to a play”. A whole community was there. We still don’t know exactly how those things were performed, but one thing we know is that they had this semi-sacred halo, if not fully religious. It was like participating in a re-enactment of a mythology which you could understand as your history. “Yes, this is us, this is the story of our polis”. Then, Shakespeare. Super-successful history plays, to be performed at court sometimes in front of Queen Elizabeth, about the things leading up to the fact that allowed Elizabeth to be on the throne. Henry IV, Richard III, Richard II: history plays about the more vexing parts of Medieval English history. They could have been very cathartic, because it was the emergence of England as a superpower: that was the time, precisely the period when Sheakespeare wrote this plays. The stage had been set for Britain’s conquer of a large part of the world. The idea of the nation, and the excitement in participating in the story of your country.

The thread you traced – from Greek tragedy to contemporary sport events through William Shakespeare’s history plays – has its roots in the idea of a separate space, a temple. They all happen in a separate space and they create a myth.

Also the Greek sports were all happening under the aegis of the gods: it was a religious rite. They were a culture who really believed. Why did they make Socrates drink hemlock? Because he confused people, he might have led to lack of respect or belief in the truth or powers of the gods. The reason was that he instilled potential scepticism. Isn’t there an underside to sports that is constitutive of it? Isn’t soccer hooliganism part of the soccer system?

The involvement of a community around an ideology. I found a historical link between the separate space of the temple, tragedy, sacrifice (which were used to gather together a community by creating myths), Shakespeare (the creation of the idea of a nation) and the instincts aroused in sport events. Hooliganism is connected to this idea of feeling totally part of something, to a point when you disregard moral, institutions… Your institution is your team; actually it is more important than any other one, because it’s not mediated by moral, law or ideology – it’s like a mother.

Or a cult.

It’s stronger than a usual political involvement in contemporary democracies. It’s more connected to the notion of a heimat. A patria (which in Italian means fatherland).

An absolute identification.

Maybe it used to be like this in war, when you were fighting for your country. Now Milan is the heimat, not Milano.