Drama was not considered to be an art form separate from the machinations of democracy in Ancient Athens. In fact, it was used both to celebrate the robust success of the maturing democracy and to test whether it was as robust and successful as it thought it was.
Drama held a mirror up to the (probably all-male) audience and asked them to look at themselves; for a while, drama thrived and the messages within could be as influential as any rhetoric spoken at the Pnyx. Aristophanes’s portrayal of Socrates in Clouds, for example, surely had a fatal impact on the real philosopher’s life. Socrates may well have acknowledged his caricature with good humour (as is reported), but a ripple was started that arguably led to his death sentence. Drama can be truly tragic.
Drama could also be used to show the Athenians the state of the world around them and their influence on that world. When Aeschylus writes The Persians, he is exploring how an empire grows and then fails. Hubris is blamed and the Greeks are seen as heroes, battling for their freedom from slavery. On the surface, the play could be seen as tub-thumping jingoism, but perhaps Aeschylus is asking his audience to see a potential future for them in the past of the defeated Persians. A once great empire, bloated with greed, hated by the people it enslaves would have been how many outside of Athens would have seen the head of the Delian League. The heroic freedom fighters had become the brutal slavemasters of places like Miletus and Melos.
Athenian drama asked difficult questions, but a willing audience listened.
I was reminded of this when I heard about Channel 4’s Brexit: An Uncivil War. Media coverage suggested that it was ‘too soon’ to sit through something like this, but (I think) the Greeks would have felt that this is exactly the time to see something like this. A democratic decision has been made, here’s how it happened, how do you feel about it? We shouldn’t have just one drama about this issue, we should have as many as our greatest writers can produce, for surely great art is not just about entertainment but also about something more - education, information, instruction, deliberation...
I feel that the Greeks were in the thoughts of the writer - Thucydides got at least two mentions and Rory Kinnear’s Craig Oliver states in a conversation with Dominic Cummings (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) that “you can’t close the box once it’s been opened” and “be careful what you wish for” - echoes of Pandora and Midas respectively.
Was the programme great art? That is for you to decide. Will it send shockwaves through history? Only time will tell. Should it have been broadcast? Yes - we need our mirrors, even if we think they are not the reflections we want to see.