11/06/2014 06:20 am ET Updated Jan 06, 2015

Greek Tragedy and John Wick

Revenge rules.

I recently gave a talk after a marathon day of theater. The Cutting Ball, an avant-garde company in San Francisco, performed the Oresteia, the great Greek tragedy by Aeschylus. The trilogy is celebrated as an example of how the justice system has developed. After a father kills a daughter, the mother kills the father (her husband), and their son kills the mother (a murderess and regicide, since her spouse was king), the cycle of vengeance ends with a jury trial that prefigures our modern due process.

I wonder, however, if the last act of the Oresteia might be somewhat of a disappointment, because of the power of what preceded it. We study such a work over the millennia, because it purports to represents the world as it is, imbuing it with morality.

Everyone in attendance applauded the end. It would have been impossible not to have expressed relief that the terrible cycle had come to closure. The Furies recede. They become "the kindly ones."

Yet perhaps we deceive ourselves. We continue to love revenge.

Art and politics reveal our impulses. Around us are ample confirmations of our enthrallment to what we are compelled to condemn in polite society: bearing a grudge and acting upon it.

The latest cinematic blockbuster, already being acclaimed a classic of the B-movie genre, is John Wick. (Non-spoiler alert. This commentary reveals nothing that isn't apparent from the finely-edited trailer.) The title character, played with Zen confidence by Keanu Reeves, is a retired hit man, a threat so menacing he was sent to kill the boogeyman. As fate would have it, no less than in antiquity, he is dragged back to the underworld by a chance encounter with Russian mobsters who kill the puppy given to him by his dead wife. (A victim of cancer before the movie's chronology begins, she has made arrangements for a delivery after her funeral; she has replaced herself with an adorable beagle.)

Although the canine is said to be symbolic, she should be accepted as literal. Wick explains, as is hardly necessary but comes across as impressively matter-of-fact, that her brutal murder, really the sole death of the dozens depicted that has any significance, extinguished his hope. Everyone understands implicitly that she is the only innocent creature.

As Wick descends into a culture that is realized in such detail it demands the suspension of disbelief, from the gold coins used by all assassins to the luxury hotel catering to them to the cleaning service that takes care of corpses, the code of retribution is established. His vendetta is simple; fifty criminals equate to one man's best friend. This thriller has a pure basis.

The accomplishment of the movie is less its athleticism than its inducement of empathy. The audience is more than rooting for the antihero. We take on the same desire to punish.

In the 1988 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis delivered a debate response that was remarkable for what it was not. Asked by the moderator, news anchor Bernard Shaw, what he would do if his wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered -- a query offered with a measured style that was the perfect opposite of the provocative substance -- the governor replied calmly that he had always opposed the death penalty and then reviewed his policy ideas.

He had reportedly practiced for the moment he might display genuine emotion to the public. Yet his response demonstrated only rational argument with which even those in agreement could hardly identify. As shocking as the question had been, the answer was more so. The expectation was that anyone, perhaps especially a man who would be a leader, would exhibit the visceral desire for violence.

Kitty herself later exclaimed her outrage at what she deemed a theatrical trick. She declared it inappropriate for the national forum, with the feeling her spouse lacked. His failing as a protector was highlighted further.

At the Cutting Ball, the staged reading relied on the Ted Hughes translation. The late British Poet Laureate may be better remembered as the husband of Sylvia Plath, blamed for her suicide by gas stove asphyxiation -- the woman for whom he left her later also killed herself by the same means, taking along their child. The mention of his name gave pause to the literary-minded who were watching the show. That last irony, too, reminds us of how we are capable of holding a grievance toward someone whom we know not.

We would like to believe civilization has civilized, that we make progress from archetypes and myths. I am skeptical. We remain human.

This discussion of the Oresteia continues with a discussion of remembering and forgetting.