Tragedy, in Theory

tragedyAs a student in both undergraduate and graduate programs in Comparative Literature, I was not only unable to avoid Aristotle, I encountered him repeatedly.  I had a trying relationship with the old boy at best.  No matter how many times I read the Poetics, I never really understood what all the fuss was about.

Well, there was one moment in an undergraduate seminar on literary theory that worked fairly well.  The most eccentric professor I ever encountered was compelling us to understand the concept of catharsis, which he insisted was the purpose of tragedy performed on the stage.  First, the play arouses in the audience the emotion of fear for the fate of the characters, along with a dose of pity when things inevitably go wrong.  Phaedra lusts after her stepson Hippolytus: we know this is going to end badly, and we feel pity for both of them when they die.  Having had our emotions excited, we sort of sweat them out. purge them, and end up in a more balanced humor.

This was a little too tame an explanation for Dr. Eccentric.  He preferred to talk about fear in the approach of the Furies as they surround Orestes in the temple of Athene near the conclusion of the Eumenides.  Literary apocrypha has it that this scene was so terrifying that pregnant women in the first audience miscarried. Others in attendance experienced similarly strong physical reactions.  “Catharsis!” he exclaimed.  “Tragedy will scare the shit out of you!  Literally!”

Well, that got my attention in a way that Aristotle himself never did.  But I’m not sure that it advanced my understanding of the theory of tragedy very much.

Aristotle describes a general plan for the action of a tragedy.  A person of superior status, through some mistake, experiences a reversal of fortune, and then comes to understand how that reversal has come to pass.  Because there are rules that govern our society, our world, this turn of events leads to suffering, and often death.

Aristotle’s “mistake” becomes, two millennia later, Shakespeare’s “tragic flaw,” the ambition that undoes Macbeth, the indecisiveness that visits such havoc on Hamlet and his court.

tragedy-oresteiaSomewhere deep in my graduate studies another seminar came along, this one devoted entirely to the tragic and taught by my advisor and mentor, Dr. Eugene Falk.  He had his own theories of the tragic, and I have to say, he outdid Aristotle by leagues.

Simply put, Falk’s theory of the tragic did away with the notion of the mistake or the flaw entirely.  Instead, he claimed, the tragic involved an unresolvable conflict between two things of high positive value.  Two things were unalterably good and yet in conflict, and one of them was inevitably destroyed by that opposition.

His classic example was Sophocles’ Antigone.  Two brothers, Polyneikes and Eteokles, have gone to war over who will be king of Thebes and have died by each other’s hand.  Their uncle, Kreon, assumes the throne and orders a state funeral for Eteokles; he also decrees that the corpse of Polyneikes will remain unburied outside the city walls, to be eaten by dogs.

Antigone, unfortunate sister of the warring brothers, is thus faced with an impossible choice.  She is obligated to obey her king, Kreon, and leave Polyneikes to rot.  She is also obligated to obey her gods, who demand respect and proper burial for the dead.  She cannot, to employ an entirely anachronistic metaphor, render unto Caesar or to God; she must—and yet cannot—render unto both.

If she does not bury Polyneikes, the gods will condemn her; if she does, Kreon will put her to death.  We could say that she has no choice.  But the essence of her tragedy is that she must choose, though either way she is damned.  And so she chooses, giving Polyneikes his rites and submitting to Kreon’s death sentence.  Antigone’s duty to the state and her duty to the gods are both real and non-negotiable, and conflict between them destroys her.

If you take this severe definition of the tragic and apply it to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, you’ll see that its subtitle of “an American tragedy” is itself simple hubris.

Classical Greek tragedy came in threes, of course, but the only complete trilogy that has survived to the present day is Aeschylus’s Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides.

tragedy-oresteia-bisIn the Agamemnon, the eponymous hero returns victorious from the Trojan War.  But ten years earlier, when the Greek fleet set off for the shores of Ionia, the gods kept it becalmed until Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to raise the winds.  When he returns to Argos, his wife Clytemnestra must either be obedient to him and deny motherhood, or she must exact revenge for Iphigneia’s death.  Agamemnon dies, but Clytemnestra seals her own fate.

In The Libation Bearers, the children of this unhappy marriage, Orestes and Elektra, have an equally impossible choice.  They can remain dutiful to their mother, or they can avenge their father.  Orestes makes the fateful choice and exits, pursued by the Furies.

Tragedy upon tragedy.  Both fit Dr. Falk’s definition nicely.

The Eumenides doesn’t.  Athene intervene to save Orestes from the vengeance of the Furies and to transform the goddesses of retribution into avatars of justice.  There are profound cultural implications to this interruption of the existing social order.   Modern commentators like to see the action of The Eumenides as emblematic of the start of Athenian democracy, Western civilization, and the Enlightenment.  I will refer you back to The Parthenon Enigma for a potential counterargument.

Of course, Aeschylus’s plays are much more complex that I have presented them here.  Agamemnon’s tragic flaw of hubris, the machinations of the gods in human affairs, Clytemnestra’s fury, the madness of Orestes, traditions of pollution and purification: these are all elements of the dramas that I have slighted to illustrate this modern concept of the tragic.

Dr. Falk’s theory of tragedy is a good deal more restrictive than Aristotle’s; to begin with, Falk had far fewer Greek plays upon which to base his deductions.  He was also concerned with getting at something essential, with penetrating to the very heart of an intellectual construct and with weeding out a debased and sloppy vernacular definition of “tragedy.”  But I appreciate the clarity that he brought to the discussion and find his theory still to be a useful touchstone in my thinking.

Perhaps more than anything else, Dr. Falk’s intense devotion to the concept of tragedy primed me for one of the most extraordinary theatrical experiences of my life.  More about that next time.

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