The word tragedy is in common usage in everyday life. In any one day you may hear it used in casual conversation, or in the media, to describe everything from a missed penalty in a football match to the death of a child, from the pain caused by man-made or natural disasters to a pop star’s ill-advised haircut. and dignify the unimaginable, unspeakable, inexplicable and unfair. These aspects of life are at the heart of tragic drama. The critic Raymond Williams wrote that to restrict the term tragedy only to literature, as some literary critics have sought to do, is to deny to real events
While the light-hearted and exaggerated use of the term (missed penalties, break up of celebrity relationships) may have little to do with literary concepts of tragedy, descriptions of real life suffering as a tragedy reflect our need to make sense of,
the understanding which tragic drama can confer on them. Throughout history one of the roles of tragedy has been to provide a means of understanding our
real lives through fictional representation. Tragedy is not just an artistic exercise, but a way of dignifying and making sense of suffering. For this reason some
people suggest tragedy is a genre unsuited to Christian societies in which human suffering is seen in the context of God and the afterlife.
I have known tragedy in the life of a man driven back into silence, in an unregarded working life. In his ordinary and private death, I saw a terrifying loss of connection between men, and even between father and son: a loss of connection which was, however, a particular historical and social fact. How can art help us to cope with suffering? How can it make sense of pain and death, and of the sense of injustice that often accompanies these central human experiences? Why does seeing suffering represented on stage in a tragic drama produce a sense of enjoyment rather than merely add to our sense of pain or
awareness of the suffering in the world? The word tragedy itself was coined by the ancient Greeks who first chose to put these crucial questions about human suffering on the public stage almost 2500 years ago in democratic Athens, a non-Christian society. Translated literally the word means ‘goat song’ which may refer to the prize awarded to the playwright whose play took first prize in the annual competition.
One of the paradoxical characteristics of tragic drama – and a defining difference between the literary and everyday concept of tragedy – is that at the same time
as feeling sorrow and pity for those whose suffering we see on stage, we also take pleasure in the representation of suffering. This pleasure comes partly from the delight we take in beautifully crafted works of art in general. It also comes from our response more specifically to the tragic nature of the play and what we feel we have gained from the experience: emotional solace, perhaps a greater
political understanding of our world, or perhaps a sense of striving to understand something almost beyond words. Art itself survives death and goes on speaking
to generations whose sufferings could not even be imagined by the people for whom a tragedy was originally written. In this sense the existence of tragedy as a
literary concept seems to defeat suffering and even death:
Tragedy is the art form created to confront the most difficult experiences we face: death, loss, injustice, thwarted passion, despair.
The Origin of Tragedy
The word's origin is Greek tragōidiā contracted from trag(o)-aoidiā = "goat song" from tragos = "goat" and aeidein = "to sing". This dates back to a time when religion and theatre were more or less intertwined in early ritual events. Goats were traditionally sacrificed, and as a precursor, the Greek Chorus would sing a song of sacrifice-- a "Goat Song". This may also refer to the horse or goat costumes worn by actors who played the satyrs in early dramatizations of mythological stories, or a goat being presented as a prize at a song contest and in both cases the reference would have been the respect for Dionysus.
The origins of tragedy are obscure, but the art form certainly developed out of the poetic and religious traditions of ancient Greece. Its roots may be traced more specifically to the chants and dances called dithyrambs, which honoured the Greek god Dionysus (later known to the Romans as Bacchus). These drunken, ecstatic performances were said to have been created by the satyrs, half-goat beings who surrounded Dionysus in his revelry.
Phrynichus, son of Polyphradmon and pupil of Thespis, was one of the earliest of the Greek tragedians. "The honour of introducing Tragedy in its later acceptation was reserved for a scholar of Thespis in 511 BC, Polyphradmon's son, Phrynichus; he dropped the light and ludicrous cast of the original drama and dismissing Bacchus and the Satyrs formed his plays from the more grave and elevated events recorded in mythology and history of his country", and some of the ancients regarded him as the real founder of tragedy. He gained his first poetical victory in 511 BC. However, P.W. Buckham asserts (quoting August Wilhelm von Schlegel) that Aeschylus was the inventor of tragedy. "Aeschylus is to be considered as the creator of Tragedy: in full panoply she sprung from his head, like Pallas from the head of Jupiter. He clad her with dignity, and gave her an appropriate stage; he was the inventor of scenic pomp, and not only instructed the chorus in singing and dancing, but appeared himself as an actor. He was the first that expanded the dialogue, and set limits to the lyrical part of tragedy, which, however, still occupies too much space in his pieces."
Aristotle is very clear in his Poetics that tragedy proceeded from the authors of the Dithyramb. There is some dissent to the dithyrambic origins of tragedy mostly based in the differences between the shapes of their choruses and styles of dancing. A common descent from pre-Hellenic fertility and burial rites has been suggested. Nietzsche discussed the origins of Greek tragedy in his early book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872).
Performance of Greek tragedies
Greek literature boasts three great writers of tragedy whose works are extant: Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. The largest festival for Greek tragedy was the Dionysia held for five days in March, for which competition prominent playwrights usually submitted three tragedies and one satyr play each.
Greek tragedies were performed in late March/early April at an annual state religious festival in honor of Dionysus. The presentation took the form of a contest among three playwrights, who presented their works on three successive days. Each playwright would prepare a trilogy of tragedies, plus an unrelated concluding comic piece called a satyr play. Often, the three plays featured linked stories, but later writers like Euripides may have presented three unrelated plays. Only one complete trilogy has survived, the Oresteia of Aeschylus. The Greek theatre was in the open air, on the side of a hill, and performances of a trilogy and satyr play probably lasted most of the day. Performances were apparently open to all citizens, including women, but evidence is scanty. The theatre of Dionysus at Athens probably held around 12,000 people (Ley).
The presentation of the plays probably resembled modern opera more than what we think of as a "play." All of the choral parts were sung (to flute accompaniment) and some of the actors' answers to the chorus were sung as well. The play as a whole was composed in various verse meters. All actors were male and wore masks, which may have had some amplifying capabilities. A Greek chorus danced as well as sang. (The Greek word choros means "a dance in a ring.") No one knows exactly what sorts of steps the chorus performed as it sang. But choral songs in tragedy are often divided into three sections: strophe ("turning, circling"), antistrophe ("counter-turning, counter-circling") and epode ("after-song"). So perhaps the chorus would dance one way around the orchestra ("dancing-floor") while singing the strophe, turn another way during the antistrophe, and then stand still during the epode.
A favorite theatrical device of many ancient Greek tragedians was the ekkyklêma, a cart hidden behind the scenery which could be rolled out to display the aftermath of some event which had happened out of sight of the audience. This event was frequently a brutal murder of some sort, an act of violence which could not be effectively portrayed visually, but an action of which the other characters must see the effects in order for it to have meaning and emotional resonance. Another reason that the violence happened off stage was that the theatre was considered a holy place, so to kill someone on stage is to kill them in the real world. A prime example of the use of the ekkyklêma is after the murder of Agamemnon in the first play of Aeschylus' Oresteia, when the king's butchered body is wheeled out in a grand display for all to see. Variations on the ekkyklêma are used in tragedies and other forms to this day, as writers still find it a useful and often powerful device for showing the consequences of extreme human actions. Another such device was a crane, the mechane, which served to hoist a god or goddess on stage when they were supposed to arrive flying. This device gave origin to the phrase "deus ex machina" ("god out of a machine"), that is, the surprise intervention of an unforeseen external factor that changes the outcome of an event. Greek tragedies also sometimes included a chorus composed of singers to advance and fill in detail of the plot.
The Roman theater does not appear to have followed the same practice as the Greek. Seneca adapted Greek stories, such as Phaedra, into Latin plays; however, Senecan tragedy has long been regarded as closet drama, meant to be read rather than played. The classical Greek and Roman tragedy was largely forgotten in Western Europe from the Middle Ages to the beginning of 16th century, and public theater in this period was dominated by mystery plays, morality plays, farces and miracle plays, etc.
As early as 1503 however, original language versions of Sophocles, Seneca, Euripides, Aristophanes, Terence and Plautus were all available in Europe and the next forty years would see humanists and poets both translating these classics and adapting them. In the 1540s, the continental university setting (and especially – from 1553 on – the Jesuit colleges) became host to a Neo-Latin theater (in Latin) written by professors. The influence of Seneca was particularly strong in humanist tragedy. His plays – with their ghosts, lyrical passages and rhetorical oratory – brought to many humanist tragedies a concentration on rhetoric and language over dramatic action.
In France, the most important source for tragic theater was Seneca and the precepts of Horace and Aristotle (and modern commentaries by Julius Caesar Scaliger and Lodovico Castelvetro), although plots were taken from classical authors such as Plutarch, Suetonius, etc., from the Bible, from contemporary events and from short story collections (Italian, French and Spanish). The Greek tragic authors (Sophocles, Euripides) would become increasingly important as models by the middle of the 17th century. Important models for both comedy, tragedy and tragicomedy of the century were also supplied by the Spanish playwrights Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Tirso de Molina and Lope de Vega, many of whose works were translated and adapted for the French stage.
After an initial period of emulation of highly rhetorical humanist tragedy in the late 16th century, the early years of the 17th century saw the creation of a baroque theater of action and tragedy (murders, rapes), before slowly adapting to the precepts of "Classicism" (the "three unities", decorum). French writers of tragedy from the late 16th century and early 17th century include: Robert Garnier and Antoine de Montchrestien
In the English language, the most famous and most successful tragedies are those of William Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries. Shakespeare's tragedies include: Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Timon of Athens and Titus Andronicus
A contemporary of Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, also wrote examples of tragedy in English, notably: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine, John Webster (1580-1635), also wrote famous plays of the genre:The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil. In England, Opera was used as tragedy. Contemporary with Shakespeare, an entirely different approach to facilitating the rebirth of tragedy was taken in Italy. Jacopo Peri, in the preface to his Euridice refers to "the ancient Greeks and Romans (who in the opinion of many sang their staged tragedies throughout in representing them on stage)." In creating the new artistic genre of opera, he and his contemporaries were striving to recreate ancient tragedy. Some later operatic composers have also shared this aim. Richard Wagner's concept of Gesamtkunstwerk ("complete art work"), for example, was intended as a return to the ideal of Greek tragedy in which all the arts were blended in service of the drama. Nietzsche, in his The Birth of Tragedy (1872) was to support Wagner in his claims to be a successor of the ancient dramatists.
For much of the 17th century, Pierre Corneille, who made his mark on the world of tragedy with plays like Medée (1635) and Le Cid (1636), was the most successful writer of French tragedies. Corneille's tragedies were strangely un-tragic (his first version of "Le Cid" was even listed as a tragicomedy), for they had happy endings. In his theoretical works on theater, Corneille redefined both comedy and tragedy around the following suppositions:
The stage -- in both comedy and tragedy -- should feature noble characters (this would eliminate many low-characters, typical of the farce, from Corneille's comedies). Noble characters should not be depicted as vile (reprehensible actions are generally due to non-noble characters in Corneille's plays).
Tragedy deals with affairs of the state (wars, dynastic marriages); comedy deals with love. For a work to be tragic, it need not have a tragic ending.
Although Aristotle says that catharsis (purgation of emotion) should be the goal of tragedy, this is only an ideal. In conformity with the moral codes of the period, plays should not show evil being rewarded or nobility being degraded.
Corneille continued to write plays through 1674 (mainly tragedies, but also something he called "heroic comedies") and many continued to be successes, although the "irregularities" of his theatrical methods were increasingly criticized (notably by François Hédelin, abbé d'Aubignac) and the success of Jean Racine from the late 1660s signaled the end of his preeminence.
Jean Racine's tragedies -- inspired by Greek myths, Euripides, Sophocles and Seneca -- condensed their plot into a tight set of passionate and duty-bound conflicts between a small group of noble characters, and concentrated on these characters' double-binds and the geometry of their unfulfilled desires and hatreds. Racine's poetic skill was in the representation of pathos and amorous passion (like Phèdre's love for her stepson) and his impact was such that emotional crisis would be the dominant mode of tragedy to the end of the century. Racine's two late plays ("Esther" and "Athalie") opened new doors to biblical subject matter and to the use of theater in the education of young women. Racine also faced criticism for his irregularities: when his play, Bérénice, was criticised for not containing any deaths, Racine disputed the conventional view of tragedy.
Bourgeois Tragedy (German: Bürgerliches Trauerspiel) is a form of tragedy that developed in 18th century Europe. It was a fruit of the enlightenment and the emergence of the bourgeois class and its ideals. It is characterized by the fact that its protagonists are ordinary citizens. The first true bourgeois tragedy was an English play: George Lillo's The London Merchant; or, the History of George Barnwell, which was first performed in 1731. Usually, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's play Miss Sara Sampson, which was first produced in 1755, is said to be the earliest Bürgerliches Trauerspiel in Germany.
Modern development of tragedy
A Doll's House (1879) by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, which depicts the breakdown of a middle-class marriage, is an example of a more contemporary tragedy. Like Ibsen's other dramatic works, it has been translated into English and has enjoyed great popularity on the English and American stage.
In modernist literature, the definition of tragedy has become less precise. The most fundamental change has been the rejection of Aristotle's dictum that true tragedy can only depict those with power and high status. Arthur Miller's essay 'Tragedy and the Common Man' exemplifies the modern belief that tragedy may also depict ordinary people in domestic surroundings. British playwright Howard Barker has argued strenuously for the rebirth of tragedy in the contemporary theatre, most notably in his volume Arguments for a Theatre. "You emerge from tragedy equipped against lies. After the musical, you're anybody's fool," he observes.
Although the most important American playwrights - Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller - wrote tragedies, the rarity of tragedy in the American theater may be owing in part to a certain form of idealism, often associated with Americans, that man is captain of his fate, a notion exemplified in the plays of Clyde Fitch and George S. Kaufmann. Arthur Miller, however, was a successful writer of American tragic plays, among them The Crucible, All My Sons and Death of a Salesman.
Contemporary postmodern theater moves the ground for the execution of tragedy from the hamartia (the tragic mistake or error) of the individual tragic hero to the tragic hero's inability to have agency over his own life, without even the free will to make mistakes. The fate decreed from the gods of classical Greek tragedy is replaced by the will of institutions that shape the fate of the individual through policies and practices. (Tyas)
Theories of tragedy
The philosopher Aristotle said in his work Poetics that tragedy is characterized by seriousness and dignity and involving a great person who experiences a reversal of fortune (Peripeteia). Aristotle's definition can include a change of fortune from bad to good as in the Eumenides, but he says that the change from good to bad as in Oedipus Rex is preferable because this effects pity and fear within the spectators. Tragedy results in a catharsis (emotional cleansing) or healing for the audience through their experience of these emotions in response to the suffering of the characters in the drama.
According to Aristotle, "the structure of the best tragedy should be not simple but complex and one that represents incidents arousing fear and pity--for that is peculiar to this form of art." This reversal of fortune must be caused by the tragic hero's hamartia, which is often mistranslated as a character flaw, but is more correctly translated as a mistake (since the original Greek etymology traces back to hamartanein, a sporting term that refers to an archer or spear-thrower missing his target). According to Aristotle, "The change to bad fortune which he undergoes is not due to any moral defect or flaw, but a mistake of some kind." The reversal is the inevitable but unforeseen result of some action taken by the hero. It is also a misconception that this reversal can be brought about by a higher power (e.g. the law, the gods, fate, or society), but if a character’s downfall is brought about by an external cause, Aristotle describes this as a misadventure and not a tragedy.
In addition, the tragic hero may achieve some revelation or recognition (anagnorisis--"knowing again" or "knowing back" or "knowing throughout") about human fate, destiny, and the will of the gods. Aristotle terms this sort of recognition "a change from ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate."
In Poetics, Aristotle gave the following definition in ancient Greek of the word "tragedy"
which means Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete (composed of an introduction, a middle part and an ending), and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts; performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions.
Common usage of tragedy refers to any story with a sad ending, whereas to be an Aristotelian tragedy the story must fit the set of requirements as laid out by Poetics. By this definition social drama cannot be tragic because the hero in it is a victim of circumstance and incidents which depend upon the society in which he lives and not upon the inner compulsions — psychological or religious — which determine his progress towards self-knowledge and death. Exactly what constitutes a "tragedy", however, is a frequently debated matter.
Renaissance dramatic theory
Along with their work as translators and adaptors of plays, the humanists also investigated classical theories of dramatic structure, plot, and characterization. Horace was translated in the 1540s, but had been available throughout the Middle Ages. A complete version of Aristotle's Poetics appeared later (first in 1570 in an Italian version), but his ideas had circulated (in an extremely truncated form) as early as the 13th century in Hermann the German's Latin translation of Averroes' Arabic gloss, and other translations of the Poetics had appeared in the first half of the 16th century; also of importance were the commentaries on Aristotle's poetics by Julius Caesar Scaliger which appeared in the 1560s. The 4th century grammarians Diomedes and Aelius Donatus were also a source of classical theory. The 16th century Italians played a central role in the publishing and interpretation of classical dramatic theory, and their works had a major effect on continental theater. Lodovico Castelvetro's Aristotle-based Art of PoetryŔ (1570) was one of the first enunciations of the "three unities". Italian theater (like the tragedy of Gian Giorgio Trissino) and debates on decorum (like those provoked by Sperone Speroni's play Canace and Giovanni Battista Giraldi's play Orbecche) would also influence the continental tradition.
Humanist writers recommended that tragedy should be in five acts and have three main characters of noble rank; the play should begin in the middle of the action (in medias res), use noble language and not show scenes of horror on the stage. Some writers attempted to link the medieval tradition of morality plays and farces to classical theater, but others rejected this claim and elevated classical tragedy and comedy to a higher dignity. Of greater difficulty for the theorists was the incorporation of Aristotle's notion of "catharsis" or the purgation of emotions with Renaissance theater, which remained profoundly attached to both pleasing the audience and to the rhetorical aim of showing moral examples (exemplum).
The precepts of the "three unities" and theatrical decorum would eventually come to dominate French and Italian tragedy in the 17th century, while English Renaissance tragedy would follow a path far less behoving to classical theory and more open to dramatic action and the portrayal of tragic events on stage.
G.W.F. Hegel, the German philosopher most famous for his dialectical approach to epistemology and history, also applied such a methodology to his theory of tragedy. In his essay "Hegel's Theory of Tragedy," A.C. Bradley first introduced the English-speaking world to Hegel's theory,which Bradley called the "tragic collision", and contrasted against the Aristotelian notions of the "tragic hero" and his or her "hamartia" in subsequent analyses of the Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy and of Sophocles' Antigone. (Bradley). Hegel himself, however, in his seminal "The Phenomenology of Spirit" argues for a more complicated theory of tragedy, with two complementary branches which, though driven by a single dialectical principle, differentiate Greek tragedy from that which follows Shakespeare. His later lectures formulate such a theory of tragedy as a conflict of ethical forces, represented by characters, in ancient Greek tragedy, but in Shakespearean tragedy the conflict is rendered as one of subject and object, of individual personality which must manifest self-destructive passions because only such passions are strong enough to defend the individual from a hostile and capricious external world:
"The heroes of ancient classical tragedy encounter situations in which, if they firmly decide in favor of the one ethical pathos that alone suits their finished character, they must necessarily come into conflict with the equally justified ethical power that confronts them. Modern characters, on the other hand , stand in a wealth of more accidental circumstances, within which one could act this way or that, so that the conflict which is, though occasioned by external preconditions, still essentially grounded in the character. The new individuals, in their passions, obey their own nature...simply because they are what they are. Greek heroes also act in accordance with individuality, but in ancient tragedy such individuality is necessarily... a self-contained ethical pathos...In modern tragedy, however, the character in its peculiarity decides in accordance with subjective desires...such that congruity of character with outward ethical aim no longer constitutes an essential basis of tragic beauty..." (Hegel).
Hegel's comments on a particular play may better elucidate his theory: "Viewed externally, Hamlet's death may be seen to have been brought about accidentally ...but in Hamlet's soul, we understand that death has lurked from the beginning: the sandbank of finitude cannot suffice his sorrow and tenderness, such grief and nausea at all conditions of life...we feel he is a man whom inner disgust has almost consumed well before death comes upon him from outside."(Hegel)
Nietzsche, another German philosopher, dedicated his famous early book, The Birth of Tragedy, to a discussion of the origins of Greek tragedy. He traced the evolution of tragedy from early rituals, through the joining of Apollonian and Dionysian forces, until its early "death" in the hands of Socrates. In opposition to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche viewed tragedy as the art form of sensual acceptance of the terrors of reality and rejoicing in these terrors in love of fate (amor fati), and therefore as the antithesis to the Socratic Method, or the belief in the power of reason to unveil any and all of the mysteries of existence. Ironically, Socrates was fond of quoting from tragedies.
Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols, What I Owe to the Ancients, 5: had this to say: "The psychology of the orgiastic as an overflowing feeling of life and strength, where even pain still has the effect of a stimulus, gave me the key to the concept of tragic feeling, which had been misunderstood both by Aristotle and even more by modern pessimists. Tragedy is so far from being a proof of the pessimism (in Schopenhauer's sense) of the Greeks that it may, on the contrary, be considered a decisive rebuttal and counterexample. Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustible vitality even as it witnesses the destruction of its greatest heroes — that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I guessed to be the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in order to be liberated from terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous affect by its vehement discharge — which is how Aristotle understood tragedy — but in order to celebrate oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity — that tragic joy included even joy in destruction"
Similar dramatic forms in world theater
The writer Bharata Muni, in his work on dramatic theory A Treatise on Theatre identified several rasas (such as pity, anger, disgust and terror) in the emotional responses of audiences for the Sanskrit drama of ancient India. The text also suggests the notion of musical modes or jatis which are the origin of the notion of the modern melodic structures known as ragas. Their role in invoking emotions are emphasized; thus compositions emphasizing the notes gandhara or rishabha are said to provoke "sadness" or "pathos" (karuna rasa) whereas rishabha evokes heroism (vira rasa). Jatis are elaborated in greater detail in the text Dattilam, composed around the same time as the Treatise.
The celebrated ancient Indian epic, Mahabharata, can also be related to tragedy in some ways. According to Hermann Oldenberg, the original epic once carried an immense "tragic force". It was common in Sanskrit drama to adapt episodes from the Mahabharata into dramatic form.
While early Sanskrit drama often had unhappy endings, as was the case with Bhāsa's plays, later Indian drama tended to stick to happy endings. By the early Middle Ages, considered the classical period of Sanskrit drama, there were very few Indian plays with unhappy endings being produced. By then, it became a general rule in Sanskrit drama to avoid unhappy endings.
The Uru-Bhanga and Karna-bhara, written by Bhāsa, are two of the few surviving ancient Sanskrit plays with sad endings. Though branded the villain of the Mahabharata, Duryodhana is the actual hero in Uru-Bhanga shown repenting his past as he lies with his thighs crushed awaiting death. His relations with his family are shown with great pathos. The epic contains no reference to such repentance. The Karna-bhara ends with the premonitions of the sad end of Karna, another epic character from Mahabharata. Classical Sanskrit plays, inspired by Natya Shastra, strictly considered sad endings inappropriate.
The plays are generally short compared to later playwrights and most of them draw the theme from the Indian epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana. Though he is firmly on the side of the heroes of the epic, Bhāsa treats their opponents with great sympathy. He takes a lot of liberties with the story to achieve this. In the Pratima-nataka, Kaikeyi who is responsible for the tragic events in the Ramayana is shown as enduring the calumny of all so that a far noble end is achieved.
Modern theories of Tragedy
Most modern theorists build upon the Aristotelian notions of tragedy. Two examples are the Victorian critic A.C. Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy) and Northrop Frye (The Anatomy of Criticism, 1957). Keep these theories in mind as you read; consider whether and how they are helpful in understanding Shakespeare's work.
A. C. Bradley divides tragedy into an exposition of the state of affairs; the beginning, growth, and vicissitudes of the conflict; and the final catastrophe or tragic outcome. Bradley emphasizes the Aristotelian notion of the tragic flaw: the tragic hero errs by action or omission; this error joins with other causes to bring about his ruin. According to Bradley, "This is always so with Shakespeare. The idea of the tragic hero as a being destroyed simply and solely by external forces is quite alien to him; and not less so is the idea of the hero as contributing to his destruction only by acts in which we see no flaw." Bradley's emphasis on the tragic flaw implies that Shakespeare's characters bring their fates upon themselves and thus, in a sense, deserve what they get. It should however be noted that in some of Shakespeare's plays (e.g. King Lear), the tragedy lies less in the fact that the characters "deserve" their fates than in how much more they suffer than their actions (or flaws) suggest they should.
Northrop Frye distinguishes five stages of action in tragedy: 1) Encroachment. Protagonist takes on too much, makes a mistake that causes his/her "fall." This mistake is often unconscious (an act blindly done, through over-confidence in one's ability to regulate the world or through insensitivity to others) but still violates the norms of human conduct. 2) Complication. The building up of events aligning opposing forces that will lead inexorably to the tragic conclusion. "Just as comedy often sets up an arbitrary law and then organizes the action to break or evade it, so tragedy presents the reverse theme of narrowing a comparatively free life into a process of causation." 3) Reversal. The point at which it becomes clear that the hero's expectations are mistaken, that his fate will be the reverse of what he had hoped. At this moment, the vision of the dramatist and the audience are the same. The classic example is Oedipus, who seeks the knowledge that proves him guilty of murdering his father and marrying his mother; when he accomplishes his objective, he realizes he has destroyed himself in the process. 4) Catastrophe. The catastrophe exposes the limits of the hero's power and dramatizes the waste of his life. Piles of dead bodies remind us that the forces unleashed are not easily contained; there are also elaborate subplots (e.g. Gloucester in King Lear) which reinforce the impression of a world inundated with evil. 5) Recognition. The audience (sometimes the hero as well) recognizes the larger pattern. If the hero does experience recognition, he assumes the vision of his life held by the dramatist and the audience. From this new perspective he can see the irony of his actions, adding to the poignancy of the tragic events.
Classical and Modern Theater: Conclusion
Classical drama is characterized by the value placed in the plot and its adherence to Aristotle's laws of dramatic unities. In the nineteenth century we also observed how Hegelian philosophy filtered into modern drama with the movement of 'man'/character at the forefront of dramaturgy in the character dramas of Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekov. We also see how Aristotle's mimesis is taken to the heights in the period of naturalism as influenced by the Darwinian science in the stagings of modern theatre. Raymond Williams observes the perfection of tragedy in modern drama where the alienated predicament of the human being in a highly industrialized world is highlighted. He sees Beckett's tragicomedies representing the reduction and degradation of the human beings in a new absurdist dramatic structure.
To Elinor Fuchs, it is in the postmodern theatre that we witness the "death of the character" and the eradication of the plot. In this statement we are reminded of Barthes' announcement of the "death of the author", Foucault stating the "death of man" and Lyotard hailing the dissolution of metanarratives. As rigid categorization and structures of modernism collapse, eclecticism now characterizes postmodernism. But unlike Jameson's notion of pastiche and extreme consumerism of multi-national capitalism, critical postmodern theatre derives its theory from the post-structuralists' insight on semiotics. De Saussure laid bare the very construction of the human language exposing its structure of signs and codes. Taking off from this, Derrida's analysis of the subjectivity of man's meaning-making has furthered the invalidation of metanarratives. Now as the validity of the sign-signified and code-meaning constructs of languages are put into question, postmodernists are forced to investigate the language construction itself. Ultimately, we come to realize that meaning and signification is subjective and should be contextualized. With this, categorizing boundaries set by modernism collapse as well.
Raymond Williams notion of the theatre convention explains this. Conventions in theatre according to Raymond Williams are methods such as figurative speech, stage blocking, songs or dance through which specific dramatic objectives are achieved. He pointed out how conventions in the theatre whether, performative techniques or literary devices, are characterized by its acceptability by the audience and its relations to the specific given standards. With this, he stressed the fact how dramatic conventions are maintained as "terms upon which author, performers and audience agree to meet, so that the performance may be carried on." Nicole Boireau expounded on the concept of dramatic conventions through the Hamletesque metaphor of the 'Mousetrap'. From this, he claims that the truth can be accessed through the world of illusion; that it is only through theatricality that truth can be revealed. Theatre expresses reality through the use of artificial conventions. He explained that only through the reflective nature of drama and the dramatic conventions that truths presented in drama are validated . It is then through the same dramatic and theatrical conventions set as the medium in expressing truths, that the expressed truths can be validated. It is through the limitations and self-confined means of definition can the expressed truths substantiate.
Williams and Boireau's explanation is a profound manifestation of structuralist and post-structuralist concept of laying bare language and systems of signs and codes. Although rooted in the Classical and Modern Theatre tradition, this is a postmodern realization of what Linda Hutcheon calls the self-reflexive nature of postmodern theatre.
With the dissolution of a 'universal' language, postmodern theatre is but provoked to look into historical and cultural contexts for a language to articulate itself. The same characteristic is seen in other art forms. Postmodern choreographers made dances about dance, inquiring on the very core of movement vocabularies that gave birth to choreographical works on walking, skipping, etc. This is also true in the experimentations on the various dance styles seen in Twyla Tharp's combinations of jazz, ballet and ballroom. In the Philippines, this is seen in Agnes Locsin's and Alice Reyes' fusion of jazz and ballet and Philippine folk and ethnic movements. Postmodern architects see the history of architectural design as a diverse source of signs to be combined and recombined, thus Greek columns, Art Deco ornamentation and Modern Industrial materials are eclectically put together in a single building.
Postmodern theatre sees the various cultural and historical traditions as a vast source of signs. Kaye describes how postmodernism sees history as a store of signs available for postmodern theatre practice. In a recent production of Hamlet in Singapore, Hamlet was shown as a Noh actor Ophelia as a Balinese dancer. Or in the recent staging of Dulaang Habi's musical Sa Kaharian ng Araw, audiences are taken into an seemingly incoherent worlds of a cabaret/rock concert, a Peking opera stage, and an extremely expressionistic theatrical world. The music is a mixture of Broadway influenced pop and rock songs, and fusion of classical and traditional Filipino ethnic and folk music. In the postmodern theatre, representations in acting style, costumes, production design, music and other elements are taken from different contexts.
With the collapse of the modernist boundaries, postmodern theatre takes on pluralism and multiplicity in style, approach and over-all process. This has been reflected in various approaches to production. Another important postmodern theatre practice is the use of inter-text, or what Jameson calls a culture of quotations, where various texts could be used to comment on each other. Such is in a production of Romeo and Juliet, where the play ends with the closing monologue by Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream. In Nick Pichay's musical version of the Oyayi ng Ulan, the character Dugong complained about the accumulating garbage in the ocean. He remarked that the worst kind of garbage is the postmodern poetry of new poets- which of course includes Pichay himself.
With the similar collapse of the modernist notion of Aristotle's linearity and the Hegelian logic of cause and effect, postmodern theatre is characterized by multi-dimensionality and simultaneity. A simplified example of this is Maria Irene Fornes's Fefu and Her Friends where the audiences are divided into groups to see different scenes of the play happening in various places. Or in the seashore scene of the 2002 staging of Sa Kaharian ng Araw, past and present converge with the appearance of Paolo's deceased parents in the same stage where Paolo lovingly recalls them. On the same space in the stage an actor fishes on one side, while another plays with a rain stick, while other actors waiting for their cue sit attentively on chairs onstage. Here, multi-dimensionality and simultaneity is not just seen in how the plot is (dis)arranged. Even the actors playing the characters go through different dimensions of performance and representation in the same time and space. The actor although dressed up for the character he is to portray sits on a chair on the side waiting for his cue, substantiate both as the actor and as the character. The person exist as both the actor and character simultaneously but in different dimensions - where at one point, while he waits for his cue he essentially is not part of the play but simultaneously, physically and intentionally, he is physically there.
As Fuchs sees the diminution of character and plot in postmodern theatre, she sees the other theatrical elements taking on equal importance with these elements. She sees that "each signifying element - lights, visual design, music, etc., as well as plot and character elements - stand to some degree as independent actor." She pointed out that the Aristotelian elements survived but their classical and modern structural hierarchies ceased to operate. This attitude in theatre production takes its roots from the Brechtian Epic Theatre. Brecht earlier on said: "Today we see the theatre being given absolute priority over actual plays. The theatre apparatus's priority is a priority of means of production... The Theatre can stage anything; it theatres it all" (Raymond Williams).
And as postmodern theatre see the "death of the author" (the playwright), the director now takes the central role as the theorist responsible for creating the language of a production.
Postmodern theatre is also differentiated from the modern theatre with its mode-of-production. The Industrial Revolution and the idea of mass-production and the division-of-labor affected music and theatre production. The symphony orchestra and the opera are megalomaniac inventions of modernism. The eighteenth century symphony captured the massive sound of modernism. Here music is produced by a big group of musicians who are divided into sections. The opera is an even bigger modernist creation. Such massive theatre production requires a complex web of 'workers'/artists who work as a big company that include an orchestra, singers, dancers, clothes-makers, carpenters, etc. Even the art-products are now produced for mass consumption. While music used to be performed in courts and chambers, the symphony and the opera are staged in large opera houses that sit thousands.
This new paradigm in theatre production calls for a different attitude from the audience as well. In postmodern theatre, Aristotle's notion of catharsis comes to extreme obscurity in postmodern theatre. Aesthetic experience becomes completely dependent upon the meaning making process. The aesthetic experience that transpires in the postmodern process is closer to Kant's sublime. Unlike Aristotle's cathartic drama that succumbs its audience to empathizing attitude towards the mimetic illusion of classical and modern drama, Kant states that distance is necessary in achieving aesthetic pleasure. Brecht in turn, proposes 'complex seeing' in theatre: "Complex seeing must be practiced... . Thinking above the flow of the play is more important than thinking from within the flow of the play".
In as much as postmodern theatre is required to go through a dialogic process of taking theory into practice and back to theory for it to be able to express itself, postmodern audience then is also called to go through this process of meaning-making. Here, postmodern theatre forces its audience to always take on a critical stance in watching. Language-creation and meaning-making in postmodern theatre is never a simple one-on-one correspondence mode of cognition. With a wary stance towards subjectivity of language, postmodern productions then are manifested with recurring disruptions in its audience's cognitive process. John Orr sees this as intentional dis-recognition/mis-recognition and he notes that these are often used as dramatic-shock effects. The audience is provoked to figure out what is 'menacing' and 'strange" in familiar objects onstage and they are prodded to "translate back the strangeness, as a performed disguise of the metonymic, into something they truly recognize, knowing there is no complete translation" (John Kurr) .
In the elusive nature of postmodernism as a theory, DiGaetani sees the importance of having a terminology that can serve as a handle. He noted that "it is wonderful to have a term like postmodernism to describe the art" (John DiGaetani). To Fuchs, the theatre has indeed what we can call now postmodern and she asserts that the sooner we grasp its methods we are "immediately at a better vantage point from which to view what used to be called 'avant-garde' theatre".