First published by Headlong (2012)
Tragedy is dead. At least, that was George Steiner’s verdict in his 1961 book, The Death of Tragedy. Steiner argues that tragedy no longer has any power in modern society, because modern society bases its understanding of itself in rational thinking. Tragedy can have no resonance in a society that believes in a just and reasonable god, nor in one that believes that man alone determines his destiny through the power of his own reason.
Tragedy is the child of irrationality. It belongs to a universe in which the forces that shape or destroy our lives are random, inhuman and completely beyond our control. In a tragic universe, there is no poetic justice. The good are not rewarded for their goodness, nor are the bad punished for their wickedness. The tragic hero cannot shape their own destiny. Any attempt to do this is likely to end in catastrophe, as surely as it did for Oedipus. In trying to avoid your own fate, you are likely steer yourself onto a collision course with it, run into your own father at the crossroads and discover your mother in your bed.
Tragic thinking is strange and alien to modern ways of thinking. Nietzsche states that tragedy is born out of the Dionysiac, the terrible primal dread that seizes us when the reason seems suspended. The tragic hero cannot reflect rationally. They cannot understand their actions and feelings in terms of psychology. They cannot understand the workings of the world through the lens of science. Their lives cannot be made better through an improvement in the prevailing social and economic conditions. Tragedy is irreparable, illogical and unavoidable.
If, as Steiner suggests, tragedy cannot survive in our rational enlightened world, then where can we look for it? Hand in hand with the birth of rational thinking during the enlightenment in the eighteenth century, comes the birth of a more rational form of theatre. High tragedy is replaced by modern domestic tragedy, which concerns itself with ordinary men and their small everyday tragedies rather than the tragedies of ancient kings and queens. These everyday tragedies touch us more deeply, the philosopher and playwright Diderot argues, because they are within the sphere of our own experience, whereas the death of tyrants or the sacrifice of children to pagan gods are not.
Many contemporary plays are recognisable as the descendants of domestic tragedy. The destinies of the heroes of domestic tragedy are not shaped by the gods or by fate but by fate’s modern equivalent – the social, political and economic circumstances under which they live. The tragedy of their heroes is not the suffering that they unjustly endure at the hands of the gods, but their inability to transcend their social circumstances. Dijana in Lucy Kirkwood’s It Felt Empty When the Heart Went at First But It Is Alright Now or Mary in Cora Bissett and Stef Smith’s Roadkill may struggle to escape their lives as a sex workers, but inherent in both plays is the belief that society could put better measures in place to ensure that other girls do not suffer these characters’ tragic fate. A rational solution exists to the situation in both plays. The stories of the two girls are tragic but not in the Greek sense.
Despite Steiner’s obituary, interest in tragedy has been on the increase in the twenty-first century. In the wake of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, productions of Greek tragedy became a site for reflection on the ‘War on Terror’ and the nature of war itself. In 2004 alone, there was a Hecuba, an Iphigenia at Aulis, an Ion, a Bacchae and adaptations of Antigone and The Trachiniae. Martin Crimp’s version of Sophocles’The Trachiniae, Cruel and Tender portrayed Heracles as a military general determined to to root out and destroy terror wherever it hides. In 2007, Katie Mitchell’s literally explosive Women of Troy, interpreted the play as a reflection on the collateral damage left behind after the machine of war has rolled over a country. The women in question were shown clinging to the remnants of normal behaviour, applying and re-applying their make up, while their children are murdered outside. In central Europe, Greek tragedy became a site for dealing with the collateral damage of communist rule and the unresolved tragedy of the second world war. Krzysztof Walikowski’s 2008 epic (A)pollonia wove the Greek stories of Iphigenia’s and Alcetis’s sacrifices alongside the more modern story of Apolonia Machczynska-Swiatek who was killed by the Germans together with her unborn child, when she was discovered hiding Jewish escapees.
Steiner may argue that there is no place for tragedy in the modern world, but this seems strangely at odds with both the continued presence of tragedy on our stages and the history of the last century. To say that tragedy is dead seems counter intuitive after the horror of Stalin’s purges and the holocaust. Rationality, it could be argued, rather than destroying tragedy has led us to a position where we are capable of producing tragedies on a much grander scale. Tragedy is no longer confined to the tragedy of a single man, now we have the tragedy of whole nations and whole peoples. In the light of such tragedies, reason itself becomes suspect. It is hard to believe in rational thought as a path to progress after the holocaust, a tragedy in which death itself was rationalised in the efficient day to day functioning of the death camps. Instead, tragic thinking becomes a way of understanding such incomprehensible events, of drawing meaning from catastrophe, and of surviving in face of such man made suffering.
Tragedy, though bleak in its outlook, is seen as an effective way of dealing with suffering. It is often felt to have an edifying and uplifting effect on its audience. For Aristotle the whole raison d’être of tragedy was to produce catharsis. By creating feelings of pity and fear in its audience, Aristotle believed that it would cleanse them of these emotions. T. R. Henn goes even further. He tells us that tragedy not only offers ‘the possibility of redemption, but the spiritual assertion that man is splendid in his ashes’. As Terry Eagleton points out, it is hard to think of the victims of the Khmer Rouge or the Bosnian War as splendid in their ashes. There is a point at which the idea of tragedy as an uplifting spectacle becomes tinged with the obscene. The Roman audiences in the amphitheatre may have found pleasure in watching the gory deaths of the gladiators, but to our modern mind the idea that we take pleasure in the suffering of others seems beyond the pale. Tragedy presents us with suffering. This suffering may be fated, but it is undeserved. To think of suffering as ennobling is to validate that suffering and give it purpose. It justifies the suffering. Anyone who has experienced a real life tragedy is unlikely to think of that experience as ennobling or edifying. They may well be able to rationalise their experience and to draw something positive out of it after the event, but given the choice they would probably have preferred not to have suffered at all in the first place.
Tragedy, as Steiner suggests, cannot function in a world that bases its understanding of itself in rational thinking. What Steiner fails to consider is the idea that, in our contemporary world, rationality no longer functions in the way it used to. The contemporary world is in a state of transition and instability. The global economy is under pressure, the Western world is losing its long-held supremacy, warfare has taken on a new face and new forms of technology are fundamentally changing the way that we work and interact with each other. Our value systems have become as throw away as the packaging that protects the products we buy. We live, as the Chinese would say, in interesting times. In an increasingly uncertain world, tragedy seems an appropriate form to express our fears and confusion.
At the end of Mike Bartlett’s Medea, Medea stands with her dead child in her arms in the sunshine, listening to the approaching sirens. The setting of the play on a new build estate brings the story into the domestic sphere. These are characters and surroundings that we recognise. The estate on which Medea lives, her IKEA furniture, her fear of aging and her betrayal by her husband are all within the scope of our own experience. Her life seems like our lives, but the same time it is not. Medea’s actions retain their dark primal past. Her revenge on Jason may be cold and rationally calculated but her killing of child is not. It remains with the world of the irrational. As Medea looks up to the Gods for help, she stands on the cusp of the rational world of our recent past and our uncertain future.
This article was originally published by Headlong (2012).