Theatre Ruminations – Tragedy
What is function of modern and classical tragedy and its relation to the socio-historical periods of their creation?
The function of Modern tragedy is that of a protective notion. It is a modern art form that attempts to save humanity from it’s own intellectual prowess. It is deliberately designed to bring emotion back into a seemingly cold, isolated and desolate post-modernistic society. Separate and similar to the classic form of tragedy evident in ancient Greece, this modern take on a seemingly perfected art form takes on a new role in the contemporary society. Similar in the sense that both forms of tragedy deal with the notion of political and religious power, key differences have developed over the generations. Whilst being mainly concerned with the downfall of the tragic hero, ancient tragedy serves its purpose in the instruction of citizens on model forms of acceptable social behaviour. Modern tragedy takes on a much more metaphysical role, implying that emotion must be placed back into a society of monotony and strict moral codes. The emotion evoked through modern tragedy, leads to a much more powerful discovery of self and reality, catalysed by the realisation of ones own mortality.
The themes of religious and political power, perhaps more prevalent in classical, is evident in both forms of tragedy. Tragedy whilst perceived to be nothing more than a portrayal of an horrific event, is rather, an acceptance of death as a process of growth. This ideology is still central to both forms of tragedy, thematic issues have differed from the ancient form. Political and religious power, dominant in the ancient society, is far less evident in modern forms of tragedy. The image of the gods playing games with the mere mortals no longer captivates the majority of conscious thought meaning that modern tragedy has been altered to accommodate the contemporary psyche. The notion of the gods has been replaced with terms such as fate, and karma. The evidence of the political power has been reduced to the often-detrimental boundaries of political and corporate red tape. This means that rather than ethereal gods toying with mortals, fate, karma, and law dictate the enormity of the tragedy. This is particularly evident in, Arthur Miller’s work, “Death of a Salesman,” with the law (life insurance in particular) dictating the implied suicide of “Willy.”
Ancient and Modern tragedy differ, in regards to the moral being portrayed through each piece. Religion, an integral part of ancient life, meant for the depiction of the ethereal gods, and inclusion of such themes in the ancient tragedy. This notion of ever-present mythology in daily life is evident within the first line of a classic Greek tragedy,
“Once more I ask the Gods, once and for all,
“To end this heavy duty.” [Agamemnon].
“To end this heavy duty.” [Agamemnon].
To defy the gods, was to defy all manner of rationality and logic, existence was dictated by their mythological presence. In this way, ancient Greek tragedy acted as a medium in which to keep the populace fearful, but obedient of state, and indeed state religion. Modern tragedy dealing much more with political sanctions and the written law (that is both religious and regulatory) means for an almost juxtaposition interpretation of the art. Through the detrimental portrayal of political sanctions and regulations that often evoke the death of not only the tragic hero, but innocent souls involved in the general development of the storyline, is a distaste for the rhetoric of the contemporary society fostered. Arthur Miller exemplifies this notion, in two of his most famous modern tragedies, “The Crucible,” and “The Death of a Salesman.” In both of these pieces, the boundaries of the written law are brought into direct question, due to their detrimental impact on both the wider society and the personal psyche of one family. Then the question for modern tragedy, is, not what does it discredit, but what does it deem as preservable in an ever changing society? Emotion, being one of the very few pure things left in modern society is perceived to be that which is worth preservation, through tragedy. Pure emotion that is evoked through the death of the tragic hero calls us as finite beings to place existence in perspective.
Modern tragedy, through the portrayal of humanity’s mortality allows an audience to develop a deeper understanding of, not only themselves, but, all manner of existence. The seemingly reflective “mirror,” of facing ones own mortality is subsequently transformed into a transparent lens through which to see the world. In this sense an entire perception of reality is drawn into question through the application of modern tragedy. This is not to say that ancient tragedy does not allow the audience to face their finite existence, but to say that ancient tragedy portraying the near uselessness of life, calls for the audience to live an auspicious existence, in order to find meaning through the mythology of the gods. This is evident in “The Illiad,” particularly in Book 14, as the deception of Zeus, by his divine bride Hera, leads to a repel of the Trojans and the wounding of Hector. The constant reinforcement of the notion that death comes on swift wings to those who defy the gods, gives ground to the ideology that meaning and life are found with those who identify with the same gods that toy with the mortals. Modern tragedy, translating mythology into a modern context (through the substitution of fate, and karma) allows the audience to explore their own existence, attempting to find meaning in a post-modern life. Depending on the member of the audience, numerous responses can incur. From despair to a paradigm shift, modern tragedy evokes the audience to make meaning of their own life, without ethereal influences. This particular form of tragedy calls the audience, to understand their own psyche (through the acceptance of mortality) and subsequently form their own beliefs about the very nature of existence, knowing full well, the power and the purity of emotion (the catharsis). One particularly powerful quote, from Arthur Miller’s, “Death of a Salesman,” illustrates in reality a reflection of the search for meaning.
“Today, it’s all cut and dried, and there’s no chance for bringing friendship to bear—or personality. You see what I mean? They don’t know me anymore.” [Death of a Salesman]
Tragedy in any context is an idealistic attempt at making the audience grow, either as people or model citizens. The art from is meticulously designed to allow the audience to face their own mortality whilst not having to experience such a tragedy in reality. The strong themes of political and religious power evoke different audience responses depending on the manner in which they are portrayed and dealt with. Tragedy relevant to the social context of the time, allowed for the inclusion of mythological themes and ancient social moray’s. Both forms dealing with the fall of the tragic hero can be interpreted in almost complete juxtaposition to one and other. Ancient tragedy dealing with the instruction and model for behaviour, whilst modern dealing with the search for meaning. Factoring in the influence of emotion, in addition to the display of ones finite existence, means for an art form that is truly derived from the social context in which it was created.
Written by Braiden Dunn.