Tragedy

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In general usage, a tragedy is a drama, movie or sometimes a real world event with a sad outcome. However, throughout much of Western thought, tragedy has been defined in more precise terms, following the precepts set out by Aristotle and based upon Greek tragedies: it is a form of drama characterized by seriousness and dignity, and involving a great person whose downfall is brought about by either a character flaw or a conflict with some higher power such as the law, the gods, fate, or society. It should be noted, however, that the definition of tragedy that Aristotle puts forward merely requires a reversal of fortune from bad to good (as in the Eumenides) or good to bad (as in Oedipus Rex). In acedemic or classical usages it can also be spelled Tragœdy.

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[edit] Early Western tragedy

[edit] Origin of Western tragedy

The origins of tragedy in the West are obscure but it is certainly derived from the poetic and religious traditions of ancient Greece. Its roots may be traced more specifically to the dithyrambs, the chants and dances honoring 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,<ref>P.W. Buckham, Theatre of the Greeks, p. 108: "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."</ref> 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 writes, quoting August Wilhelm von Schlegel, that Aeschylus was the inventor of tragedy.<ref>P.W. Buckham, ibid, p. 121, quoting from Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature by August Wilhelm von Schlegel. "Aeschylus is to be considered as the creator of Tragedy: in full panoplyshe 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." [1]</ref>

Later in ancient Greece, the word "tragedy" meant any serious (not comedy) drama, not merely those with a sad ending.

The word's origin is Greek tragōidiā (Classical Greek τραγωδία) contracted from trag(o)-aoidiā = "goat song" from tragos = "goat" and aeidein = "to sing". This meaning may have referred to any of these:

  • Goat-like costumes worn by actors who played the satyrs.
  • A goat being presented as a prize at a song contest.
  • The actors are paid a goat as their pay for appearing on stage.
  • The "tragic" sound of the goats that were sacrificed on the festival days, thus "goat song"
  • That the first half is not "goat" but trageîn (2nd aorist infinitive of trōgein = "to gnaw").

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.

Aristotle is very clear in his Poetics that tragedy proceeded from the authors of the Dithyramb.<ref>Aristotle, Poetics, IV, 1449a, "To consider whether tragedy is fully developed by now in all its various species or not, and to criticize it both in itself and in relation to the stage, that is another question. At any rate it originated in improvisation--both tragedy itself and comedy. The one tragedy came from the prelude to the dithyramb and the other comedy from the prelude to the phallic songs which still survive as institutions in many cities. Tragedy then gradually evolved as men developed each element that came to light and after going through many changes, it stopped when it had found its own natural form." [2]</ref>

P.W. Buckham writes that the tragedy of the ancients resembled modern operatic performance <ref name="buckham3">P.W. Buckham, ibid, p. 243</ref>, and that the lighter sort of Iambic became Comic poets, the graver became Tragic instead of Heroic.<ref name="buckham3" />

[edit] Greek tragedy

Image:Mask1b.gif
Terracotta mask of Dionysus. Greek, Myrina, second century BCE
See also: Theatre of ancient Greece

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. The Roman theater does not appear to have followed the same practice. 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 performed.

Greek tragedy contains seven components: plot, characters, a chorus, thought, diction, music, and spectacle. Of these plot is the most important. According to Aristotle, "the plot is the soul of tragedy." Plot is communicated to the audience primarily by means of words.

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.

Nietzsche 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 Socratic notion of strictly rational explanation, 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. A landmark study in its era, Nietzsche's book and its theories are considered spurious by most contemporary scholars of Greek tragedy.

The role of the Greek chorus was to act as a narrator, however still play a minor part in the acting of the play. So although the chorus may also play characters, their characters never influence the plot line, even though they may try. An interesting thing about the chorus is that they always look back on the plays events unlike the rest of the cast. Many modern tragedies also use this idea of a chorus and edit it to suit their own needs. For an example of this see: A View from the Bridge and the role of Alfieri.

[edit] Early Indian tragedy

The origins of tragedy in ancient Indian literature dates back to the Rigveda composed in the second millenium BC. Tragedy is also found in Indian epics such as Vyasa's Mahabharata and Valmiki's Ramayana composed in the first millenium BC. The Sanskrit poet and dramatist Kālidāsa wrote several tragic stories and plays. Some of the Tamil epics were also tragedies, such as Cilappatikaram.

[edit] Theories of tragedy

The philosopher Aristotle theorized in his work The Poetics that tragedy results in a catharsis (emotional cleansing) of healing for the audience through their experience of these emotions in response to the suffering of the characters in the drama. He considers it superior when a character passes from good fortune to bad rather than the reverse; at the time, the term "tragedy" was not yet fixed solely on stories with unhappy endings.

The Philosopher Aristotle in his work mentioned above (The Poetics) gave the following definition in ancient Greek to the word "tragedy" (τραγωδία):

Ἐστὶν οὖν τραγωδία μίμησις πράξεως σπουδαίας καὶ τελείας, μέγεθος ἐχούσης, ἡδυσμένῳ λόγῳ, χωρὶς ἑκάστῳ τῶν εἰδὼν ἐν τοῖς μορίοις, δρώντων καὶ οὐ δι'ἀπαγγελίας, δι' ἐλέου καὶ φόβου περαίνουσα τὴν τῶν τοιούτων παθημάτων κάθαρσιν.

which means tragedy is therefore an imitation (that means representation on scene) of a significant and integrated action, which has a certain duration, is characterized by speech with ornament style, the parts of which(parts of the tragedy regarding both its quality and its quantity - for more information refer to Aristotle, "The poetics") differ in their form, that is depicted actively (on scene) and is not (just) recited, which causing spectator's sympathy and fear redeems him from similar emotional circumstances.

Not all plays that are broadly categorized as "tragedies" result in this type of cathartic ending, though – some have neutral or even ambiguously happy endings. Exactly what constitutes a "tragedy", however, is a frequently debated matter. Some hold that any story with a sad ending is a tragedy, whereas others demand that the story fit a set of requirements (often based on Aristotle) to be considered a tragedy.

In ancient India, the writer Bharata Muni in his work on dramatic theory Natya Shastra recognized tragedy in the form of several rasas (emotional responses), such as pity, anger, disgust and terror.

[edit] Renaissance and 17th century tragedy

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 dominiated 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.

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 behoven to classical theory and more open to dramatic action and the portrayal of tragic events on stage.

[edit] English Renaissance Tragedy

In the English language, the most famous and most successful tragedies are those of William Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries. Shakespeare's tragedies include:

A contemporary of Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, also wrote examples of tragedy in English, notably:

John Webster (1580?-1635?), also wrote famous plays of the genre:

[edit] French Tragedy in the 16th and 17th centuries

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, Antoine de Montchrestien, Alexandre Hardy, Théophile de Viau, François le Métel de Boisrobert, Jean Mairet, Tristan L'Hermite, Jean Rotrou.

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 nobilty 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.

For more on French tragedy of the 16th and 17th centuries, see French Renaissance literature and French literature of the 17th century.

[edit] Modern tragedy

In modern 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. <ref> Howard Barker. Arguments for a Theatre.(London: John Calder, 1989), 13.</ref>

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.

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 and Death of a Salesman.

Contemporary postmodern theater moves the ground for the execution of tragedy from the hubris of the individual tragic hero to the institutions, discourses and policies that shape the course of a character's life. 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.

Tragedy often shows the lack of escape of the protagonist, whereby he or she cannot remove themself from the present environment.

[edit] Tragedy in film

Main article: Tragedy on screen

The general belief in Hollywood that audiences prefer happy endings might seem to preclude the genre of tragedy from film. However, the popularity of several cinematic tragedies indicates that audiences can be receptive to the genre. Examples in the cinema include Vertigo, Chinatown, Days of Heaven, Se7en, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Million Dollar Baby, Ran (film), Scarface, Braveheart, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Titanic, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia (film), The Godfather (film), King Kong, Star Wars : Revenge of the Sith, and Tristan and Isolde, all of which can be seen as tragedies, at least by some definitions.

[edit] Notes

<references />

[edit] References

  • Aristotle, Poetics.
  • P.W. Buckham, Theatre of the Greeks, 1827.
  • Justina Gregory (ed.), A Companion to Greek Tragedy, 2005.
  • August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, 1809. [3]
  • Xavier Riu, Dionysism and Comedy, 1999. [4]
  • J.A. Symonds, Studies of the Greek Poets, 1873.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

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Tragedy

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