Modern Tragedy: Definition & Explanation

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      Unlike the Aristotelian theory for the requirement of a tragic protagonist to be one of high power and status, the Modern Tragedy represents people in action regardless of their class and status. The American novelist Arthur Miller (1915-2005) in his essay Tragedy and the Common Man (1949) argues that tragedy may also depict ordinary people in domestic surroundings. His Death of a Salesman is an ever popular instance of modern tragedy. British playwright Howard Barker in his volume Arguments for a Theatre has strongly opposed the traditional concept of tragedy and opted for the rebirth of a type of tragedy that explains the contemporary life in reference to the common people with common struggles and sufferings. George Steiner opines that tragedy may no longer exist in comparison with its former manifestations in classical antiquity. In The Death of Tragedy (1961) George Steiner outlined the characteristics of Greek tragedy and the traditions that developed from that period. According to Steiner, the dramas of Shakespeare are not a renascence of or a humanistic variant of the absolute tragic model. They are, rather, a rejection of this model in the light of tragic-comic and ‘realistic’ criteria. Shakespeare’s mind is explained, by his bent of mind or imagination which was ‘so encompassing, so receptive to the plurality of diverse orders of experience.’ When compared to the drama of Greek antiquity and French classicism Shakespeare’s forms are ‘richer but hybrid’.

      In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller presents a tragedy which is different from the classical and Shakespearean tragedies. On the basis of some unconventional rules, Miller produces a tragedy, which is very modern in respect of the style as well as the subject matter. In fact, he shows that a common man also can be the protagonist of a tragedy and his sufferings also touch our hearts. But the most important factor in which the play differs from the classical tragedy is the presentation of the tragic hero. According to Miller an ‘average man’ can be an apt subject for tragedy, as exaltation of tragic action is not only for the kings or the kingly but also a property of all men. Willy, an average man, is made the hero of the tragedy. As a hero he does not fully fit into the traditional pattern, but in some respects, he comes out as a tragic hero. Like a traditional tragic hero, Willy also has a tragic flaw, which brings up his downfall. His flaw is identified as his obsession with his dream. He always gives preference to face value and takes it granted for any kind of success in this world. This wrong conception leads him to the act of suicide. His hubris, his arrogance, lies, in his thinking that he could reach the top in that society. He has become very much part of the system of false value in a materialistic world. He is all the time attempting to become a part of his society. Though it rejects him, he refuses to change his view and continues his struggle upstream. His unwillingness to submit passively to the established order and values takes him down. He has a set idea in his mind about how he wants to be and the way he wants his children to be and he does not go beyond it. Though at an early age, he had a chance to change and become like his brother Ben, he chose not to. He is a salesman and refuses to be anything else. So, Willy dies at the hands of his tragic flaws. It is a debatable issue whether the fall of Willy arouses our pity and fear or not. About tragic feelings Miller says “tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing — his sense of personal dignity”. So, like the classical tragedy, the play also arouses our feelings of pity and fear. We cannot but feel pity for Willy. He was wrong in his approach to life and his ability. But his fault does not deserve so harsh a punishment. We also become very fearful after seeing the tragedy of Willy. Willy not only represents the post-depression American middle-class society, but in a larger sense, he is Everyman. In our daily life, we cannot escape from the inescapable failures of life. After the successful production of the play in China, Miller himself said that Willy is everywhere. We feel for Willy more than a classical hero, because he is an ordinary person like most of us. We can share his feelings and understand his problems. So, the tragedy of Willy arouses pity and fear in us.

      Riders to the Sea is a famous one-act tragic play by John Millington Synge (1871-1909) containing both modern and classical elements in it. The play is modern in that it deals with the sorrows and predicaments of a common human being and it is classical in that it maintains the classical principles of drama as laid down in Aristotle’s Poetics. Simply we can say that Riders to the Sea is a modern tragedy in classical settings and with classical overtones. Unlike Greek tragedies, Riders to the Sea deals with the sufferings of a common human being named Maury a who is the head of an Irish peasant-cum fisherman family. While Greek tragedies dealt with the sufferings of high-born people, modern tragedies deal with the sufferings of common people. The story of Riders to the Sea is the story of all families living in the Aran Islands. It is also the story of those families in other countries where people are helpless like Maurya in the hands of nature. In Riders to the Sea, the tragic intensity of the life of Maurya, who falls a victim to her ill-luck losing all the male members of the family in the sea is also shared by other women of Aran Islands. Therefore, Maurya is not an individual woman here; she is every woman of her community. Wretched and helpless women like Maurya are also found in other contexts in other countries. Thus, the play ceases to be regional and becomes global in significance, which is the chief characteristic of a perfect modern tragedy.

      John Galsworthy (1867-1933) is a great modern tragic artist. His heroes and heroines are not great men and women. We do not come in contact with Othellos, Hamlets, Macbeths, Antonios, and Cleopatras in his plays, rather they are all ordinary men and women like Mr. Winsor, Dancy, Anthony and Roberts. His heroes and heroines have not the sublimity, elevation and grandeur as we find in Shakespeare’s tragedies. According to him, the tragic spirit can be infused by means of laborer, a photographer, or a shopkeeper, who can elevate us by means of his grandeur. For example, his Strife ends with the death of Robert and Anthony, which gives us the sense reconciliation. There is a compromise between men and their master. Their end marks a remarkable contrast to the Shakespearean catastrophe.

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