Classical and Modern Tragedy

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      Tragedy is a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude, in embellished speech, with each of its elements used separately in the various parts of the play; represented by people acting and not by narration; accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions. For Aristotle, the tragic hero was meant to be noble, and he was referring literally to nobility of birth - i.e. not a commoner. The hero (protagonist) should also be subject to a tragic flaw - an aspect of his character that causes him to behave in a way that will lead to his downfall. For Aristotle, this must be a person who is ‘good’, but makes an error, rather than a villain who is simply ‘bad’ in his nature. A classical tragedy is an element of drama where the hero plummets from prosperity to suffering because of a catastrophic flaw (like hubris).

      According to Aristotle, the master tragic plot that can reach the cathartic effect in its fullest sense is the complex plot that accompanies the hero’s change of fortune with a reversal and discovery. This master plot involves tragic heroes that are drawn from stories of “a few families”, above all the legends and the myths of Troyes and Thebes. Aristotle defines the tragic hero as follows: “He is the sort of man who is not conspicuous for virtue and justice, and whose fall into misery is not due to vice and depravity, but rather to some error, a man who enjoys prosperity and high reputation, like Oedipus and Thyestes, and other members of families like theirs”. We infer from the definition that the tragic hero in classical tragedies is a mythical figure who is neither too good nor too bad. His fall into wretchedness is made intelligible through an error (hubris) which is the consequence of a tragic flaw hamartia). Thus, most protagonists in Greek tragedies possess hamartia and hubris. They are very high standing people betrayed by their own weaknesses. Their decadence is called nemesis. Northrop Frye defines it as “the rightening of the balance”; the balance being “the order of nature” that the hero has disturbed.

      In Modern Tragedy, some of these elements are different. Modern tragedy not necessarily represents a protagonist of high birth. In fact, the commonplace people can also be referred to as befitting the tragic protagonist. Willy Lorman in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller might be treated as a representative of ordinary non-traditional tragic character who successfully owns the conventional tragic qualities. Not only that the tragic protagonist might be male being or a female being as is Mouria in Synge’s The Riders to the Sea, who did not helplessly surrender to the laws and cruelty of nature and death rather she stoically faced the fate and planned forward for what is still present in the store for her and what may be the future.

      Death of a Salesman is written in very vernacular prose, so there is none of the ‘embellished language’ required by Aristotle. Willy Loman’s downfall is caused by society, not by his own tragic flaw. He has become disposable in the world because of his age and the. changing times rather than because of his own actions. There is no catharsis of emotion at the end of this play. Willy dies and everyone feels sorry, but there is no terror, only pity. Feeling sorry for the tragic hero was a small part of what Aristotle felt a tragic ending should include. He insisted that there should also be a sort of epiphany of awareness about life as well. The understanding that Willy’s time had come and gone was there from the beginning of the play, not a discovery made by audience and hero together at the end. And, finally, of course, Willy is quite a ‘regular’ guy, not some exalted or noble man.

      While reviewing the movie A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller, Pauline Kael (a critic), gives an excellent definition of modern tragedy when she notes that a tragic hero “must have greater aspirations, ambitions ... what does Eddie Carbone (the Miller tragic hero) want? He wants his wife’s niece”. The modern tragedy is thus redefined: in modern tragedies, smaller men with smaller dreams act through impulse, rather than hubris. The unities are ignored - Miller’s work spans weeks, with sub-plots - although the characters ends are still tragic. Miller produced several modern tragedies about ordinary man with puny dreams and sorrowful finales; the most famous is Death of a Salesman. Another contemporary example is David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, in which tragically small-minded salesman fight over crooked sales jobs. Modern tragedy therefore adds irony to Aristotle’s mix, reducing once heroic tragic figures to the size of ordinary humanity.

      Oedipus is a tragic hero because he was ‘blinded’ by his ego. Oedipus’ downfall is similar to the downfall of Steve Irwin because they were both affected by their hubris. Both believed they were invincible and could do / overcome anything. Steve Irwin (The Crocodile Hunter) was an Australian wildlife expert and an important public figure. He achieved worldwide fame from the television series The Crocodile Hunter, a wildlife documentary series. He and his wife also owned and operated Australia Zoo. Irwin died on 4th September 2006 after being pierced in the chest by a stingray barb while filming an underwater documentary film, Oceans Deadliest. People around the world were shocked and disheartened to hear the news of his death. Steve Irwin’s death is very tragic because it was preventable. If he’ had not put himself in such dangerous situations, he would probably still be around today. Steve Irwin would not fit the classical definition of a tragic figure because of many factors. The risky situations that Irwin put himself in were involving dangerous animals that were filmed for the public. This is completely different from the situations a classical tragic hero would put himself in, like killing others or fighting wars. The word tragedy has become less specific over the course of time. Modern tragedy has expanded from only those of noble birth, to ordinary people. Many modern tragedies include people dying or people killing other people for no reason. These would not be considered tragedies to the Greeks.

      In the 20th century, many aspects of the classical tragedy, as described by Aristotle, were questioned and dramatists broke away from the Greek canons. As we have already mentioned, Arthur Miller is among the fiercest modern exponents of a modern conception of tragedy. His play Death of a Salesman has been dismissed on the basis that its protagonist Willy Lorn an lacks the stature of a tragic hero. Miller’s conception of tragedy retains only its catastrophic ending. It contends that “the last appeal of tragedy is due to our need to face the fact of death in order to strengthen ourselves for life, and that over and above this function of the tragic viewpoint, there is and will be a great number of formal variations (our emphasis) which no single definition will ever embrace”.

      According to Miller, the common man can pretend to a tragic status and his story can provide materials for tragedy provided that his story engages issues of importance, such as the sense of personal dignity, the survival of the race, or the relationships of Man to God. According to us, this variation ought; to be understood against Aristotle’s rise and fall pattern. For in modern societies where the political systems are democratic, Kings and Princes no longer raise our passion, and the low man’s misery and loss are as tearing as the fall of Kings was for the Greeks. Besides his rejection of Aristotle’s rise and fall model in favor of the thematic issue aroused by the dramatic performance, Miller questions the highbred position of the tragic heroes. Keeping in mind the distinction between stature ad rank already stated, the American playwright argues that the common man can evoke tragic feelings on two conditions: (i) He should display an intensity of feeling and passion. This quality cannot be achieved if the protagonist’s commitment to his course is not the maximum possible. In other words, the hero should be faithfully devoted to his quest and his involvement should be strong and vigorous (ii) The hero should be aware of his social condition and the implication of his choice. He may lack intellectual fluency to verbalize his situation or even a complete consciousness, but he should never be unaware of the ultimate questions that he sacrifices his life for. As regards the tragic flaw, the modern tragic hero may or may not have a defect of character or Hamartia. Miller remarks that “the flaw, or crack in the character is really nothing —and need to be nothing, but his inherent willingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status.” He also adds that there are only the passive people, those who do not question their lot, who are ‘flawless’.

      Miller has shifted Aristotle’s focus on the form of tragedy to the content of tragedy. In other words, the American dramatist shifted the genre’s interest from plot to theme. Besides, Miller has also overlooked Aristotle’s concept of Katharsis and has drawn the portrait of the tragic hero from the lower classes rather than from the higher ones. The reason is that the common man is better representative of the modern societies than the highbred. In fact, in a tragic character of ordinary social height the audiences can oversee themselves. Otherwise, tragic figures or the ‘high birth’ figure may be neglected thinking that this fate is only for those who have taken birth in a high social status and only that kind of people can commit such heroic deeds which gives them destruction. Behind Willy’s continuous struggle to keep his personal dignity, Miller probes the essence of the American Dream and depicts the shortcoming of the capitalistic society during the years of depression. In fact, Willy drifts in and out of a dream. In spite of his old age, the ideals of success in business and respectability in society still stir his emotions and hearken his passions. Throughout all the play, his credo remains “someday I’ll have my own business, and I’ll never have to leave home anymore (...) bigger than uncle Charley! Because Charley is not liked - He’s liked but he’s not well liked”.

      In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman stands more like the scapegoat of the capitalist society and the bitter illusions of the American dream than the victim of any of his personal shortcomings. Like all tragic heroes, he remains faithful to his vision, and his ‘struggle upward’ remains firmly established in his character and hopes. And if he has chosen to commit suicide, it is not because he has failed to accommodate the new order and has given up his efforts at social enhancement. He himself refutes this alternative when he says: “you can’t eat the orange and throw away the peel! A man is not a piece of fruit”. Instead, Willy has consciously chosen to invest his last asset, i.e. his life, for the price of the insurance money. His ultimate vision is that the hopes he placed in the American dream were misguided, and that his dream of success can be achieved only through and after death.

      The Crucible (1953) is another play that sustains analysis with Miller’s idea of the tragic. It is an allegory that re-writes the Salem Witch Hunt of 1692. Its plot is articulated around questions of politics, land ownership, power struggles, and personal vengeance. It describes the tumult wrought upon early Salem when the village was overtaken by accusations of witchcraft. At the end of the story, many persons are convicted and unjustly sentenced to death. Among these convicts, there is John Proctor who has been unrightfully involved by a young girl who managed to take revenge against his wife Elizabeth. Proctor’s tragic fate may be read against the backdrop intricacies of the plot. But a close reading of The Crucible reveals that the play is an allegory whose main issue is tightly linked to the McCarthy Hearings between 1950 and. 1954. At that time, many American intellectuals suspected of sympathy for communism, just as those characters suspected of witchcraft in the play, were arrested, interviewed, and blacklisted. As a consequence, a mass hysteria and a mindless persecution swept the United States of America and brought the individual liberties to a severe test.

      Through a comparative study between the Greek and the modern tragedies, as embodied respectively in the theories of Aristotle and Arthur Miller, we can say that before all tragedy is a quest for literary form. And whatever form it may take, it arouses aesthetic pleasure on condition, and it remains faithful to the values of the community it represents. Accordingly, Miller can be said to be successful in his departure from Aristotelian conception of tragedy, because he has adapted his literary medium both to America’s social reality and to its literary tradition. He has thus drawn the portrait of his main characters in the same lineage with their literary ancestors, such as Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, and the popular heroes of Horatio Alger’s fiction, and has made a high claim for the thematic issue in order to align his plays with the didactic propensity inherent in the American fiction.

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