Neoclassical Tragedy: Definition & Explanation

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      Neoclassical drama is a concept of drama that brings back the values and conventions of classical Greek drama. This originated in the writings of 15th century Italian scholars and came to dominate the stage in 17 and 18th century France. The neoclassical theorists gave importance to the Poetics of Aristotle, and to the unities of time, place, and action that they deduced from this work. In France, where the unities became rigidly formalized, the neoclassical style achieved its fullest expression in the works of Cornielle and Racine. In the 17th century, Pierre Corneille was the most successful writer of French tragedies. His most important plays are Medee (1635) and Le Cid (1636). Corneille’s tragedies were strangely untragic for they had happy endings. His first version of Le Cid was even listed as a tragicomedy. According to Corneille, the stage in both comedy and tragedy should feature noble characters. Noble characters should not be depicted as vile. 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 nobility being degraded. Corneille continued to write plays upto 1674 (mainly tragedies, but also something he called ‘heroic comedies’) and many plays continued to be successful, although the ‘irregularities’ of his theatrical methods were increasingly criticized and the success of Jean Racine from the late 1660s signaled the end of his preeminence.

      Racine’s tragedies were inspired by the Greek legends as Euripides, Sophocles and Seneca. His poetic skill was in the representation of pathos and amorous passion (like Phedre’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 theatre in the education of young women. Racine also faced criticism for his irregularities. For example, his play Bérénice was criticized for not containing any death. Racine disputed the conventional view of tragedy.

      The plays were written by and for intellectual aristocrats, who came together in an elite theatre, patronized by royalty and nobility. One theme - the conflict between Passion and Reason, was uppermost. The path of Reason was the path of Duty and Obligation (noblesse oblige), and that path had been clearly plotted by moralists and philosophers, both ancient and modern. In this sense there was nothing exploratory in the French tragedy; existing moral and spiritual norms were insisted upon. By the time of Phedre, Corneille’s proud affirmation of the power of the will and the reason over passion had given way to what Racine called “stately sorrow,” with which he asked the audience to contemplate Phedre’s heroic, but losing, moral struggle. Phedre’s passion for her stepson, Hippolyte, bears her down relentlessly. Her fine principles and heroic will are of no avail. Both she and Hippolyte are destroyed. The action is limited to one terrible day; there is no change of scene; there is neither comic digression nor relief - the focus on the process by which a great nature goes down is sharp and intense. Such is the power of Racine’s poetry (it is untranslatable) - his conception of character, and his penetrating analysis of it — that it suggests the presence of Sophoclean “heroic humanism.” In this sense it could be said that Racine tested the norms, that he uncovered a cruel injustice in the nature of a code that could destroy such a person as Phedre. Once again, here is a world of tragic ambiguity in which no precept or prescription can answer complicated human questions.

      However, neo-classicism never took root in the English theatre, despite distinguished advocates such as Jonson and Dryden, whose rhymed heroic tragedies enjoyed some success. Joseph Addison’s blank-verse tragedy Cato (1713) was probably the most popular neoclassical work on the English stage. After the vicissitudes of the Civil War, the age was hungry for heroism. An English philosopher of the time, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), defined the purpose of the type: “The work of a heroic poem is to raise admiration, principally for three virtues, valor, beauty, and love.” Moral concern, beginning with Aeschylus, has always been central in tragedy, but in the works of the great tragedians, this concern was exploratory and inductive. The moral concern of the heroic play is the reverse. It is deductive and dogmatic. The first rule, writes Dryden (following the contemporary French critic, Rene Le Bossu) in his preface to his Troilus and Cressida (1679), is “to make the moral of the work; that is, to lay down to yourself what that precept of morality shall be, which you would insinuate into the people.” In All for Love the moral is too clear: Antony must choose between the path of honor and his illicit passion for Cleopatra. He chooses Cleopatra, and they are both destroyed. Only Dryden’s poetry, with its air of emotional argumentation, manages to convey human complexities in spite of his moral bias and saves the play from artificiality - makes it, in fact, the finest near-tragic production of its age.

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