Monday, 5 March 2018

Tragedy and Ritual and I am Thinking Out Loud again

If the origins of Athenian tragedy are broadly found in religious ritual - the importance of the chorus suggests a shared ancestry with the dithyramb, a hymn to Dionysus - the extant plays offer few clues to the nature of their relationship. One striking feature of ritual, the invitation of direct response extended to the spectators, is absent in Athenian tragedy. By the time that Aeschylus, the earliest playwright of the surviving tragic scripts, was writing, the tragedy had evolved into a separate form and the application of ritual's standards onto theatre has already been rendered, at best, controversial.

It's always easy for me to be distracted by questions of ritual and theatricality, because I dislike the 'revolution' of performance studies (as expressed by Richard Schechner) which dumps all sorts of human activity into a single category (performance) without much care for their cultural or historical context. Religious services, for example, are lumped together, with rock concerts. Sure, they are all amenable to the application of dramaturgy as a methodology, but the intention of a Sunday Mass is not the same as the revival of Sam Beckett's Godot. But once Schechner advocated a smearing of the boundaries, artists could happily claim that they were making rituals - rather than being influenced by rituals - which accords their work a sanctity which it may not deserve.

But I am supposed to be thinking about tragedy today, so let's park that for the moment. I am trying to work out what it might mean, and whether there is any continuity between the tragedy of fifth century Athens, the plays of Shakespeare, French neo-classical tragedy, the naturalism of the 1880s (Ibsen, moving into Chekhov) and various bits and pieces from the last century or so. I suppose, if I asked whether The Motherfucker with the Hat (about to be staged at the Tron) is a tragedy, these are the reflections that would inform my answer.

The easy line to follow is that from Athens to 17th Century France: Aristotle wrote about the Athenian tragedies, and the French theorists turned his observations into rules. The same rules encouraged the self-conscious tragedies of the twentieth century - Death of A Salesman, a couple of plays by T.S. Eliot. These were experiments in form, to see whether it was possible to use the formula and structures of Athenian tragedy for contemporary theatre. These are your Aristotelian tragedies, I guess, for want of a better name. It is strict, follows a bunch of rules  including the unities of time and space.

But tragedy is a wider term: it is applied to Shakespeare, the violent melodramas of Seneca and the Jacobeans (mainly because the word melodrama wasn't available until the 1760s, when Rousseau coined it). And that's enough to cause problems. And I don't even know whether the plays of David Mamet - to take a fairly random example - count as tragedy. Until I get some kind of definition...

So, if Hamlet and Othello are tragedies (and popular opinion say that they are), that isn't because they share the same formula as the Aristotle-influenced tradition. That's why I have an ache in my heart. 

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