Menu Close

Tragedy is dead in Australia, long live laughter and weather reports

A nation that understands tragedy is one that respects limits. José María Pérez Nuñez, CC BY-SA

Tragedy is a peculiar thing. More than a style, different from genre, it cuts across art forms to carve out its own non-Euclidean aesthetic space.

In the 4th century BCE Aristotle, in his Poetics, famously defined tragedy as:

the imitation of an action that is serious, of a certain magnitude, and complete in itself … arousing pity and fear, whereby is accomplished a catharsis of these emotions.

The Poetics are akin to lecture notes, so it isn’t completely clear what Aristotle means by “catharsis”. But that hasn’t stopped artists taking him to task for giving audiences a psychological out. The purging of feeling is the end of thought, German playwright Bertolt Brecht argued, creating his own epic theatre in response, one that would “alienate” spectators to full political consciousness.

For others, tragedy is a form that is simply not possible in an age of moral and religious scepticism. American critic George Steiner in The Death of Tragedy (1961) argues that:

tragedy speaks not of secular dilemmas which may be resolved by rational innovation, but of the unalterable bias toward inhumanity and destruction in the drift of the world.

Once Modernity moves in with its municipal drain-pipes and mass education, its mood enhancers and genome maps, tragedy ships out, no longer required. Everything has a technological solution, everything can be fixed.

Archimedes, not Aeschylus, is the go-to sage for the new millennium, where progress is always progressing and tragedies are things that appropriate medical intervention can stop in their tracks. When tragedy strikes in life we think, “what went wrong?”. This is not a question that occurs in its stage form, where situations cannot be otherwise than they are.

Agency evaporates along with social remedy. Public Services can’t help Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, who has made his deal with the Devil and must stick to it. When midnight strikes nothing in heaven or earth will save him.

What kind of society enjoys tragedy? “Why do sufferings please?” wonders St Augustine in [The City of God ]( in the 5th century.

Why is it that a person should wish to experience suffering by watching grievous and tragic events which he himself would not wish to endure? […] When he suffers, it is called misery; when he feels compassion for others, it is called mercy. But what quality of mercy is it in fictitious inventions?

[…] If human calamities […] are so presented the theatre-goer is not caused pain, he walks out, disgusted and highly critical. But if he feels pain, he stays riveted in his seat enjoying himself.

Tragedy is different from dramas that just make us feel sad, though clearly it is not cheery. There are sad things in it. But as a sensibility it is structured in a more vertiginous way. It uses sadness to punch out a new awareness.

When Agamemnon steps off his chariot to go inside his palace, knowing his likely end, or Macbeth, hearing the news of his wife’s death, buckles up to face Malcolm’s army in a final confrontation, sadness is only the beginning of what we feel. There is no way out for these men, no “solution” to their “problem”.

Is tragedy about the fall of “great men”, as some have maintained? Not really. Its central mechanism is a levelling one, King Lear reduced to a “poor, bare, forked animal”. There are no heroes in tragedy. Only casualties.

Jim Valentine

There is a largeness to the characters in a tragedy; or tragedy invests them with largeness, an opening up of the inward self. Nietszche wrote in On The Genealogy of Morality (1887):

The profundity of the tragic artist lies in this, that his aesthetic instinct surveys the more remote consequences, that he does not stare short-sightedly at what is closest at hand, that he affirms the large-scale economy which justifies the terrifying, the evil, the questionable – and more than merely justifies them.

If he’s right, tragedy is not only a confronting form, but a dangerous one, and Plato was right to ban it from his well-ordered state.

The history of dramatic literature reveals this paradox. As a stage form, tragedy starts to disappear just as the outside world is engulfed by unspeakable calamity. Hard to “justify” 16 million dead in 1918. Reinhardt Goering’s Seeschlacht (1918), one of the first Expressionist plays, takes the tragic model but twists its psychology and language such that what emerges is tortured and distended, a vehicle shot through with dissonant approaches.

Over the last hundred years playwrights have blended tragedy with other sensibilities: irony, satire, whimsy, political polemic, gothic schlock, surreal escapism, transcendence. Think Samuel Beckett’s mordant, comic tramps; Eugene Ionesco’s nonsense-spouting Bourgeoisie; Sarah Kane’s exploded isolates.

In one way, it’s a transformation of the form, in another a retreat from it. The hard thing in tragedy is fudged – “the bone caught in the throat,” as critic Stephen Greenblatt writes of the role of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, “that can be neither coughed up nor comfortably swallowed”.

The bone in the throat in tragedy is that there is nothing to be done. No phone calls to make, no last-minute reprieves, no re-boots, no escape. Such spiritual and narrative finality flies in the face of modern presumptions about the plasticity of human fate. But if it really is tragedy, it is already too late.

Tragedy does not supply a reason for irrational destruction but it does give a shape to it. It illuminates the human condition when we are faced, as sometimes we are, with an ultimate test. Something deepens. A person becomes more who they are supposed to be. And we respond, knowing we are witnessing something important.

A nation that understands tragedy is one that respects limits. Tragedy is, literally, a “limit case”, an example of a person stepping beyond where they should and paying for it with everything they’ve got. Because they acknowledge their fate has a logic (if not a just one), it is not only salutary but illuminating.

We feel things more deeply – but also see them more clearly. We learn more about the fragile threads that bind human existence to this earth.

Australian drama, coming late, lacks good tragedies, though there are many plays which incorporate tragic themes, from Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959) to Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling (2008).

Daniel Keene, Joanna Murray-Smith, Stephen Sewell, Louis Nowra, Patricia Cornelius, all deploy the tragic sensibility as part of their compositional palate. But it is rarely the point of their work, which freights different emotional outcomes: outrage, shock, commendation, nostalgia, hope. Situations may be wrong but can be fixed.

Really, comedy rules the roost: Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection (188), Sumner Locke Elliot’s Rusty Bugles (1948), David Williamson’s Don’s Party (1973), Jack Hibberd’s Dimboola (1969), Elizabeth Coleman’s Secret Bridesmaid’s Business (1999) and so on. The list is a long one. Australian audiences like to laugh, as I have been told a hundred times. They don’t like to look at limits.

So tragedy is banished and the nation settles for more accommodating dramatic forms. My intuition says (though I cannot prove) that what a country denies in the theatre it is destined to meet in the street. That we can’t come at the idea of limits artistically suggests we can’t come at the idea of them socially either.

As our Australian way of life, led by a superficial government committed to little beyond its own pugnacity, sinks further into a venal rut, these limits, like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, slowly creep closer. Another fire season gears up in Adelaide, a city that has seen little rain for three months now.

“Burn in hell” isn’t a line from a tragedy any more. In Australia, it’s a weather prediction.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 174,900 academics and researchers from 4,814 institutions.

Register now