Posts Tagged ‘tragedy’

This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?

In Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata – a very favourite film of mine, and which I may have mentioned once or twice on this blog – the character Bhupati, immersed in politics, isn’t too impressed by the arts. At one point, he tells his more artistically inclined cousin of the dire poverty into which so many of their countrymen have been plunged as a consequence of British policies in India; and he then asks rhetorically: “Which is the greater tragedy? This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?” It is a question worth asking: why seek out tragic works in art when there is no shortage of real-life tragedy all around us? Or, to spread the net even wider, why look to art at all when we have real life? Plato posed this very same question in The Republic: the arts can but be at best an imitation of real life, and no imitation can be as valuable as that which it imitates.

So, in Bhupati’s world, it is foolish to grieve over the fictional Romeo and Juliet when there is so much happening to real people all around us that is far more worthy of our tears. And, presumably, it is equally foolish looking at painted faces created by Rembrandt when real faces created by God are even more remarkable; or experiencing bucolic joys at merely second hand through Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, when one can experience them at first hand simply by going to the countryside.

Anyone who cares anything at all for the arts may feel instinctively that Bhupati’s worldview is wrong, that it must be wrong, but it is not easy to pinpoint why. Let us not cast our nets too far here: let us, for the moment, focus on tragic art: is it not monstrous that we find ourselves emotionally moved by an Ophelia or a Cordelia, and shed for them tears that we withhold from the deaths of real people?

I do not know the answer to this, but I do know that those who are deeply and genuinely moved by tragic art, but feel little more than a passing sadness at the news of some person unknown to them dying in an accident, say, and not necessarily monsters. Every second of every day, there is some horrendous tragedy somewhere in the world: the better we know the people involved, the closer they are to us, the more deeply we feel it; but it is not possible to feel equally deeply all the terrible, heart-rending sorrows of real life. I’d conjecture that the greatest works of tragic art focus these feelings. If the sorrows of all the world are too vast for us to take on, then the sorrow we feel for a Romeo and a Juliet, an Ophelia and a Cordelia, seems, as it were, representative of all those sorrows we know we should feel for the wider world, but cannot. When Lear enters in the final scene with the dead Cordelia in his arms, I don’t know that we are weeping specifically for Lear and Cordelia: we know these are fictional characters, after all, played merely by actors. But these figures have taken on, by some mysterious process that I cannot even begin to understand, a universal aspect. The sorrow we cannot feel for tragedies in real life, because real life is too vast and too diffuse for our individual consciousness to encompass, we can feel when presented in a more focussed form. And somehow, this is something that happens in all major works of art: the specific becomes the universal; or, rather, the universal is focussed in the specific.

Some years ago, in a fascinating article in the arts pages of the Guardian, Tchaikovsky scholar Marina Frolova-Walker deplored a book in which Tchaikovsky’s symphonies were interpreted as but the passionate outpourings of a man tormented by his sexuality. Now, it may well be that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies did indeed have their source in the complex and turbulent emotions occasioned by his gayness, living as he did in a society that refused to tolerate it: it is impossible to say. But even if this were to be the case, to see his symphonies in such terms – to see them, as some still do, as, essentially, confessional outpourings of a man at war with his sexuality – is surely to diminish them. Once the specific has been transformed through art into the universal, it’s the latter that commands our attention. What should it matter to us whether or not these symphonies have their source in the composer’s sexuality? Even if we were to know this to be a fact (and we don’t), why should it matter? When I listen to Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, I am moved: I am moved not by specific thoughts of the composer struggling with his sexuality, but by the most intense expression of the deepest anguish it is possible for any human mind to feel. It is, in short, its universal aspect of this work that moves me – its depiction of an immense tragedy, not of a single individual – earth-shattering though it may be for that individual – but one in which the whole of humanity is involved.

So that would be my answer to Bhupati: the tragedy of Romeo and of Juliet is not merely the tragedy of two individual fictional characters, but is representative of that immense tragedy in which all of us, as humans, are involved. I suspect, though, that Bhupati’s reaction to such an answer would merely be an impatient and disdainful “Pah!” And he may well be right.

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The Tragic Vision and its Discontents

Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;
Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;
Delight becomes death-longing if all longing else be vain.

Even from that delight memory treasures so,
Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,
As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.

In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,
The bride is carried to the bridegroom’s chamber through torchlight and tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.

Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;
The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.

– W. B. Yeats’ magnificent creative rendering (hardly a translation, if all the other translations I’ve encountered of this are anything to go by) of a chorus from Sophocles “Oedipus at Colonus”

In a recent post, I was rash enough to refer to something called a “tragic vision”, without bothering to define the term, or even, for that matter, to indicate what, if anything, I might have meant by it. And, quite rightly, I was challenged: what do I mean by it? My immediate reaction to the challenge was, I admit, to do what is normally done on the net on such occasions – claim that the meaning of the term is obvious in the context, and tell the questioner in no uncertain terms that he was simply being obtuse and awkward in pretending not to understand. But having learnt over the years to think a bit before hitting the “post” button – at least, in most cases – I did think for a bit, and the question after a while seemed entirely valid. If my principal criticism of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is that it lacks this mysterious quality “tragic vision”, then it is surely up to me at least to give at least some indication of what I mean by the term. The question isn’t however an easy one to address, if only because before one can define “tragic vision”, one must first of all define “tragedy”; and even some rather profound thinkers have come a cropper on that one.

There are, broadly speaking, two approaches to this – the prescriptive, and the descriptive: one may set out rules of what does or doesn’t constitute “tragic”, and, using those rules, determine which works are tragic and which aren’t; or one may examine all those works we – or, more precisely in this case, I – instinctively recognise as “tragic”, and then try to identify some common features of these works that lead to this recognition. The latter approach seems more reasonable to me, if only because the former seems remarkably pointless.

So, I started considering various tragic works, and identifying what features they possess that render them tragic, and I soon found that many of the popular conceptions of what constitutes “tragic” are simply wrong. For instance, the idea that tragedy ends with the death of the protagonist: there are any number of tragedies in which the protagonist is very much alive at the end – Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Sophocles’ Oedipus, Euripides’ Medea, and so on, right down to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Sometimes, the tragedy may actually lie in the fact that the protagonist doesn’t die – that he has to go on living even when there is nothing left worth living for: Verdi’s Rigoletto, for instance. Sometimes – as in, say, The Bacchae of Euripides – there appears not even to be a tragic protagonist.

And even in cases where there is a protagonist, and the protagonist dies at the end, the death need not be a disaster, or even a defeat. Take, for instance, Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus: Oedipus, at the point of death, is cleansed of pollution and accepted by the gods: his demise is not so much a defeat as a transfiguration. This brings us to another myth about tragedy – that a tragedy must end sadly: once again, that is not always the case. Oedipus at Colonus ends in a state of luminous wonder; Philoctetes, by the same dramatist, ends with harmony end reconciliation; the Oresteia trilogy of Aeschylus ends in triumph. Any definition of tragedy that excludes works such as these is obviously absurd.

We need, I think, to shift our gaze from how the work ends, and look at the work in totality. If I were to offer a definition of tragedy, I think I can do worse than to suggest that a tragedy is a work of art that focuses on and emphasises all those things that may lead us to believe, rightly or wrongly, that life is a Bad Thing, and not worth living; that, as the Ancient Writers say in Yeats’ verse, “never to have lived is best”. This could be because life is cruel and short and nasty and brutish, and full of unmerited suffering; it could be because life is dreary and pointless; or because we are powerless in the face of evil; or because whatever we may gain from life is nullified by the inevitability of death, leaving us with nothing, and robbing us of all our joy; or even because, as with Rigoletto, we have to go on living when there is nothing worth living for. It could be any of these things, or any combination of these things: if comedy is a celebration of life, tragedy questions whether there really is anything worth celebrating.

Of course, defined in such broad (and no doubt crude) terms, comedy and tragedy are not mutually exclusive. Shakespeare frequently blended the two together, so that a tragic drama such as Romeo and Juliet may be seen as essentially a comedy (Tony Tanner classifies it as such in his book Prefaces to Shakespeare), while a play such as Measure for Measure, often classed as a comedy, can appear as dark and as disturbing as the most intense of tragedies. And Shakespeare was by no means the only one to straddle the two: taxonomy becomes very difficult indeed with works as diverse as, say, The Trial, Waiting for Godot, Catch 22. But taxonomy is not, perhaps, the point: simply to label works such as The Trial, Waiting for Godot, or Catch 22 doesn’t, after all, help us come to any enhanced appreciation. The point is more to understand what we mean by “tragic” or by “comic”, and allow that the two may at times occupy the same space – that it may be possible to celebrate life even while questioning whether there is anything worth celebrating: unlike a mathematical theory, a work of art can accommodate many different and seemingly contradictory things at the same time.

But even if we do characterise tragedy in this manner, what do I mean by “tragic vision”? Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is undoubtedly tragic, as it depicts life as short, violent, and brutish, and the world as a stage on which the horrors of existence outweigh any joy that may be found in it; and yet I complained of a lack of “tragic vision”. I know I’d meant something by that, but it’s worth my considering just what it was I’d meant, as it’s far from obvious – even, frankly, to me. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to examine all those various and often disparate works that I recognize as possessing a “tragic vision” – we needn’t go through the entire litany of titles – and try to identify what features they possess that strike me as visionary. In what respect, in short, is King Lear a greater work than Titus Andronicus?

It is difficult to speak of such matters in general terms, as all ordinary tragedies are alike, but each visionary tragedy is visionary in its own way. All ordinary tragedies are alike because they show us life as nasty and violent and brutish; but generally, they don’t go much further. However, tragedies that I would term “visionary” peer deeper: they try to understand what, if anything can be salvaged from the wreckage. Titus Andronicus shows us a picture of humans as irredeemably cruel and wicked and barbarous, and whenever characters are visited by cruelty and wickedness and barbarity, their response is but to return it all in kind: humans here are, essentially, machines programmed merely to inflict grievous hurt on one another. King Lear also shows us a world that is cruel and wicked and barbarous: even the gods, should they exist, are questioned; but the humans in this world emerge as so much more than machines: they are capable of tenderness, of empathy, of love, of self-sacrifice; they are capable of learning the world anew, and taking upon themselves the mystery of things, as if they were God’s spies.

Of course, one may say that none of this lessens the pain, that despite everything, all remains dark and comfortless. Perhaps. We certainly tend to see the play in our post-Beckettian days as essentially nihilistic. But there have been intelligent commentators – Kenneth Muir, for instance – who have gone so far as to see King Lear as a Christian play of redemption, and I don’t know that this perspective, though not perhaps in keeping with modern sensibilities, should necessarily be dismissed. For even the most nihilist-minded of spectators will concede that there is much human goodness in this play, and that this human goodness is as extreme and as unaccountable as is the human evil. Of course, this goodness is utterly ineffective, and while this may lead us towards interpreting the work as essentially nihilist, it may also appear to certain temperaments that the good, by the very fact that it exists at all when there is no conceivable reason for it do so, is a redemptive force. Such matters are best left to the individual temperaments: there is no single way of interpreting works such as this. But however one interprets this, there is more here, far more, than the mere unrelieved brutality of Titus Andronicus. We do not leave a performance of King Lear asking ourselves “Is man no more than this?” We have been given a glimpse into the Mystery of Things that tells us there is far more than we could ever hope to fathom.

Such a view may lead us towards Orwell’s famous formulation in his essay “Tolstoy, Lear and the Fool”, in which he characterises tragedy as a drama in which Man is defeated, but we are left nonetheless with a sense that Man is nobler than the forces that defeat him. This seems an attractive formulation, but like all such formulations, it breaks down after a while. Where, for instance, is the nobility in Euripides’ Medea?

This is always the problem with trying to formulate definitions in literary criticism: just when you think you have the whole damn thing covered, out pops one that simply won’t be tied down by your piddly wee definition. We may spend some time and effort refining our definition to cover Medea as well, but you can be sure there will be something else popping out that doesn’t give a fig for whatever classification you may come up with. Literature is too vast to be tied down by definitions, and doesn’tcare for rules. And yet, if we do not even try to define or to classify, we cannot even begin to analyse, and the very concept of dialogue becomes meaningless. So, bearing that in mind, I will stick, at least for the moment, with my definitions: “tragedy” focuses on the darker aspects of life, and depicts the wreckage; and works possessing “tragic vision” are those tragedies that attempt to discover what, if anything, may be salvaged from the wreck. These latter works may conclude that there is indeed nothing that can be salvaged, but the very fact that the attempt is made indicates that the attempt is at least worth making. Give or take the odd Medea, this classification tends, I think, to hold good, though rarely have I felt so open to being persuaded otherwise.

Comedy is no laughing matter

Definitions are tricky things. There is so much that is more easily recognised than defined. For instance, we all know that a “tragedy” is a play (or a film or a novel or an opera or whatever) where everyone – or, at least, the main character – dies at the end; but even so, we recognise Oedipus the King as a tragedy even though Oedipus remains at the end very much alive. Fair enough – the mood at the end isn’t exactly upbeat – but then, what about The Oresteia? Not only does no-one die at the end, the whole thing culminates with a triumphant hymn of joy! Such inconvenient disregard for the rules of tragedy has led theoreticians to come up with all sorts of alternative definitions. The intricacies of these definitions need not concern us now, but they can – as far as I’ve read – be boiled down to “Tragedy focuses on the darker aspects of the human experience”. That really is sufficiently broad-brush to cover everything we recognise as tragic.

But what about comedy? We’re on safer ground here, surely? Comedy is whatever makes us laugh. (Or, if we want to include such stuff as Absolutely Fabulous, it is whatever is at least intended to make us laugh, even if it doesn’t.) But there are objections here as well. There are many works that are undeniably tragic in nature, but which do nonetheless contain incidental humour. So we may modify our definition with the adjective “primarily”: a comedy is a work the intention of which is primarily to make one laugh. No problem with that one, one might think. But a few weeks ago, I found myself at the Royal Albert Hall, at the Proms, listening to the Welsh National Opera perform Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Throughout the four and a half hours or so of the music (six hours including the intervals), I don’t think I laughed once. I don’t even think I smiled, or chuckled. I knew all the jokes already, and, to be entirely honest, they weren’t that funny the first time round either. There are more laughs in any two minutes picked out at random from an episode of Fawlty Towers. And yet, I recognised the world presented in that opera as essentially comic. And what’s more, I found it elating. Walking back from the Royal Albert Hall to the South Kensington tube station, I seemed to be in another world.

So what was it in that work I responded to? What was it I recognised as being comic, even though it didn’t make me laugh? And it’s not just Die Meistersinger: I fail to laugh at other much loved comic operas – Verdi’s Falstaff, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, say; or Shakespeare’s comedies – As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; or even much loved episodes of Dad’s Army or Fawlty Towers: I have seen all of these so often I know all the jokes backwards, and the element of surprise that is so essential to raise a laugh is no longer there. And yet, for all that, I enjoy entering into these worlds which, despite the lack of laughs, I recognise as comic. Some of them even leave me feeling elated.

I suppose if the term “tragedy” can be defined as works that focus primarily on the darker elements of the human experience, then, conversely, “comedy” can be reserved for those works that do the opposite, i.e. as works that focus primarily on all those elements that enhance life, that make it worth living – all those things that tell us there is more, much more, to life than merely the death that ends it. Before Wagner composed Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, he had composed Tristan und Isolde (a concert performance of which this September, incidentally, I have tickets for), and there, the two protagonists, having given up on all that this world has to offer, long only for death. That I can recognise as tragic. But comedy tells us something very different. In Die Meistersinger, Hans Sachs too renounces, and the renunciation is not easy: but the renunciation does not lead to a longing for death. Sachs even refers to the story of Tristan & Isolde (Wagner allows the orchestra to play a strain from his earlier work at this point), but tells us he does not want to end like King Marke: that tragic world is referred to, and is rejected. There is more to long for than merely death.

Viewed in this light, it is surprising how rare true comedy is in the modern world. Much that is ostensibly comedy has these days a dark edge: sometimes the darkness becomes dominant. There’s satire, there’s black humour: indeed, some even tell us that comedy is necessarily dark, and that comic works that do not address this darkness are not worth the candle. I have personally felt very uncomfortable with this. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate darkness in comedy: I can respond to the desperation at the heart of Steptoe and Son, the savagery of the satire in Till Death Us Do Part. But is this true comedy? Are not such dark drama and such vicious satire really aspects of the tragic?

The pilot episode of Steptoe and Son had ended in one of the most powerful and affecting of all tragic scenes: the son, Harold, desperate to get away from his father, had, quite insanely, attempted to draw the cart on his own (and yes, I’d guess the reference to Mother Courage here is entirely deliberate); and, unable, naturally, to do this, he had broken down in tears. And his father, bringing him back home and telling him sympathetically that he’ll make him “a nice cup of tea” somehow accentuates the tragedy: it rubs in the terrible truth that for Harold, there can be no escape, that he is doomed for ever to “nice cups of tea” with his father, whom he loves and hates at the same time. How many serious, tragic dramas have achieved scenes of such tragic intensity, I wonder? Yes, there are belly-laughs in Steptoe and Son, but belly-laughs alone do not a comedy make: the heart of Steptoe and Son remains a dark one.

For true comedy, one has to go to the likes of Sgt Bilko, Dad’s Army, The Morecambe and Wise Show. We have to go to the idyllic fictional world of P. G. Wodehouse (that Eden from which we are all exiled, as Evelyn Waugh once said), to the charm of Pickwick Papers. Or to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, or to Verdi’s Falstaff. Not that these worlds are entirely untroubled, of course: Wodehouse’s world, admittedly, is of sunny, cloudless skies, where the worst danger to be faced is that of Bertie being hitched up to Madeleine Bassett; but Pickwick Papers is darkened by those extraordinary chapters of the debtors’ prison; Hans Sachs does not find it easy to acknowledge his advancing years, and to renounce that one hope of happiness he had cherished; and even Falstaff, at one point, threatens to descend into those dark regions of Otello, as Ford is overcome by an insane jealousy. We know of course that there is no real danger of the darkness overwhelming the light: the very fact that these works are all set out as comedies reassures us. The presence of the darkness can be and often is acknowledged. But that darkness is, in one way or another, overcome: unlike in Tristan & Isolde, there is more to look forward to here than merely death.

But works such as this – works that affirm – seem to me these days to be increasingly rare. It is almost as if writers can no longer believe in affirmation. Or that they consider it trivial, or self-deluding. Have we, I wonder, lost the ability to affirm in the face of it all? I’d guess we haven’t lost the ability to respond to it, to judge from my response (and not merely my response) to Die Meistersinger; or to judge by the continuing popularity of Wodehouse, or the re-runs of Dad’s Army. But possibly we no longer believe in it strongly enough to create it.

“There are dark shadows on the earth,” writes Dickens towards the end of Pickwick Papers, “but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light.” But, he continues “we … have no such powers”. Dickens’ eyesight, admittedly, did change later in his literary career: it became more bat-like, more owl-like. But I for one remain grateful that before this change in his eyesight, he gave us Pickwick Papers. And one can be equally grateful that Verdi, after a career of composing tragic operas, signed off with that miraculous work of true comedy, Falstaff; or that Wagner, in between composing operas about lovers longing for death or about the end of the world gave us Die Meistersinger. The comic vision is one that enhances our lives, and to lose it would be tragic.