Yet tragedies were originally performed at Athenian festivals of the wine-god Dionysus, and their forebear is most likely to have been Dionysus's danced hymn, the "dithyramb". For Greek tragedy required chorus and actors to sing: indeed, Monteverdi and his colleagues in the Italian renaissance believed it to have been entirely musical, and in imitating it accidentally invented opera.
The earliest surviving tragedy is Aeschylus's Persians (472 BC), though more people are familiar with his Oresteia. The second great tragedian was Sophocles, who in plays such as Oedipus Tyrannus created what we understand as the individual "tragic hero". Next came Euripides, with his shocking female leads, such as Medea. All three were imitated by the Romans, but the only surviving Latin tragedies are those of Seneca (first century AD). Senecan tragedy is imbued with Stoic philosophy's conflict between passion and reason, obsessed with the supernatural, and bloodier than its Greek precursors. It fundamentally influenced renaissance neoclassical tragedy, which emulated its five-act structure, figured rhetoric and fascination with revenge.
Everyone's popular conception of tragedy derives ultimately from Aristotle's Poetics. Plato had banned tragedy from his ideal Republic on the ground that it encouraged transvestism and unmanly weeping; his pupil Aristotle responded by maintaining that it elicited the emotions of pity and fear in a constructive process involving catharsis.
Tragedy is conventionally set in the past. The Italians and French embraced myth, which Sartre called "serious theatre's true battleground". But English tragedians always preferred (allegedly) authentic historical figures: Ben Jonson thought that the "truth of argument" of his Sejanus enhanced its emotional impact. Death is central to tragedy: thus the play-within- a-play in A Midsummer-Night's Dream is "tragicall ... for Piramus therein doth kill himselfe".
Superior tragedies contemplate the conflict between autonomous human action and forces beyond human control, whether conceived as the decrees of the Delphic oracle, or as Gloucester's famous gods in King Lear, killing humans as wanton boys kill flies for their sport. George Steiner argued in The Death of Tragedy that the form is defunct precisely because the dominant thought systems of the 20th-century West, Marxism and Christianity, cannot accommodate the old Hellenic notions of blind fate or unjust gods.
Chaucer defined a tragedy as a story "of hym that stood in greet prosperitee/And is yfallen out of heigh degree/ Into myserie, and endeth wrecchedly": the heroes in tragedy, classically conceived, must be of "heigh degree".
There was long a genre distinction between "aristocratic" tragic heroes and comedy's plebeian characters. Tragedy proper thus ended with the ancien regime in 1789: the French revolutionary dramatist Beaumarchais (who composed the libretto for Mozart's Marriage of Figaro), wrote that tragedy must henceforward focus on people of "ordinary degree" rather than kings.
Many subsequent serious dramas about "ordinary" people can arguably be called "tragedies" (Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, Pinter's The Caretaker, Synge's Riders to the Sea). Arthur Miller thinks that true tragedy lies in the kinds of questions a writer asks rather than in a specific form, and has himself a claim to the title of "20th-century tragedian'. In his Death of a Salesman, the lowly Willy Loman, brought ineluctably into conflict with the expectations of a restrictive society, approaches the heroic stature of the Sophoclean Oedipus.
Even Chaucer's view that the tragic hero is "yfallen" and "endeth wrecchedly" is traceable to Aristotle: for him the best tragic plot featured a successful individual making a mistake (hamartia, eg marrying your mother), leading to a reversal of fortune. This need for a "wretched ending" explains why tragedy is dead in today's cinemas, our equivalent of the Athenian theatre of Dionysus.
Unhappy endings are uncommercial, as Robert Altman so acerbically observed in his satire on the film industry, The Player. The film-within-the-film was to have ended with Julia Roberts executed in the gas chamber, but commercial pressures forced the substitution of her rescue by that unlikely deus ex machina, Bruce Willis. Perhaps our modern consciousness is so overwhelmed by the real human tragedies relayed by the media that it can no longer tolerate downbeat closure in its recreational fictions.
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