Sep 1, 2011

TRAGEDY IN LITERATURE AND FILM


The photos: Lake Huron from the little town of St. Ignace, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, at the north end of the Mackinac Bridge. So, yes, I'm looking east at sunset, which doesn't quite amount to a tragic choice, does it?



I’ve often told students that there are only three works in Western culture that live up to Aristotle’s description of tragedy:  King Lear, The Great Gatsby, and the movie version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  Although my primary purpose was to provoke discussion, I think I believed it then and I think I still do.


The key is the issue of tragic greatness. The tragic hero must begin at, or rise to, a height of magnificence from which to fall.  It is not enough that the character fit other ingredients laid out in Aristotle’s Poetics—such as being a fundamentally virtuous  person in spite of the tragic  flaw, which causes terrible mistakes. Many characters in literature (and now film) go through falls from grace or good fortune, and for many we can locate Aristotelian elements, such as a point of reversal or recognition. But the character’s enduring those experiences does not define him as tragic.  He and his situation might be sad. He and his mistakes might cause the destruction of innocent bystanders (tragic waste). He can be more good than not, and he might be important in sociopolitical terms. But if he lacks greatness, his story is merely sad or pathetic, not tragic.

Somewhere along the line, I came to understand tragic greatness as largeness of character, a magnitude of personality, as trivializing as the word “personality” might sound.  A protagonist achieves the status of tragedy because he is extraordinary, qualitatively different from the other characters, some of whom might have been more virtuous, but none of whom is as grand. When the hero is on stage, others are dwarfed, even if they’re nice folks.

So who’s in the competition? Macbeth? That eloquent, hen-pecked sociopath? Hamlet? One more speechifier who thinks himself out of action? Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire?  The narcissistic phony, who contaminates everything she touches?  None of these.  

Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman?  His flaw and his sins are obvious, but where is his virtue, much less his greatness?  No. Loud, clueless, self-centered, manipulative, self-pitying Willie Loman is, at best, a pathetic Low-Man.

More interesting cases are Alan Strang (not Strange, or is he?) and his psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, in Peter Shaffer’s riveting  play, Equus. Can a pair of characters become one tragic hero? That’s a problem. Also, Alan might have the great passion of a tragic character, but I stumble at the prospect that pathological lust, rage, and mutilation amount to a tragic greatness of passion.  His doctor, Martin Dysart, is a candidate for tragic status, but isn’t he merely sad, as he stands there, contemplating and half-envying Alan’s great passion?  Is it evasive for me to offer that the play presents a tragedy, even though it lacks a tragic hero?

Troy Maxon in August Wilson’s Fences is another modern candidate for tragic status, but it’s difficult to accept Troy‘s bluster and rationalizations as noble passion. Like Macbeth and Hamlet, perhaps, his brand of verbal eloquence creates heat, not light; it poisons and confines Troy rather liberating him or his son.

As a genuine victim of American racism, Troy is perhaps more sympathetic than Willie Loman or Blanche DuBois, but  he’s closer to their kind of plight than Lear’s or Gatsby’s. He wants to limit his son to a cage of anger like his own, rather than freeing him, sending him through newly, slightly opened doors on a path away from American racism. I’d also argue that his wife, Rose, surpasses him in both virtue and greatness, but she is decidedly a supporting character, not a protagonist.

That’s more than enough for now. In responding to all this, please don’t feel limited to the works I’ve mentioned. Think of a literary or film character who falls from a greatness defined by his own largeness of personality, as well as his having the famous “tragic flaw” and thus producing mistakes as large and grand as he is. He’s also a character who experiences a point of recognition (think “epiphany”; think Aha moment—“That's where I blew it!”) before he falls—not necessarily dying, but falling from his original greatness, beauty,  and magnitude, his stage-seizing  presence.  

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6 comments:

altadenahiker said...

Oh, I like what you said and how you said it. I disagree completely.

Will be back.

Banjo52 said...

AH, well-played! Remember now, I'm only trying to pass on the thinking of Aristotle. Of course, that means he's filtered through BanjoBrain . . . I wonder how he'd feel about that.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Scarlett O'Hara, Tom Joad, Quasimoto, Captain Ahab?

Brenda's Arizona said...

C.S. Lewis? As portrayed in Shadowlands? His 'fall' was of an emotional bent - having spoken so strongly, so repeatedly on the laws of God, faith - only to fall when Joy dies. Tears fall, he falls, she dies.

Not at all what a is tragedy, but as a fall, it is realized.

Probably some would throw in Ken Lay, Bernie Madoff, Charles Manson, Eliot Spitzer?

Oh wait, are we to be discussing literature here? Oh.
Well, your photos are lovely. East to see sunset, eh? I'm confused...

Pasadena Adjacent said...

It occurred to me that the main character in the film Biutiful, might fit between the cracks in terms of your point of view. Do movies count if they're not adapted from a book? anyhow this one is haunting like Winter Bones. Interesting spin on redemption and human nature. It's left an impression

Banjo52 said...

I see your point on Ahab, the greatness, the magnificent obsession. But is he a fundamentally decent human? I don't remember feeling any affection for him or seeing him as a good guy who just got carried away. I wonder too, can obsession with REVENGE be magnificent? Or is it an inherently lesser, even base human drive?

I don't know the others recently enough or well enough to opine. I did have a thought about Winter's Bone, but I've only seen it the one time . . . I think it's worth discussion.

Brenda, don't know Shadowlands. I hope your real life examples are jokes!

Thanks on the photos. What I really meant, I guess, was that I was too lazy to drive a little west to see the sun set on Lake Michigan. But I'm OK with what I got--no flaming orange, more subtle, yet maybe not boring?

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