Certain 20th-century literary critics have maintained that "Tragedy is dead." Their rationale is that the debunking and unheroic nature of modern times does not permit the kind of hero around which a tragedy is built. However, I would argue somewhat differently.
Modern Tragedy: Alive and Well and Better than Ever
Modern literature is a deceptive term, in that our conception of literature itself has evolved so dramatically in the last century. Though some forms, like the novel, have remained popular throughout Western history, albeit undergoing drastic stylistic changes, other archetypes seem to have sunk into the quagmire of antiquity. One example of these is the tragic drama; many 20th century critics have argued that because of the state of our society, contemporary tragic heroes do not deserve to be categorized with their more ancient predecessors. These scholars would consider tragedy to be essentially a dead art form. Others hypothesize that the genre may simply have undergone a change into something less poignant and powerful, while nevertheless remaining true to its roots in traditional Greek theatre. However, it can be argued that each of these explanations represents a fundamental misinterpretation of both modern literature and the very nature of tragedy. Because the spirit of the tragic genre is such a seminal part of human nature, the tragic hero exists today in as pure a sense as ever, yet in a form that rejects the limits imposed by tradition.
Regardless of the conditions of society, human nature prevents us from losing the concept of tragedy as an element of creative literature. After all, central to tragedy as a genre are the concepts of fate and its fickle nature, empathy, tension, release, and self-doubt. All of these ideas were known by the Greeks as fundamental to the nature of this type of drama, and yet they remain today as large a part of human nature as they have always been. A good example of this is what Aristotle called anagnorisis: the moment when the hero of a tragedy fully recognizes what is going on, like Creon’s sudden change of heart, catalyzed by Tereisias’s prophecy, in Sophocles’s Antigone. Although this instant varies in definition among examples of tragedy, the basic concept of a change from ignorance to knowledge is always to be found somewhere in the work. However, what anagnorisis really represents is one of the three most basic conflicts upon which all literature is based; specifically, that of “man versus self.” Humanity’s potential to act incorrectly in a situation, and later to hate themselves for it, is a basic part of human nature, and it is no coincidence that it is also woven intricately into the tragic archetype.
Another concept of tragedy that represents human nature is the ability of an audience to empathize with a tragic hero, provided the hero is properly characterized. Related to this is the concept of catharsis, or the feeling of a viewer upon the release of tension that has built up during the tragedy. Because humanity’s empathic nature is so ingrained in our society and psychology, it cannot be vanquished from our literature, and it seems to fit particularly well into the tragic motif. The final aspect of tragedy that seems fundamental in human nature is the idea of predestination – an ominous fate that cannot be escaped, like the portent concerning Oedipus’s future. Since ancient times, humans have wrestled with the question of free will and destiny; the Greeks personified their lack of control in the figures of their deities. Despite the cultural shift that has occurred since then, and the more secular nature of modern literature, this aspect of tragedy can never truly disappear, for the internal dilemma we face over our destinies is one humanity will always struggle with. All of these aspects of human nature are central to tragedy, and remain important and necessary in modern literature, showing tragic literature to be as necessary to humanity as any form of artistic representation.
As this suggests, tragic heroes and story patterns can actually be found throughout modern drama, if looked for in the right way. These figures are not necessarily similar to the works of the ancient Greeks, yet they nevertheless possess the same sort of power and have the same effect upon the viewer as more traditional tragedies do. One example that has been previously mentioned by certain 21st-century literary thinkers is the movie American Beauty (for in many ways, the motion picture has all but replaced the stage as the medium of choice in which a truly powerful story can be told). Although the philosophy of the film is intended to raise doubt in the viewer’s mind as the whether or not the protagonist-figure, Lester Burnham, is to be truly pitied, he is nevertheless a tragic hero in most respects. His abandonment of social norms and nonconformity give him great power in every sense of the word, yet at the same time, his family remains a great weakness. This figure of power and weakness echoes exactly the character of king Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone, down to the specific weakness the hero possesses. In addition to providing him power, however, Burnham’s unique perspective, along with a profound misunderstanding of his wife’s psyche (again echoing Sophocles), proves to be his eventual downfall. This, in turn, leads to an ending that can only be described as tragic. While this description ignores many aspects of American Beauty, it still demonstrates clearly that Burnham is a tragic hero, and that the movie in its most basic form is a tragedy, albeit one that is meant to be construed as something more.
Still, even more traditional tragedies can be found among modern films, an example of which being Braveheart, possessing what is arguably among the most tragic endings of all literature, all the more poignant for its historical foundation. William Wallace, again the protagonist of the story, dies in the end for fighting on behalf of his Scottish nationalism, his power and eventual downfall being an absolute faith in the fundamental goodness of his compatriots, who themselves betray him. Such a story exemplifies the Aristotlean ideal of a tragic hero even better than does Sophocles’ Creon, however, for it is a classic case of a naive hero’s only failing being a misunderstanding of the fallibility of human nature! Clearly, Wallace’s tale is a tragedy in the truest sense.
But not all modern tragedies are contained in and of themselves, for some are encased within larger, more “marketable” stories. A prime example, and an extremely heart-wrenching one, is the premature death of “G-Baby,” a young character in Keanu Reeves’s movie Hardball. A child of the inner city projects, his interior goodness is not enough to save him from the aweful destiny in store for him, and perhaps nowhere else is the Greeks’ concept of nemesis, or inescapable fate, better displayed. Although G-Baby is not the protagonist of the film, the subplot concerning his own struggle with survival represents a “mini-tragedy” in itself. Overall, tragedy can in no way be considered a “dead” literary form, for it is alive and well within our modern cinematic heritage, and is there to be appreciated if one knows where to look.
However, despite its fundamental similarity to the traditional archetype, modern tragedy seems to take a form quite unlike anything found in traditional tragic drama.While the basic forms of tragic heroes and dark, fatalistic plots have persisted, the structure and function of tragic drama seems to have shifted in several directions from its place in Greek society. Continuing with the example set by Antigone, Greek tragedy and its more traditional successors make definite social commentaries, demonstrating the central nature of the arts in their cultures. Sophocles’ characters make profound statements about life and philosophy in the odes of the chorus, demonstrating the complexity and importance of religion, government, love, hate, and other basic aspects of humanity. Similarly, more modern tragedies, like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, while confining themselves to a more in-depth exploration of a single theme, make equally powerful statements about the same human values. In an age of musicals, summertime blockbusters and teen movies, however, modern “drama” – from Broadway theatre to cinema – may be considered solely as entertainment for its own sake. Even darker, less cliche movies try to tell a story, and let the audience get what it will from the tale, rather than forcing it upon them in the manner of Sophocles. It is this difference that makes reading Greek or Shakespearian drama today a somewhat difficult endeavor, for high school students may not be used to the level of meaning and art packed into every line of these sort of plays.
In this sense, modern tragedy, though identical or similar in form to its precursors, remains unfullfilled in terms of the Greek definition of the art form. However, on another level, perhaps technology and society have both advanced to the point where tragedy is, in a sense, “obsolete.” It is arguable that a truly powerful film has potential to change society far beyond what the Greek playwrights may have imagined, despite being presented in a form that audiences can derive entertainment from. An example of this is the so-called “cult” genre of film, actually an overarching term for cinema that a subset of society has deemed more meaningful than mere entertainment. The social messages presented in a powerful motion picture are infectious in their ability to spread far more rapidly than those in a play, a phenomenon even more pronouned due to the more recent development of the Internet. The end result is that literature that contains tragic struggles, just like American Beauty or Braveheart or Hardball can have truly far-reaching impact on our social consciousnesses, though perhaps these effects are in truth more subconscious than conscious. It is undeniable, however, that the modern literature of our era, in which are contained motifs as true to the concepts of tragedy as any ancient Greek drama, has gone far beyond anything the Greeks might have imagined in terms of impact and influence. In this sense, modernity has not served to suppress the nature of tragedy, but to broadcast it to the world, hidden in forms more easily digestable to the masses.
Far from fading away with the passing millenia, tragedy has remained a viable and especially potent aspect of modern literature, having actually evolved during this era to a new level of social and cultural importance. Not only do tragic figures remain some of the saddest and most memorable in literature today, but their influence has, if anything, increased exponentially in the last century. In many ways, the somewhat unusual “fate” to which tragedy as a genre has succumbed is indicative of the state of modern literature as a whole. Despite the ubiquitous respect and admiration we hold for the great writing of the past, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Dickens, literature remains a powerful force in peoples lives today. It is part of the allure and potency of a good book that each reader understands it in an entirely different way, and that one never knows what effect the very book one is reading may eventually have upon the world. Who knows what movies and plays, memoirs and novels of today may end up the great classics of the future, holding a place on history’s bookshelf right next to the work of someone like Sophocles?