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  • Tragedy After Darwin:Timberlake Wertenbaker Remakes "Modern" Tragedy
  • Sara Freeman (bio)

None of the plays in this volume has easy answers, none had an easy reception, and they are permeated with sadness: the sadness I have felt that in this twenty-first century, in this third millennium, human beings are in trouble in some way. They have lost their certainty. Perhaps it was never really there.... Perhaps this was lost with Darwin, then lost more profoundly in the twentieth century, partly through an awareness of the limits of science, its own uncertainty; and partly because of the savagery of the wars; then lost again with the fall of political ideologies in 1989; and now with 11 September, when even the rules of hostility have changed. Indeed, when there seem to be no rules.

-Timberlake Wertenbaker, Plays Two1

What type of play can a playwright compose that adequately reflects this decentered sadness ringed by savagery? Is tragedy, or a type of tragedy, the form that must call to this sadness, especially since, as Terry Eagleton somewhat ruefully notes in Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, "The truth is that no definition of tragedy more elaborate than 'very sad' has ever worked."2 Sadness lies at the heart of both the form of tragedy and its social meaning. In an age of sadness such as Wertenbaker describes, just as in the post-World War II moment described by Raymond Williams and Susan Sontag, a playwright might have to remake tragedy in the context of world events more tragic than any stage can seemingly record.3

To do so seems culturally efficacious because tragedy's elevated status commands certain types of attention. As Stephen Brockmann writes, "For centuries western writers and critics have viewed tragedy as central to their cultural tradition," and following Jean-Paul Vernant, a powerful conception of tragedy argues that as a form, tragedy rises to prominence in times of social upheaval and changing values.4 In the introduction to Theatre Journal's 2002 special issue on tragedy, David Román wants [End Page 201] to discuss tragedy because of his sense, made more acute by September 11, that when tragedy is at stake, theater's interaction with and use to the larger culture is really the topic, which follows Sontag's dictum that "modern discussions of the possibility of tragedy are not exercises in literary analysis; they are exercises in cultural diagnostics, more or less disguised."5

What consistently remains important about tragedy, then, is not its literary structure, but the sense that Western culture employs tragedy to understand itself when it is in crisis and that the literary structure therefore comes to reflect the culture's modes of exploring and, depending on the view of catharsis, its mode of confronting its crises and upheavals. Even though it premiered three years before September 11, 2001, Wertenbaker's After Darwin follows "after" tragedy in this vein, seeking a form that will allow the contents of contemporary crises to be explored and dealt with by an audience, all the while asking: how does tragedy persist, though changed, after Darwin?

As Stuart Young, Maya Roth, and I have argued elsewhere, in her plays Timberlake Wertenbaker insistently reworks dramatic form.6 Greek plays, as well Racine's Phèdre, stand prominent among the tragic texts to which Wertenbaker (re)turns. Her translations/adaptations of Sophocles' Theban plays and Euripides' Hecuba exert impact on not only Love of the Nightingale, but also Credible Witness. Dianeira works with and through Sophocles' Women of Trachis while Three Birds Alighting on a Field writes "after" the Philoctetes myth (also dramatized in Sophocles). Wertenbaker's own commentary, "The Voices We Hear," articulates how fully Greek tragedy inspires her theatrical mindscape.7 Meanwhile, Wertenbaker's version of Phèdre was workshopped and performed at Canada's Stratford Theatre Festival during the summer of 2009, before moving to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre in early 2010. Classical tragic forms collide, are questioned, and regularly emerge to new use in Wertenbaker's work.

Yet, while in her other original plays Wertenbaker has primarily "translated" Greek tragedy, After Darwin "carries across" and refigures other tragic principles and debates. After...


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pp. 201-227
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