In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Ibsen's Cycle as Hegelian Tragedy Brian Johnston ? The Inutility ofTragedy. Tragedy, in the modern theater, is a genre more honored in repute than in performance, and Ibsen, inasmuch as he is admired, is not admired generally as a tragedian . In college courses tragedy, in various guises, is taught respectfully ; and having a "tragic vision" is always considered an impressive cachet for a dramatist to possess. But the creation of a full scale, multidimensional tragic argument about the modern world (of Aristotelian "magnitude") does not appeal to theatergoers , (still less to film-goers) nor to modern playwrights. It goes against the thrust of current actor training, too, which is to keep the actor reassuringly close to the same level of experience as audiences, to get audiences to find themselves on familiar ground with the actor and the world of the play and not to establish the undemocratic aesthetic distance that the scale of action and the expanding perspectives necessary to tragedy insist upon. Revivals of Greek tragedy, like those of Serban, Suzuki, Sellars or Mnouchkine1, reveal the power ofancient tragedy to speak effectively through specially devised new theatric conventions: but the exoticism of these productions keeps the details of our own contemporary world unrealized from tragic perspectives. The same goes for Elizabethan revivals: even in modern dress, the terms of these tragedies are not those of our modern world so that the experience of the tragic becomes part of an exotic excursion into foreign, and so safer, territory. As George Bernard Shaw remarked, "Shakespeare has put ourselves on the stage, but not our situations. . . . Ibsen supplies the want left by Shakespeare . He gives us not only ourselves, but ourselves in our situations ."2 Or, rather, our situations transfigured by tragic perspectives . Perhaps the most compelling tragic vision in twentieth century drama is that of Samuel Beckett, which recovered a tragic voice for the modern theater often through the devices of comedy . The tragic argument ofBeckett's later plays, by increasingly 140 Brian Johnston141 narrowing the focus of the dramatic agon to a single, inward, particular state of agonized consciousness, attained a form of tragic universality much like Everyman: each of us ultimately is alone with his or her particular and personal devastation. But no more than the Greek and Elizabethan revivals did this theater organize the objective concerns of our complexly experienced contemporary world and its cultural conflicts into a tragic art in the way in which the concerns of the Athenian polis or the Elizabethan world-view were so organized. T. S. Eliot's The Family Reunion is an honorable exception to the rule that the concerns of modern culture seem unfavorable to a full-scale tragic argument . The arena of contemporary cultural conflict attracts adherents of many social projects who believe drama is doing its best work when advancing one or another of these agendas. It clearly is extremely desirable that we should be conscious of, for example , the failure of our social systems and the injustices suffered by one or another group through the insensitivities of the culture at large. To what better task can serious drama set itself, it might be asked, than to make the public more conscious of these shortcomings and eager to do something about them? To counter with the argument that the purpose of a tragic art is to be adequately tragic—convincingly, devastatingly tragic—might seem a copout from the urgent demands of the culture. This is what proponents of Enlightenment "serious drama" (drames)—Diderot, Beaumarchais, Mercer, Marmontel—believed; it is what George Bernard Shaw proclaimed in The Quintessence of Ibsenism—a brilliant handbook for the practical application ofIbsen's plays. Shaw's is still the prevalent view in interpreting the Ibsen who, we are asked to believe, gave up the huge mythopoetic, metaphysical, and tragic perspectives of his middle-period plays, Brand, Peer Gynt, Emperor and Galilean, to address instead "the problems of the present." His plays, from this view, are utilitarian : ferreting out shortcomings in the bourgeoisie to guide that troubled class towards leading freer, less problematic lives— which is as far from the hazards ofthe tragic vision as it is possible to go. Even comedy, in its strictest...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 140-165
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.