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Some Late Reflections on Tragedy and Its Theatrical Chemistry J. L. Styan All criticism likes to classify, but in the case of dramatic criticism classification is an essential operation, since the decision whether a play is a tragedy or a comedy, a farce or a melodrama, has crucial implications for the director and his actors. An implicit decision about genre, its nature and purposes, indeed, has its effects upon a whole production, upon its conventions and all that go with it—costume, setting, lighting, style of speech and movement, music. The determination is fundamentally one about the desired control of, and effect upon, the audience itself. Nevertheless , classification is far from straightforward. Over a period of some two thousand years the pressures of widely different cultures and conventions on the stage have brought about sweeping changes in practice. The student of drama who is curious about the problem of dramatic kinds will encounter a forest of different genres and sub-genres, and each in its own way will differ according to its historical and topical context. However, there is a way into the maze. Every dramatic genre must answer two questions: the why —what is the intended effect of this genre upon the given audience ? and the how—what qualities of style and performance are accordingly demanded? To seek to answer these questions is to try to identify the characteristics of the genre, and the key to the answers is to be pragmatic, testing theory against practice. That said, the ancient division of drama into tragedy and comedy still provides a first guide to the activity of the theater: the division points to the enduring alternatives in people's attitude to life, and the beginnings of drama reveal that its basic features persist. I Tragedy, historically the most dignified and ritualistic of dramatic genres, calls for the spectator's most passionate response. 166 J. L. Styan167 Nevertheless, in the last three hundred years it is not so easy to find a true and rigorous example, and modern discussion tends to turn on our suppositions about the tragedy of the remote past, specifically that from ancient Athens, Elizabethan and Jacobean London, the Golden Age in Spain, and the neoclassical theater of seventeenth-century Paris under Louis IV. Even then, these periods differ greatly from one another, and even among the tragedies of, say, Euripides or Shakespeare no two are alike. Nevertheless , their best examples cannot be ignored and must provide our starting point. The tone and effect of tragedy were long ago identified by Aristotle as those of pain, usually of punishment for sin. In his Poetics he points to both the purpose and the method, writing that a tragedy is the imitation of an action with incidents arousing pity and fear;1 thereafter the critical debate has been ceaseless . It was pain felt by the central character, but shared between the stage and the audience, and made worse because its source was mysterious. Tragedy also implied a struggle within that character , an act of self-knowledge which was inescapable, brought about by forces beyond its control. Cocteau introduced his version of the Oedipus story, La Machine infernale, with the words, Watch now, spectator. Before you is a fully wound machine. Slowly its spring will unwind the entire span of a human life. It is one of the most perfect machines devised by the infernal gods for the mathematical annihilation of a mortal.2 Moreover, the emotions of pity and fear were painful because they were also in conflict with one another: pity involves the urge to approach and share, and fear the urge to retreat and evade. Watching great tragedy, therefore, the spectator was torn apart. To achieve these extraordinary and powerful effects, the style of tragedy was traditionally one of grandeur: it has always adopted a non-naturalistic, penetrating, lyrical mode of speech and movement. It has also assumed a ritual quality that was repeated with each performance: highly conventional, it spoke for the community and for mankind, so that its subjects acquired a mythical status. It aimed at universality, as Allardyce Nicoll insisted in The Theory ofDrama, with symbolic and moral implications for all who saw it.3...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 166-176
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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