- Tragic Modernities by Meriam Leonard, and: Adorno and Modern Theatre: The Drama of the Damanged Self in Bond, Rudkin, Barker, and Kane by Karoline Gritzner
Tragedy and modernity have had a contested relationship in critical theory. They divide on the one side along the lines of classicism (Aristotle) and neoclassicism as “pure” tragedy, and on the other Romanticism, eventuating into modern realism and the avant-garde, as the root of modernity. Two works in particular, George Steiner’s The Death of Tragedy and Raymond Williams’s Modern Tragedy, both written in the 1960s, lay the groundwork in considering their combination (or lack thereof): Steiner posits an incompatibility between tragedy and modernity, whereas Williams postulates a mutuality via modern alienation. The books under review here add considerably to the debate, with both largely supporting Williams over Steiner, asserting that modernity serves as fecund ground through which tragedy reconfigures and amplifies its aesthetic accountability. Meriam Leonard’s Tragic Modernities contends that German idealism’s emphasis on tragedy (primarily Schelling, Hegel, and Hölderlin) initiates modern tragedy by situating the tragic in the conflict between individual freedom and collective necessity. The German idealist concept of tragedy “inaugurates the entry of tragedy into modern thought” (5), Leonard argues, by demonstrating “not just how tragedy has shaped modern political discourse, but also how the political debates of modernity can offer important insight into tragic theatre” (10). Similarly, Karoline Gritzner’s Adorno and Modern Theatre uses Adorno as the template to examine modern political thought and human suffering through tragic representation, where Adorno, while supporting art generally, calls into question modern aesthetic experience as, in Gritzner’s words, an “anathema in the discourse of the culture industry” (4).
Leonard examines tragedy in light of revolution, metaphysics, history, gender, and subjectivity. Modern tragedy, she says in her first chapter, draws from Marxism the “functioning in a modern world that includes revolution and the oppressive social structures that necessitate it” (38). In this way, Leonard challenges the left-wing dismissal of tragedy for its alleged anti-revolutionary “quietism and irrationalist nihilism” (40); instead (building on Raymond Williams), “tragedy both describes the conditions of alienation that make revolution desirable and critiques the willful blindness of revolutions that fail to acknowledge the persistence of human suffering in their midst” (ibid.). “Tragedy and Metaphysics,” examines the freedom verses necessity conflict essential to Hegel, Schelling, and Hölderlin. Taking as a starting point Das älteste Systemprogramm des deutschen Idealismus (The Oldest Program for a System of German Idealism , also called the System-Programme and likely written by the three idealists), this fragmentary text, influenced by Kant, posits a merger of philosophy, ethics, and poetry. Kant divided reason, ethics, and aesthetics into three separate entities (Critiques); the idealists embraced Kant’s themes, but denied parsing, arguing instead for a synergistic and unifying alliance of the concepts. The German idealists, writes Leonard, called for a “new mythology,” one that rejects the tripartite arrangements “that arise from Kant’s critical system with a plea for a return to antiquity. Where the legacy of Kantian thought had left nature in conflict with reason, philosophy at odds with art, and the populace distanced from the thinkers” (47), the System-Programme and its followers called for a return to Hellenism and the appropriation of its unifying aesthetics.
“Tragedy and History” centers on Carl Schmitt, an unrepentant Nazi sympathizer, whose 1956 book Hamlet or Hecuba: The Intrusion of Time into the Play examines the relationship of tragedy and history. In her effort to validate though not redeem Schmitt, Leonard calls attention to his similarities with liberal philosophers (Adorno and Benjamin) by locating Schmitt’s emphasis on myth as a coadunate with history. For Schmitt, she writes, “myth does not stand opposed to history but rather represents a shared knowledge that is comparable to the common experience of historical actuality” (87). Contextualized within Greek tragedy, “the mythic worlds of Orestes, Oedipus, and Hercules have the same...