- The Story of Drama: Tragedy, Comedy and Sacrifice from the Greeks to the Present by Gary Day
This is both an ambitious and frustrating book. It offers powerful insights into the workings of sacrifice in both tragic and comic modes of drama, and offers a wide set of historical examples of how sacrifice is embedded in both modes. But Day's assertions and conclusions are often vague, and hedged, as we shall see, with explicit limitations. Nonetheless, the book's final chapters bring its insights together, offering the kind of critical depth and potential richness that reward close reading.
Day states that his purpose is first to "sketch" the "status" of tragedy and comedy in the period covered in each chapter. While "status" is vague indeed, the "sketch" is often a substantive one of the circumstances, uses, and importance of tragic and comic drama in the period in question. Given this context in each chapter, he will then "show that sacrifice is an important element of both genres" (1). Day reviews some of the theory and anthropology of sacrifice, and comes to this conclusion: "Sacrifice … is best considered as a narrative …which gives shape and meaning to existence. It creates a connection between life and death and establishes a relation between humans and the wider cosmos" (9). These [End Page 136] deeper and larger relationships are expressed in the form of sacrificial ritual. In the chapter that follows, "Tragedy, Comedy, and Ritual," Day discusses the nature of ritual and concludes that drama and ritual "are much more closely related than we sometimes think" (21). This is unworkably vague, but instead of clarifying, Day goes on to hedge his vague claim: "The claim is not that sacrificial ritual is the key to how our minds perceive things, only that it appears to be a factor in how we can see and conceive them" (22). For Day, the importance of sacrificial ritual in understanding the deep structures of drama emerges this way: "what is remarkable about sacrificial ritual is that despite the rise and fall of different belief systems, all of which drama registers, it remains a fairly constant presence" (22). But mere presence is not significance.
In seven chapters covering Greek and Roman drama through twentieth- and twenty-first-century drama, Day attempts to reveal the presence of sacrificial ritual and discover at least some of that significance. He discusses major cultural changes that surround each period—the rise of Christianity, the emergence of Protestantism, the advent of science, the shock of the industrial revolution—and how these changes influenced what is received as tragic or comic. Then Day analyzes individual plays, digging to find essential markers of sacrifice. Are the victims scapegoats? Are they made holy by the sacrifice? But this digging rapidly becomes a routine labeling exercise, which barely connects to the action of the play at hand or its tragic (or comic) workings. The intent is to detect each play's understructure by discerning certain kinds of action in it, without much regard for dramatic context. Day does sometimes probe further, asking whether, and how, the deep structure of the action might reveal hints of primal ancient sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of the primal father, or the suppression of the female power, as in the murder of Clytemnestra in the Oresteia. (135, 151). No others are examined, and there is no open inquiry asking what other deep structures might be found.
Day points out that tragedy changes, both within Ancient Greece, and since then. Indeed, he contends that in more recent times, while comedy has thrived and remained relatively stable, tragedy has been in difficulty and on the wane (157, 177, 180). These would be important assertions to examine, particularly asking how these changes might relate to sacrifice, and how contemporary dramatic series on television—tragic or comic—might embody their attendant sacrificial rituals. However, Day offers no evidence for his assertions, and the argument is not pursued.
In just a few plays, Day finds what he...