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BOOK REVIEWS METATHEATRE: A NEW VIEW OF DRAMATIC FORM, by Lionel Abel, Hill and Wang, New York, 1963, 146 pp. Price $3.95 (cloth), $1.45 (paper). As a respected member of the American Critical Establishment and as a play­ wright of substantial achievement, Lionel Abel has probed a question which has harassed critics from Aristotle on: how to describe that drama neither “tragic” nor “comic,” for which “tragicomedy” has never quite seemed an adequate label. The goals he has set for himself—“to explain why tragedy is so difficult, if not altogether impossible, for the modern dramatist” and “to suggest the nature of a comparably philosophic form of drama”—have made stronger men quake. Unfortunately, his accomplishemnt here is far from being unified or coherent, and Abel’s admission in the preface that the work is not systematic only briefly beguiles the reader. This gathering of essays (some new, some old, but all written independently) is divided into three sections, “Tragedy,” “Metatheatre,” and “Relevancies.” The first, only incidentally concerned with modem drama, sets the scene for the subsequent discussion of the ways “metatheatre” differs from “tragedy.” In the first of his two essays on tragedy, Abel considers "Daemons, True and False” and tests his definition of hubris (not “insolence” but the nature of a character who “acts as if he had already undergone tragedy, when in fact tragedy is awaiting him”) in relation to Sophoclean tragedy and Macbeth (“Shakespeare’s one real tragedy”). In the second and much longer essay on tragedy, Abel bears down on Racine and, particularly, Athalie. Here, as elsewhere, one cannot find a single page which does not at once challenge and exasperate. He is easily led off on digressions and, while the verbal texture becomes undeniably rich at such points, they obscure his larger purposes and, even more unfortunately, emphasize his fondness for dogmatic pronouncements. Abel’s view of tragedy comes most clearly into focus at the end of his second group of essays where he sums up the “values and disvalues” of tragedy and “metatheatre” with such generalizations as these: Tragedy gives by far the stronger sense of the reality of the world. Metatheatre gives by far the stronger sense that the world is a projection of human consciousness. . . . Tragedy cannot operate without the assump­ tion of an ultimate order. For metatheatre, order is something continually improvised by men. . . . Tragedy, from the point of view of metatheatre, is our dream of the real. Metatheatre, from the point of view of tragedy, is as real as are our dreams. . . . Tragedy transcends optimism and pes­ simism, taking us beyond both these attitudes. Metatheatre makes us forget the opposition between optimism and pessimism by forcing us to wonder, (p. 113) To be carried to such heights of abstraction in a nonsystematic work is likely to leave most readers very lightheaded indeed. In the nine essays which make up this second section, Abel touches base on enough issues for several books, all of which would stir up every hornets’ nest of traditionalist criticism. In “Hamlet Q.E.D.” he confronts Eliot’s charges by as­ suming that no Elizabethan (including Shakespeare) could “make a true tragedy of Hamlet’s story” (p. 41). Hamlet is “one of the first characters to be free of his author’s contrivances” (p. 58) and “the first stage figure with an acute aware­ ness of what it means to be staged” (pp. 57-8). After Hamlet, according to Abel, “unless there is to be a new culture whose values we can scarcely foresee—no 119 120 Modern Drama May dramatist has the right to let any supposedly self-conscious character on the stage who does not collaborate in his dramatization” (p. 58). In short, Hamlet makes sense and all the "old problems” disappear as soon as we recognize that Shake­ speare pointed the way to Pirandello and “metatheatre.” Abel stakes out "metatheatre” territory—and even denotes it a “special genre” (p. 59)—in relation to tragedy and comedy. Using a necessitarian definition, he regards tragedy as dependent on the irrevocability of dramatic events not so much imagined as observed in the real world. By simple inversion, comedy be­ comes contingent upon the...


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pp. 119-121
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