- Eclipse of Action: Tragedy and Political Economy by Richard Halpern
Richard Halpern's erudite book Eclipse of Action: Tragedy and Political Economy parses the transformations of tragedy in the West from the Oresteia to Sarah Kane's Blasted. Halpern does so by tracing the fate of action through a sequence of plays and economic, philosophical, and aesthetic writings, beginning with Aristotle, for whom action was the soul of drama. Throughout, Halpern juxtaposes action (synonymous in his argument with doing and praxis)to production (synonymous with making and poesis) as the dialectical poles of tragedy, though one is typically historically subordinated to the other (33). The Greeks, for example, foregrounded the realm of pure action pursued by warriors and kings at the expense of the productive labor of women and slaves. In Halpern's reading, the "eclipse of action" referred to in his title occurred, historically, with the rise of fully commercial society in early capitalism. If early modern tragedy merely anticipated this eclipse, Adam Smith's writings mark its full arrival. His essays on political economy coincide, in Halpern's account, with the rise of the novel and its displacement of tragedy for the next several hundred years. If tragedy has had a partial revival in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Halpern argues that it has been only in historically novel forms that either privatize individual suffering and remove it from the realm of political action (Miller), or veer toward tragicomedy (Beckett) or postdramatic theater (Kane).
For Halpern, tragedy as an art form is a particularly keen barometer of the constantly changing tension between action and production because it is itself "a poiesis or making that imitates a praxis or action" (9). Many of the plays that Halpern analyzes are supremely self-conscious of this paradox and make it part of their investigation of action's relationship to making. Halpern does not attempt to value one term over the other, though action is linked for him, from the Greeks onward, [End Page 299] with political action and the creation of a polis able to debate and to act. He argues that the rise of political economy neutralizes political action. If, in theory, labor were to shake off its chains and claim its place as the agent of history, production could then be joined to political action in a revolutionary process. The arc of Halpern's book, however, does not bend toward revolution. At best he finds that tragic drama—as an example of what Marx calls "free productive activity" (106)—persists, in its striving for excellence, as the counterpart to political action (107) and retains the capacity to create dissatisfaction with the world as it is.
Shakespeare Quarterly readers will probably be most interested in how this argument plays out in Halpern's treatment of Doctor Faustus, Hamlet, and Samson Agonistes. Important preparation, however, occurs in chapter 2, "Greek Tragedy and the Raptor Economy: The Oresteia," in which Halpern brilliantly sets out the priority of action in Greek tragedy as it relates to King Agamemnon, but then pivots to show how his actions are countered by Clytemnestra, keeper of the oikos, seeking vengeance for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. What ensues is a contest between the polis and the oikos, action and production, that leads over the course of the trilogy to constantly shifting relations of the one to the other. By contrast, Halpern contends, tragedy in the early modern period from its inception brings the aristocratic realm of action directly into contact with the plebeian world of making, in part through its subplots (a point made some time ago by Robert Weimann), and in part by its entanglement with the material apparatus of a thoroughly commercial theater. Perhaps the clearest illustration of this thesis is Halpern's reading of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, in which he sees both Faustus and Marlowe as selling something—a soul on the one hand and a play on the other—in ways that alienate both figures from their labor. As Faustus becomes dependent on Mephistopheles for...