Chapter wise Summary: Modern Tragedy by Raymond Williams

Tragedy and Tradition



William’s writings in the post-war period had a kind of existentialist motif of blocked individual liberation. This essay is a discussion on the common and the traditional interpretations of tragedy. He has used his power of perception and has come with a strong thesis on the evolution of tragedy in the essay. In the previous essay, he tells the basics of tragedy in these words: we come to tragedy by many roads. It is an immediate experience, a body of literature, conflict of theory, an academic problem.



He believes that tragedy is not the death of kings; it is more personal and general. Tragedy is not simply death and suffering and it is certainly not accident. Nor is it simply a response to death and suffering. It is a particular kind of event and particular kind of response which are genuinely tragic and which the long tradition embodies. His basic thesis in this article is: the meaning of tragedy, the relationship of tradition to tragedy and the kinds of experience which we mistakenly call tragic.
We usually try to make a contrast between the traditional and the modern and try to compress and unify the various thinking of the past into a single tradition. About tradition Williams explains: it is a question, rather of realizing that a tradition is not the past; but an interpretation of the past – a selection and evaluation of ancestors rather than a neutral record and the present serves as a link between the traditional and the modern. When the unique Greek culture changed, the chorus which was the crucial element of dramatic form was discarded and the unique meaning of tragedy was lost. People think that the medieval period produced no tragedy, but Monk’s Tale is the example in which we see protagonist falling from prosperity to adversity. Later tragedy became more secularized in the Renaissance and Neoclassical age. Now a change was visible. The moving force of tragedy was now quite clearly a matter of behavior, rather than either a metaphysical condition or metaphysical fault.


Lessing (1729-81) was a noted German critic and dramatic poet. His major contribution to idea of tragedy is (a) a theoretical rejection of neo-classicism (b) a defense of Shakespeare (c) and an advocacy and writing of bourgeois tragedy. He said the Neoclassicism was a false classicism and the real inherit of the Greeks was Shakespeare and the real inherit of Shakespeare was the new national bourgeois tragedy. RW doesn’t agree with Lessing he holds that Shakespeare was not the real inherit of the Greeks; rather he was a major instance of a new kind of tragedy. The character of Elizabethan tragedy is determined by a very complicated relationship between elements of an inherited order and elements of a new humanism. If the historical idea of the development is to be fully understood, we must understand the complicated process of secularization. In a sense, all drama after Renaissance is secular and the only fully religious tragedy we have is Greek because Elizabethan drama was totally secular. There was a concept of good and evil and poetic justice.


Hegel (1770-1831) was a famous German Philosopher did not reject the moral scheme of poetic justice but he described it as a triumph of ordinary morality and the work that embodied it as a social drama rather than tragedy. What is important for Hegel is not the suffering ‘mere suffering’ but its causes. Mere pity and fear are not tragic. Tragedy recognizes suffering as ‘suspended over active characters entirely as the consequence of their own act’. It does not consider the external contingency beyond the control of the individual i.e. illness, loss of property, death or the like. For genuine tragedy, there must be individual freedom and independence. This conscious individuality is the only condition of tragedy.
Williams points two differences between modern and ancient tragedies. First, in ancient tragedy, the characters clearly represent the substantive ethical ends; in modern tragedy, ends are wholly personal. Secondly, in ancient tragedy, there is not only the downfall of conflicting persons and ends in the achievement of eternal justice. An individual may surrender his partial and under a higher command; in modern tragedy, the whole question of resolution is more abstract and colder. Reconciliation, when it comes, will often be within the character and will be more complicated. Hegel’s interpretation of tragedy is part of a general philosophy rather than a historical criticism.


Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and Nietzsche (1844-1900) are two German philosophers whose views also contributed to the development of tragedy. Before Schopenhauer, tragedy was associated with (a) ethical crises (b) human growth and (c) history. He secularized the idea of fate when he said, ‘the true sense of tragedy is the deeper insight, that is not his own individual sins that the hero atones for, but original sin, i.e. the crime of existence itself’. Tragedy, according to Nietzsche, dramatizes a tension, which it resolves in a higher unity. There the hero, the highest manifestation of the will, is destroyed, but the eternal life of the will remains unaffected. According to him, the action of tragedy is not moral, not purgative, but aesthetic.


Tragedy and Contemporary Ideas

Tragedy and Contemporary Ideas presents the discussion on tragedy in relation to the contemporary ideas. The writer has discussed the four things: (a) order and accident (b) the destruction of the hero (c) the irreparable action and its connections with death and (d) the emphasis of evil.


It is generally said that there is no significant meaning in ‘everyday tragedies’ because the event itself is not tragic; only becomes so with a through a shaped response. Williams does not not agree to this view. He cannot see how it is possible to distinguish between an event and response to an event, in any absolute way.


In the case of ordinary death and suffering, when we see mourning and lament, when we see people breaking under their actual loss, we have entered tragedy. Other responses are also possible such as indifference, justification, and rejoicing. But where we feel the suffering, we are within the dimensions of tragedy. But a burnt family or a mining disaster which leaves people without feeling are called Accidents. The events not seen as tragic are deep in the pattern of our own culture: war, famine, work, traffic, and politics.
To feel no tragic meaning in them is a sort of our bankruptcy. Rank was the dividing line because the death of some people mattered more than others. Our middle class culture rejects this. The tragic of a citizen could be as real as the tragedy of a prince. The emerging middle class rejected rank in tragedy. The individual was not a state; but the entity in himself.
Order in tragedy is the result of the action. In tragedy, the creation of order is related to the fact of disorder, through which the action moves. It may be the pride of man set against the nature of things. In different cultures, disorder and order both vary, for there are parts of varying general interpretations of life. We should see this variation as an indication of the major cultural importance of tragedy as form of art.
The most common interpretation of tragedy is that it is an action in which the hero is destroyed. The fact is seen irreparable. In most tragedies, the story does not end with the destruction of the hero; it follows on. It is not the job of the artist to provide answers and solutions; but simply describe experience and raise questions. Modern tragedy is not what happens to the hero; but what happens through him. When we concentrate on the hero, we are unconsciously confining our attention to the individual.
The tragic experience lies in the fact that life does not come back, that its meanings are reaffirmed and restored after so much suffering and after so important a death. Death gives importance and meaning to life. The death of an individual brings along the whole community in the form of rituals and condolence as in Adam Bede; so tragedy is social and collective and not individual and personal. Death is absolute and all our living simply relative. Death is necessary and all other human ends are contingent (social collectivity). Death is universal so a man tied to it quickly claims university.

Man dies alone is an interpretation and not a fact; because man dies in many different conditions i.e. among machines, due to bombs, in the arms, with or without family, in their presence and absence. When he dies, he affects others. He alters the lives of other characters. To insist on a single meaning is not reasonable. Our most common received interpretations of life put the highest value and significance on the individual and his development; but it is indeed inescapable that the individual dies. Tragedy dramatizes evil in many particular forms: not only Christian evil but also cultural, political and ideological. Good and evil are not absolute. We are good or bad in particular ways and in particular situations; defined by pressures we at one received and can alter and can create again.

Rejection of Tragedy

This essay is a study of the rejection of tragedy in modern age with special reference to Bertolt Brechet who founded epic theater as compared to the emotional theory of Aristotle. He rejected the conventional idea of tragedy and made tragedy more experiential and rational. He also said, ‘the sufferings of this man appeal me because they are unnecessary’. He made people think above the situation presented in the tragedy and not within. Aristotelian drama enforced thinking from within and Brechet’s theater from without. He used distancing affects to turn people like who sit in the chair, smoke and observe. He showed that the audience wanted to see. Williams has discussed six plays: The Three Penny Opera, Saint Joan of the Stockyard, Die Massnahme, The Good Woman of Sezuen, Mother Courage and Her Children and the Life of Galileo. In the last play mentioned, the hero is offered two choices one between accepting the terms or the other being destroyed. Nevertheless, the hero recants. Tragedy in one of the older terms has been rejected by Brechet.

He then discusses Brechet’s theater and tells us why he rejected the classical tragedy and introduced rational theater.

Theatre or theater is the branch of the performing arts concerned with acting out stories in front of an audience using combinations of speech, gesture, mime, music, dance, sound and spectacle — indeed any one or more elements of t…


was and what he wanted theatre to be, Brecht believed that the theatre’s broadest function was to educate. “It is the noblest function that we have found for ‘theatre’”. Brecht wanted the answer to Lenin’s question ‘Wie und was soll man lernen?’ (‘How and what should one learn?’). He created an influential theory of theatre, the epic theatre, wherein a play should not cause the spectator to emotionally identify with the action before him or her, but should instead provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the actions on the stage. He believed that the experience of a climactic catharsis of emotion left an audience complacent. Instead, he wanted his audiences to use this critical perspective to identify social ills at work in the world and be moved to go forth from the theatre and effect change.

Hans Eisler has noted that these plays resemble political seminars. Brecht described them as “a collective political meeting” in which the audience is to participate actively. One sees in this model a rejection of the concept of the bureaucratic elite party where the politicians are to issue directives and control the behaviour of the masses. For this purpose, Brecht employed the use of techniques that remind the spectator that the play is a representation of reality and not reality itself, which he called the Verfremdungseffekt (translated as distancing effect, estrangement effect, or alienation effect). Such techniques included the direct address by actors to the audience, transposition of text to third person or past tense, speaking the stage direction out loud, exaggerated, unnatural stage lighting, the use of song, and explanatory placards. By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate that the audience’s reality was, in fact a construction and, as such, was changeable.

Another technique that Brecht employed to achieve his Verfremdungseffekt was the principle of historicisation.


The principle of ‘historicizaton’ is a fundamental part of the Marxist aesthetics developed by the Germany Modernism theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht…. . The content of many of his plays dealt with fictional tellings of historical figures or events. His idea was that if one were to tell a story from a time that is contemporary to an audience, they may not be able to maintain the critical perspective he hoped to achieve. Instead, he focused on historical stories that had parallel themes to the social ills he was hoping to illuminate in his own time. He hoped that, in viewing these historical stories from a critical perspective, the contemporary issues Brecht was addressing would be illuminated to the audience.
In one of his first productions, Brecht famously put up signs that said “Glotzt nicht so romantisch!” (“Don’t stare so romantically!”). His manner of stagecraft has proven both fruitful and confusing to those who try to produce his works or works in his style. His theory of theatre has heavily influenced modern theatre. Some of his innovations have become so common that they’ve entered the theatrical canon.
Although Brecht’s work and ideas about theatre are generally thought of as belonging to modernism. Modernism is a trend of thought which affirms the power of human beings to make, improve and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation…. , there is recent thought that he is the forerunner of contemporary postmodern theatre practice. This is particularly so because he questioned and dissolved many of the accepted practices of the theatre of his time and created a political theatre. Political theatre is drama or performing art which emphasizes a political issue or issues in its theme or plot…. that involved the audience in understanding its meaning. Moreover, he was one of the first theatre practitioners to incorporate multimedia into the semiotics. Semiotics, or semiology, is the study of sign , both individually and grouped in sign systems…. of theatre.

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