Introduction to Modern Tragedy by Raymond Williams

Like Culture and Society, Modern Tragedy discussed texts—the main tragic texts and texts about tragic theory that had been written in Europe and the United States since Ibsen—and extracted from them a political message about the inadequacy of individuation and about the desirability of revolution. Modern Tragedy was written in a dense, coded prose. Decoded, it manifests the confusion between the cultural elite and the people which was a feature of Williams’s doctrine throughout his work and which became particularly troublesome in this book, where dramatic and fictional tragedy were presented as realizations of the “shape and set” of modern “culture,” and the dramatists and novelists who had produced it were assumed to represent “our” minds and experience.




This thesis was both elitist and anti-elitist, naïve about the prospect of bridging the gap between the cultural elite and the people but emphasizing the affiliations that kept Williams, as a member of the former, in conscious empathy with the latter. The effect was nevertheless odd, implying that Strindberg, Brecht, and Arthur Miller, for example, were not arcane, and amalgamating the “we” who went to their plays or listened to Williams’s lectures in Cambridge with the “we” who had been described appreciatively in Border Country. However deep Williams’s desire was to make “critical discrimination” relevant to the people among whom he had grown up, moreover, it neglected the consideration that critical discrimination was in fact a minority activity which spoke meaningfully only to those who had already heard Leavis’s voice.


In Drama from Ibsen to Eliot (1952) Williams had criticized the English theater as a manifestation of literary decline and for failing to achieve either “the communication” of an “experience” and a “radical reading of life,” or that “total performance” which reflected “changes in the structure of feeling as a whole.” In Modern Tragedy the central contentions were that “liberal” tragedy, while being liberal because it emphasized the “surpassing individual,” and tragic because it recorded his defeat by society or the universe, reflected the inability of the money-oriented privacy of the bourgeois ethic to provide a “positive” conception of society. It was the “individual fight against the lie” embodied in “false relationships, a false society and a false conception of man” that Ibsen had made central, but it was the liberal martyrs’ discovery of the lie in themselves and their failure to relate themselves to a “social” consciousness that heralded the “breakdown of liberalism” and the need to replace its belief in the primacy of “individualist” desire and aspiration by a socialist perception of the primacy of “common” desire and aspiration.


Williams wished to give tragic theory a social function. He pointed out that “significant suffering” was not confined to persons of “rank,” and that personal belief, faults in the soul, “God,” “death,” and the “individual will” had been central to the tragic experience of the present. It was the “human agency” and “ethical control” manifested in revolution and the “deep social crisis through which we had all been living” that were the proper subjects of “modern” tragedy, and it was human agency and ethical control that tragic theory needed to accommodate. The first point that had to be explained was the Burkean point that revolution caused suffering. The second point was the anti-Burkean point that revolution was not the only cause of suffering, that suffering was “in the whole action” of which “revolution” was only “the crisis,” and that it was suffering as an aspect of the “wholeness” of the action that needed to be considered. And this, of course, disclosed the real agenda in Modern Tragedy—the use of tragic texts to formulate a socialist theory of tragedy in which revolution would receive a literary justification and society would become more important than the individual.


In all this Williams was moving out from the defensiveness of Culture and Society and making a central feature of the argument that, when the revolutionary process was complete, “revolution” would become “epic,” suffering would be “justified,” and pre-revolutionary institutions, so far from being the “settled … innocent order” that they had claimed to be, would be seen to have been rooted in “violence and disorder.” This was the route by which tragedy and tragic theory could remove cynicism and despair, could give revolution the “tragic” perspective that Marx had given it, and could show what tragedy had hitherto failed to show, that “degeneration, brutalization, fear, hatred and envy” were endemic in existing society’s “tragic” failure to “incorporate … all its people as whole human beings.” It was also the route by which tragedy and tragic theory could incorporate the fact that further “degeneration, brutalization, fear, hatred and envy” would be integral to the “whole action”—not just to the “crisis” and the revolutionary energy released by it or the “new kinds of alienation” which the revolution against alienation would have to “overcome … if it was to remain revolutionary,” but also, and supremely, to the connection between “terror” and “liberation.”


Williams’s rhetoric was ruthless, and yet in retrospect looks faintly silly. Nor were the tasks that he attributed to tragic theory plausible. It remains true, nevertheless, that Modern Tragedy, while reiterating the formal denial that revolution was to be identified with the violent capture of power and identifying it rather as a “change … in the deepest structure of relationships and feelings,” implied, more than any other of Williams’s works, a circuitous but indubitably evil attempt to encourage the young to think of violence as morally reputable. In evaluating Williams, one wishes to be just. He should not be dismissed merely because his followers have helped to keep their party out of office, since many of them, and perhaps he also, regarded party politics as merely a convenient way of inserting their moral messages into the public mind. Like the theorists of the student revolution of the Sixties, Williams was “against liberalism,” but those who are against liberalism for conservative reasons do not need his sort of support. They should not be misled by the “organicism” of Culture and Society, which ignored the moral solidarity of twentieth-century English society and used the language of solidarity in order to subvert such solidarity as monarchy and two world wars had created by denying that it existed. The most general fault in critical works is not avoided by even Williams.


Most of the critical books are written with and on the general assumption of some creative work by others. To write or give views on others is certainly not objectionable. What seems objectionable is the way of giving views or opinions without quoting the original creative work. What most of the critics do is very non-critical in a sense. They give first their own understanding of the work and then their views or opinions against or for this said work. What they do in this way is the critical analysis of their own understanding. It seems having nothing to do with the understanding of the writer’s work or others’ views about it. While going through a book of criticism one should keep in mind the original work the criticism is about.

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