Last night, I went to see Tower Theatre Company’s production of Hamlet and, having never seen Hamlet performed live before, I was appropriately blown away by the sheer complexity of the text; the complex but detailed and intense emotions, the philosophical insights contained within the body of the text and the sheer ontological complexity of plays within plays and madness within madness and how everything mirrors and echoes everything else. However, what really struck me was the fact that you do not get many tragedies these days.
In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about tragedy as an expression of what he saw as the two-fold mood of ancient Greece :
“The strange mixture and duality in the affects of the Dionysiac enthusiasts, that phenomenon whereby pain awakens pleasure while rejoicing wrings cries of agony from the breast. From highest joy there comes a cry of horror or a yearning lament at some irredeemable loss. In those Greek festivals there erupts what one might call a sentimental tendency in nature, as if it had cause to sigh over its dismemberment into individuals”
I expect that this quotation will resonate with anyone who considers themselves a fan of Horror. While some forms of entertainment are up-lifting and inspiring, others (such as Horror) provide profoundly masochistic experiences. For example, when you decide to go and see a film such as Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) you are spending money in order to manipulate your brain into behaving as though you are in danger; your heart beats furiously, your respiration increases, your muscles twitch with adrenaline and your stomach churns at the visuals on the screen. Not only are you paying for the privilege of this kind of experience, you are also doing it for fun.
The tragedy is a very similar form of entertainment, even if it has fallen out of fashion. Indeed, Hamlet is an example of a genre that is practically extinct : The Revenge (or Blood) Tragedy. This genre has its roots in antiquity and in particular works of Seneca such as Thyestes, Medea and, most famously, Oedipus. Consider, for a moment, the synopsis of the final act of Oedipus provided by Wikipedia :
“A messenger gives the news that Oedipus considered killing himself and having his body thrown to wild beasts, but then he felt that his crime deserved something worse due to the suffering Thebes has being going through. He decided to find a slow death for himself. He wanted a punishment where he would neither “join the number of the dead nor dwell among the living”. The messenger goes on to explain how Oedipus tore out his eyes with his hands. The chorus question fate, each persons “commanding thread of life” and then hear Oedipus entering. He enters with both eyes removed and is confronted by Jocasta. She realises from his action that she must punish herself for her crimes as he has. She takes his sword and kills herself with it while on stage…”
The Renaissance drew heavily upon classical learning and so Elizabethan theatres happily staged Seneca’s works before eventually putting on home-grown tragedies such as Norton and Sackville’s Gorboduc, Thomas Kyd’s Ur-Hamlet, Webster’s The White Devil and, of course, Hamlet itself. While these plays ornamented the genre conventions laid down by Seneca, they stuck quite closely to them and produced some of the greatest theatrical works known to humanity.
But where are the modern tragedies?
The best modern example of this sadly overlooked genre is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). A collection of great men head a great criminal empire but, after a lapse in judgement by the Don, they find themselves being murdered, their empire and family shattered. As the dust settles, the one man who did not want to be a part of that criminal empire returns home and exacts a terrible vengeance upon the people who attacked his family. But vengeance comes at a price. The loss not only of the non-criminal life he might have lived but also the love of his devoted wife.
Another great modern cinematic tragedy is Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). This film presents us with a successful criminal gang lead by an outlaw whose charisma has effectively made him into a kind of folk hero. A young man then enters the gang and witnesses the gang’s demise and sticks closely to the outlaw as he sets about, in a fit of paranoia, murdering all of the people that he once called ‘friend’. Having survived the killing, the young man then sees the outlaw’s paranoia turn upon him, forcing him to defend himself. An act of murder which, for a while will grant the young man what he wanted since the beginning but eventually it costs him his happiness, his self-respect and, eventually his life.
Another personal favourite is Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002). Irreversible radically restructures the traditional tragedy by beginning the film with the act of loss; two men being carted off in chains as a mob pours homophobic abuse on them. We then see that this fall is provokedby the brutal raping and beating of a woman both men are in love with. The film then shows us the silly mistakes that lead to the woman deciding to walk home alone, the competitive relationship between the two men which lead to the problem escalating and, most movingly, the great beauty and love that were destroyed by human error.
Modern audiences and film-makers seem to struggle to differentiate between a ‘down ending’ and a genuine tragedy. There are many depressing (Requiem for a Dream) or bleak (Bergman’s Prison) films but hardly any of them possess truly tragic characteristics given that, all too often, the characters were hardly great to start off with or their downfall is due to external pressures rather than their own errors. Indeed, one of the most famous of ‘down ending’ films, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) has all of the major characters plunged into doom and destruction but none of these dooms were of their own creation and, of course, the dooms were all too fleeting as the sequel enforced a saccharine ending with all of the eerie menace that can be wrung from an army of fluffy teddy bears.
So what is the attraction of these kinds of works?
Again, Nietzsche gets my vote. Nietzsche was a proto-existentialist who saw tragedy as a means of transcending the nihilism and meaningless of the universe. As creatures trapped between the anguish of being and the horror of non-being, humans are forced to find meaning where they can and by vicariously experiencing both the heights and the depths of human emotion provided by Tragedies, they can find something to fill the now and keep the void at arms’ length for at least a little while. In other, less pretentious, words, experience has value and tragedies allow you to experience a breadth of emotion in a safe environment.
Unfortunately, for many audiences, art is nothing but medication for their wider problems. They watch aspirational TV and films in order to picture themselves living better lives, they go to see idiotic comedies in order to forget their troubles and have a few laughs. As Kurt Cobain so pointedly sang “ here we are now, entertain us”.
I find nothing entertaining in media that seeks to medicate and sedate the human experience. Give me works that are the emotional equivalent of inhaling a jar of mustard any day.