What Happened to Tragedy?

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.

Reubens' The Death of Seneca (1615)

Reubens' The Death of Seneca (1615)

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.

nabbed from dvdbeaver.com

nabbed from dvdbeaver.com

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.


  1. I think that Britain has come to have more and more of a trouble with catharsis. I do think that weekend city centres and clubs are filled with people who are effectively self-medicating in an attempt to deal with lives that they despise.

    More and more unhappiness accumulates and then from time to time it gets let out in these huge outpourings of irrational rage and grief.

    Freudian bullshit aside, surely there’s a cognitive basis for the idea of catharsis? sit through enough Horror films and Tragedies and you learn how to deal with negative emotions in a secure environment. It’s a form of de-sensitisation.


  2. Have you seen much Chekhov Jonathan? Profoundly moving works, not in a shallowly emotional way, but rather with genuine dramatic truth and power. They are often tragic in the classical sense, hell all the ones I’ve seen are tragedies, but their truth justifies them. Their insight.

    19th Century theatre still engages with the tragedy as dramatic form, also in the novel, it’s more in the late 20th Century I think we start to see a move away from it as we get into increasingly populist entertainments. This has accelerated, in Britain anyway, with the cultural malaise of West End theatre that’s hit in the past few years.

    I do like your point on the confusion of tragedy with down endings, Chekhov’s characters are brought down by what they bring with them, the unnnamed narrator in James’ Aspern Papers brings his own nemesis with him, The Empire Strikes Back by contrast and as you note the good guys just happen to lose for a while.


  3. I have almost no knowledge of Chekov, or Russian literature in general. Even Dostoyevsky is but a nebulous and mysterious presence.

    I know, via Jenny, that a lot of the best Opera is tragic but that’s because a lot of operas are based upon classical works. In fact, you can see the conflict that you mention in a lot of opera as some of them are broadly tragic or broadly touch upon wider ideas but they have unconvincing romantic plotlines shoved into them presumably in order to get bums on seats back in the day.

    I don’t mind entertainment for entertainment’s sake but what I find frustrating (and what I was trying to get at) is that negative emotions are no longer seen as entertaining but as these unpleasantly high-minded things that one has to put oneself through for one’s own good. Best example of this is the recent adaptation of I Am Legend where the downbeat ending was cut out and crudely replaced with a ‘good news’ cod-religious ending that made no thematic sense at all.


  4. Don’t start with Dostoyevsky. Lermontov is good value.

    Focus groups have done huge damage, I think that’s where (in film at least) much of this problem comes from.

    Ask a focus group if they like a sad ending, be it tragedy or merely downbeat, and odds are they won’t – at the time of asking. Make it happy, odds are at that moment the focus group will like it more.

    Of course, that doesn’t measure lasting impact, what stays with the viewer, even the viewer within the focus group. It just measures instant response, and our instant response is often not our best one, particularly to serious art.

    Equally, with tv there’s a desire to chase market which leads to a dumbing down, a talking down to the audience. A simplistic happy ending is easier than a more complex one might be, when your tv is aimed primarily at the less thoughtful part of the 18-24 demographic that too has consequences.


  5. You might be right about focus groups. Manipulative happy endings are pleasing at first but it’s the truly moving ones that stay with you and in a focus group you can’t really test for that particular optic of enjoyment.


  6. There Will Be Blood surely merits mention as a modern example of this type of film. It may drift into the absurd as Plainview goes to the grave but it pounds with familial discontent and thwarted ambition all of which ineviatabiley causes self-destruction of a former pioneer. The Citizen Caine of oil perhaps?

    As for Dostoyevsky, he really is indispensable. Taxi Driver ripped him off wholesale.


  7. Hmm… I hadn’t thought about Let There Be Blood in those terms you may be right though its guts are those of a psychodrama with the focus being on the relationships between the characters rather than the fall of great men.

    I suppose part of my reticence has to do with the fact that the proper falls happen off-screen. You don’t see Plainview shutting himself away as a drunk. You see the seeds of that but not the full retrenchment. Similarly, you don’t see Eli as a pastor lured into making bad decisions. One minute he’s a revivalist in a tiny oil community and the next he’s begging for help.

    Another one that occurred to me is Chinatown but the fall of that film’s characters occur in response to stuff that goes on off stage. The seeds of their destruction are not included within them at the inception.

    In a way, I suspect that Chinatown may well have muddied the waters for Tragedies. That final ending is so dramatic and over the top it looks like something from a Tragedy but the structure of the film simply isn’t there.

    Speaking of which, between Chinatown and The Tenant, I think that Polanski has had more influence than any other film maker when it comes to endings. How many films try to recapture The Tenant’s ending?


  8. > How many films try to recapture The Tenant’s ending?

    Surely the origins of this ‘moebius strip-style’ ending (is thsi what you mean?) can be traced elsewhere? I’m only thinking this because I’m not convinced that many people have seen The Tenant. It was only reissued five (?) years back after a long time in the wilderness.

    As an aside, I think maybe the Pakula Trilogy and The Conversation have been the 70’s movies that, more than any others, have hooked the Clooney/ Gilroy /Soderbergh generation of Hollywood filmmakers who are looking to make ‘serious political thrillers’ in the current era. Though they’ve made a handful of great films, none really come close to those earlier 70’s films.


  9. At risk of being thrown off the blog, the Pakula trilogy?

    Regarding focus groups, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, why it is they don’t work.

    They should in theory, you get a representative group of people, show them the movie, note their reactions. It’s not that hard to ensure they are genuinely representative. But the process seems to have produced weaker movies, and to be dismal at predicting hits.

    My suspicion is they’re measuring the wrong thing, that it’s accurate, but what it’s accurate for isn’t what’s actually relevant. It’s accurate to instant response, but not to long term impact and so not to word of mouth effect which is driven more by recollection after the event than immediate appeal.

    Or it could be something else, but the focus group really starts to kick in during the 1980s in cinema and that’s when we start seeing a backlash against serious film too, that’s not a causative link I’m drawing but I think there are related factors.


  10. Richard —

    I actually meant just weird endings that do not make much sense but which nonetheless pack an emotional punch.

    You might be right about The Tenant not proving that influential. I only saw it for the first time recently myself.

    Soderbergh’s an auteur and a serious one at that but Clooney is, in my opinion, the poster-boy for liberal films that are long on posturing and shrugging and short on analysis. Both as an actor and a director.


  11. Max —

    Alan Pakula produced a series of films about paranoia. There’s The Parallax View, All the President’s Men and, I think, Klute (though I haven’t seen that last one).

    I suspect that there are a number of ways in which focus groups don’t work. Most notably conformity. Sit in a room with a load of people who moan about how ‘depressing’ the ending is and it takes a certain kind of personality to fight the film’s corner. Alternately you might use a dial test (in the way that they do with Presidential speeches) but that really only does measure immediate almost unconscious reaction and tragedies and depressing films are all about making you feel (at least in the short term) rotten.

    Focus Groups are all about manufacturing groupthink and groupthink is really not the best basis for making any kind of decision.


  12. Ah, I’ve seen both The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, not Klute. Thanks.

    Agreed on the rest. One of the more interesting bits of the book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that I read recently was the author’s argument that with the end of the 1970s there was a switch in Hollywood back from director power to producer power, and with it a move from the primacy of the auteur to the primacy of the market – except that unfortunately it turns out nobody knows what the market actually wants.


  13. > the Pakula trilogy

    Sorry, I should have been more specific. As Jonanthan decoded, I meant Alan J Pakula’s ‘Paranoia’ trilogy. This began with Klute (1971), the Parallax View (1974) and worked up to All The President’s Men (1976). Pakula of course made further thrillers after this but few capatured the times like these three films, and rarely did he achieve such high standards in art direction as in the early days. His later films (Rollover, Presumed Innocent, The Pelican Brief, Consenting Adults) all have the odd scene or moment, but none really locate a wider context within which to work any magic. Indeed, the best scene in The Pelican Brief is the car park scene, and that’s pretty much a lift from ‘All the President’s Men’. And I was so disappointed when the Pelican Brief literally referred to pelicans. Anyway, I implore you to see all three, as they’re all an astonishing high standard of thriller. Klute is currently showing now and then on TCM. It’s a really dark psychosexual thriller with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, all set against a nasty atmosphere of corporate America. Hard work, but compelling.

    Anyway, I see these films informing the likes of Syriana and Michael Clayton, even though the latter fail to be anywhere near as estranged as Pakula’s work. I have time for Clooney (Goodnight & Good Luck is a great film I think) but it is limited and I never need to see him doing comedy ever again.


  14. I think that that’s one of the misnomers of Thatcherism : The idea that the market is omniscient.

    Society and culture form economic niches; places where money can be made and people can support themselves by providing services. In some cases this is fairly straightforward as if you need your bathroom fixing, you call a plumber. But once you are dealing with cultural artifacts it becomes a lot less clear because people a) do not necessarily know what is out there and b) do not know what will hit the mark until they experience it.

    For example, there’s evidently a HUGE market for stories involving young kids and angsty vampires. Twilight cashes in on that market. But how many of the people buying Twilight would have preferred Let The Right One In but didn’t know about it?

    The assumption is that the market responds instantly to any new demands but that’s assuming that capitalism is an equal opportunities system and it simply isn’t. LTROI is a better book than Twilight and I’m sure more people would enjoy it but they simply do not hear about it. They hear about the hugely successful publishing phenomenon with the 7 figure marketing budget.


  15. I’ll check out Klute, I already own All the President’s Men and have seen it two or three times, I was oddly enough thinking of repurchasing The Parallax view anyway – it came back to my attention independently of this blog entry a few weeks back.

    Syriana I actually think quite highly of, I know something of the subject matter and by and large it’s a pretty accurate film – that which I personally know he got right which gave me confidence in the rest. I rather liked Good Night and Good Luck also.

    Jonathan, efficient market theory has many holes in it, and I agree that’s one of them. That said, Let the Right One In from what I understand of it is disturbing, unsettling and thought provoking. Twilight is comforting, safe, reassuring.

    Whatever the marketing push, I think one of those two recipes will always outsell the other. There are doubtless many people who would have loved LTROI but won’t hear about it, which is a great shame, but Twilight would always outsell it.


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