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January 08, 2007


George Hunka

I'm not aware of any aesthetic or historical event that somehow rendered tragedy irrelevant to us; indeed, events of the 20th century seem to have underscored the need for an examination of human experience from the tragic perspective. ("We're no longer so primitive a people ... ?" Really? In what sense are we less primitive a people than the Greek tragedians, or those of the Elizabethan stage, or those of the German theatre in the 18th and 19th centuries? I've got some rather interesting newsreels to show you of events over the last 75 years that can remind you of just how primitive we are.)

Of course, badly done tragedy risks pretension and bathos; and badly done comedy risks trivialization and ignorance (and desensitizes the viewer just as much as those "modes," as you call them, of sorrow, pain and grief). Why don't you don't mind the second risk as much as you mind the first?

David Cote

To me, "tragedy" is an obsolete literary/theatrical term or when applied to real-world events, a word that implicitly aestheticizes violence and retaliation. Does anyone actually write tragedies anymore? Hasn't the word "tragedy" become completely drained of meaning? Except as a byword for "horrible loss of life"? I think "tragedy" is not ennobling or enlightening, just a way of normalizing violence and accepting the status quo under a cheesy rictus of stoic perseverance. Adorno (whom I know you love!) famously wrote that "to write poetry after the Holocaust is barbaric." I actually think to write tragedies after the Holocaust is equally barbaric. And superfluous.

David Cote

In a nutshell, I associate modern tragedians with stasis, constipation, death-worship and anhedonia. I'd rather align myself with comedy's life-at-any-cost jitteriness, messiness, bodily fluids and authority-wrecking rage. Mind you, I could be persuaded that tragedy is the anteroom to comedy.


I'm going to tentatively say that sorrow, pain and grief can be simply modes, as can any emotion or experience. They can also be a standpoint from which to view something. What I question in both David and George's responses is the assumption that any one viewpoint or mode is superior or inferior to any other.

But I think this also is because i'm a director, so from my perspective, everything is about usage, and I find both approaches valuable at times and not valuable at others. Also, both can be employed really badly, or employed really well.

And George, there are all sorts of ways that we here in America are more advanced than the ancient Greeks beyond the technological. The Atheneans (amongst other things) viewed rape of unaccompanied women to not be a crime, systematically and ritually sexually abused male minors, held slaves and denied the existence of infinity as a mathematical concept, even though their mathematics showed its existence. There are plenty of ways we aren't more advanced than them, but it's worth remembering the ways in which we are. I could show you newsreels of events over the last seventy five years that told the complete opposite story. This is because human experience is complicated, as is history.

And to me, when comedy or tragedy pull too closely to any one pole, be it darkness without remission or silliness without substance, they deny that complexity inherent in human existence-- that the twentieth century gave us Hitler and Martin Luther King, Jr., the atom bomb and the man on the moon, AIDS and a polio vaccine-- said work can become kind of dull and frivolous, except in the rare instance when it is done with the utmost of skill, be it Eddie Izzard's stand-up rutine "Glorious" or Sarah Kane's "4.48 Psychosis".

David Cote

What the hell are you - InstaCompromise? Seriously, I'm not interested in any voice of reason on this blog. Anyway...I'd love to know exactly HOW we are less advanced than the Greeks and Elizabethans? Could someone please tell me? I mean, sure, we have no Euripides, no Shakespeare, but we also don't have slavery, bear-baiting, heads on pikes, public mutilation and execution and a caste-based society poisoned by a toxic stew of scientific ignorance and religious superstition. Is it our poor gothic cathedral craftsmanship?

George Hunka

And yet after Adorno there was Paul Celan, whose brilliant career emerged from an engagement and experience with the Holocaust. I think yours is a misunderstanding and literalization of Adorno's comment on poetry, which occurs at the end of a much longer essay entitled "Cultural Criticism and Society." Adorno's work -- perhaps more than any other cultural critic's of the postwar era -- is ill suited to a separation from its original context, as you know, no doubt.

For me, no, the word "tragedy" is not devoid of meaning, not in the least; as I hope I'm making clear, it needs to be defended from accusations of superfluity. If people abuse the term "tragedy," then let's not say that the tragic perspective itself is irrelevant, any more than the comic perspective is -- a perspective which, I will continue to insist, every bit as much can normalize violence and accept the status quo as can tragedy. What's the phrase? "It's all in fun"? "You can't take a joke"? The nice thing about comedy is that, unlike tragedy, it provides that ironic plausible deniability of each statement made under its banner.

And there's plenty of jitteriness, messiness, bodily fluids and authority-wrecking rage in any given tragedy to give comedy a run for its money. (I give you the "Bacchae" and "Phaedra's Love" for starters.) Perhaps not life-at-any-cost. But I'm not sure there's any such thing. Death we have plenty of, from gas chambers and ovens based upon the assembly-line rationality of the Ford Motor Company (which the Greeks and Elizabethans didn't have); electric prods with which we can amuse ourselves in torturing prisoners; hangings on cell-phone videos.

And, so far as I've noticed, there's still plenty of rape and murder to go around. If not in America, in the world in which we live, though there seems to be plenty in America as well.

David Cote

Look, I'm not going to argue over the horrors of the 20th century, or laugh away the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians dead in the current war. Of course technology has made it easier to kill masses of people from a safe distance away (a friend just informed me that the AK-47 is responsible for the deaths of 250,000 people a year). And yes, I think people love to kill or they love being ordered to kill. BUT, does all this bloodshed lead me to fetishize violence and sorrow? No. I want to escape it, transcend it, laugh in its face. How can tragedy not be the solemnized iteration of the Negative Obvious? How can it not be simply a parasitic, vicarious reenactment of the torturer's glee?

David Cote

And by the way, Isaac, I was just joking about not wanting the voice of reason here. I like the voice of reason just fine!

George Hunka

How does the torturer express his glee, if not through his laughter?

David Cote

The torturer and the tragedian share a sadistic attitude towards the flesh. They both thrive on its degradation. The former in order to get, I don't know, information. The latter to give existence some other meaning besides mere pleasure.

George Hunka

That's interesting; when I was a kid I enjoyed the Three Stooges too. If I'd known they were tragedians, I would have had a very different attitude towards them.

You mean to say that existence doesn't have any other meaning besides mere pleasure? Very Epicurean. What does pleasure mean without a recognition of its opposite? I mean, mere pleasure is a wonderful thing to have; I enjoy it quite a bit myself, much rather have that than mere pain, I'm not stupid. A contemplation or examination of suffering, though, isn't the same thing as either fetishization or sadism, but a recognition of the human condition (and honestly, I don't know why you think it's a fetish or sadistic, except from a dislike for it, which needn't lead to a marginalization of or condescension toward the perspective) -- a recognition from a perspective just as valid as the comic.

What's more, the joy and ecstasy that one finds through a tragic experience, a sublime recognition, is every bit as pleasurable as that of the comic -- perhaps more, for in accepting this part of our experience, this part of our identity, we place far more at risk as individuals, and gain far more. (Only in the period of the mass entertainment has tragedy been knocked from its status as the most significant of the dramatic forms, interestingly; from Aristotle to Nietzsche, it was the highest. And in the same era as tragedy's decline came the mechanized torture of the 20th century; more people alive than ever before; more people dead than ever before, too. Ain't math grand?) In tragedy we take responsibility for the conditions in which we find ourselves, not permitted the release of laughter.

And we're back to our torturer. I wonder who fetishes death and pain more: the tragedian or the comedian? Not that I have the answer. But an intriguing question nonetheless.



Of course I knew you were joking.


Any argument over whether or not life/humanity/civilization is miserable/awesome/totally fucked etc. is doomed to total ridiculousness due to the fact that arguing a positive or negative judgement on the experience of living is informed by both (a) autobiography and (b) complete dishonesty. Why complete dishonesty? Because we must pick and choose our evidence, and disregard that which does not fit.

What I find in a lot of what I think you're trying to define as tragedy is an *argument* that life is shit. This art becomes just as pedantic as, say, the political theater that I think many people get turned off by. Said argument is uninteresting to me for reasons listed above. In my less democratic and reasonable moments, I think that people come to see this theater for the same reason they come to see immature leftist art-- to have their already pre-conceived notion of what the world is confirmed for them.

Now what I think *you* find in it actually is a detailed examination of the darker side of the human condition. I've been struggling for days about what you found nuanced and supple about art centered on a hopeless worldview, and I think through reading this comment thread, I've found what I was unable to see-- that in Kane or Barker you find a detailed speelunking into the depths of humanity that is hard to achieve through more literal art forms like the documentary film or the history book.

Does that seem anything close to what you're talking about?

And to me life is filled with constant interplay between the trivial and profound, the silly and the playful, the torturous and the ecstatic, the interesting and the boring. And so art that plays to my opinion of what it's like being here on earth is (of course) going to appeal to me more. It confirms my prejudices.

David Cote

Sure, comedy is about degrading the body too, laughing at the pain of others. It’s not all pastoral frolics, pratfalls and marriage. A plausible comic scenario could be an American president submerged in a pool of soupy feces. I suppose if you submerged him in a pool of the blood of his enemies, that would be something else. These gilt-edged taxonomies weary me. How’s this: What about the fusion of tragedy and comedy: Where no physical outrage is left sacralized and no earthly pleasure left untainted by subtle horror? I mean, what exactly do we learn solely from the study of grief and suffering? The now-oft-repeated "darkness without remission"? We learn that humans suffer and die? That's about as enlightening as pretentiously enumerating the shibboleths of 20th-century human depravity: Armenian genocide; Nazi gas chambers; Stalinist collectivization; H-Bombs on Japan… That humans are diseased, greedy, foolish, dangerous creatures is the starting point of comedy. But tragedy seems to find these facts revelatory.

George Hunka

What are those books on your bookshelf, David? Because no tragedy to my knowledge, nor any serious consideration of tragedy, is so reductive as to posit this worldview as a "life is shit" attitude, as Isaac has it, or posits the facts you list in your last comment as revelatory. More to the point, neither of these reductive responses begin to offer a consideration of the joy and ecstasy that inheres in the experience of a tragic work -- which Aristotle (in error, in my view) called "catharsis," but nonetheless has always been an essential element of the tragic perspective.

"A fusion of tragedy and comedy"? Talk about compromise; the art of theatre is in miserable enough shape without further emasculating one of its traditionally most sublime forms so that we neither laugh nor cry too much so that we can't easily forget our experience when we go out for drinks afterwards. I can't think of a better way to render the theatrical experience itself more meaningless.

I've always said that we can have both tragedy and comedy, and that each contains elements of the other. But I've rarely read such hostility to the tragic perspective, the tragic project, itself. Some people believe that those people who don't go to the theatre don't go there because it is precisely this perspective and project that seems to be irrelevant to it, its critics and its practitioners.

Well, I've got my own blog to write.

Alison Croggon

Hmm. Barker, in a statement he later disavowed, said laughter in the theatre is a kind of death. And I've sat desolate in theatres while everyone around me laughed comfortably at obvious revelations, designed to feed their own complacency. Why is it any less "pretentious" to tickle an audience's sense of superiority and to pander to an easy joke? I've found such experiences depressing beyond measure. Comedy is no more inherently apt to illumination than any other aesthetic tool, and it can, by virtue of its supposed pleasure, have its own tyrannies of smugness. An easy cynicism is much easier to maintain than a faith in the fragility and mystery of human beings.

David, you miss the point if you think that tragedy, contemporary or otherwise, is simply about the "diseased, greedy, foolish, dangerous" aspects of being human, or about atrocity. It generates its emotional power by showing those things in relationship to those other things that are broken by them, and are beautiful. ("What a piece of work is man!" etc). We have documentaries and news reports to show us the depravities we are capable of, but none of those reports show us what they mean, just as facts are ever part of a story. I remember watching a documentary of survivors of Stalin's forced famine in the Ukraine, and was struck forcibly by how people, recalling extremities of horror, were either silent or fell into a mode of speaking which was very like poetry. Expressing the reality of such horrors is something that language cannot encompass. And yet we still wish to express such things, which are not easily understood, let alone expressible. Hence Celan, Boll, Rosewicz, Schwartz-Bart. The tragic is an attempt to investigate the possibility of meaning when all meaning is destroyed: how does this possibly equate with a list of human atrocities? No art, tragic or comic, is about merely giving information.



I like how you put it about the relationship between the grotesque and the beautiful, and the emotional heights this creates. I'll have to steal that sometime.

I think what david and I are kind of troubled by here is that too frequently we get only the grotesque with none of the beauty. That's certainly been my experience of "Blasted". And I would guess it might be your experience of "The Treatment" if I'm not misreading your comment on my blog.

I think what George might be hitting on in some of his writing is the idea that *language itself* can be the beautiful thing that the grotesqueries of tragedy destroys. I certainly find this to be the case in "4.48 Psychosis" and "Crave". I don't know why I keep coming back to Kane, I just assume we've all read and have some knowledge of her life and her work so it's an easy reference point. If it's getting annoying, someone please let me know.

Alison Croggon

I don't know The Treatment. Blasted is powerful for different reasons, I think: I read it as sexual anger, the literalisation of the connection between sexual violence (mental and physical) and war. Kane stages psychic states literally: that's why I find her so interesting. I thought, when I first read Blasted, that it was a play that only a woman could write (I should say that I am not given to such thoughts, usually, disliking essentialism): only a woman would make those connections with such passion and commitment and truth. And the initial response to that play shows the danger of those insights. People routinely mock and deride anyone who talks in this way about violence against women (unless it's Islamic violence). Which gets to something that always puzzles me: people often respond as if the representation of such things is worse than the fact of them. And I believe there is a place for this on our stages, and that its effect, when it's well done, is indeed a cathartic looking into the pit. We need to represent our fears as well as our desires, and I guess the thing with these kinds of plays is that they explore how closely fear and desire are related.

Psychosis 4:48 is a whole different kettle of fish and to my mind a great play. The first time I read 4:48 Psychosis I was blown away by the poetic beauty and control of the language. I think it's a most extraordinary play, for how Kane managed to generate such rawness of experience without the whole thing exploding: I suppose my first reaction was to admire her art. But, despite the triteness of how it sounds, I'd argue that the play is so moving because Kane demonstrates how much people not only need love but need to love, the terrible loneliness and fragility that is at the heart of conscious existence. The problem with this possible triteness is that it's too easy to make the work more palatable, more easy to assimilate, than it in fact is. Barker and Kane both owe as much to John Ford or Middleton and Rowley as to Shakespeare. Shakespeare brings a broader human complexity to the simple mechanisms of the revenge tragedy, and I think does much more with them. People like Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov took those structures further, and domesticated them (I don't mean by that that they trivialised them). And people like Bond, Muller, Barker and Koltes and others took them in other directions, away from naturalism.

Just to step sideways from these entanglements for a moment, because I'm in danger of going on forever, and I'll sare you the tedium: a couple of great example of contemporary revenge tragedy are the first two Godfather movies. (The third is sadly a joke). I think it's difficult to argue that they are irrelevant, trivial or pompous lectures on "humanity" and suffering.

George Hunka

I would also offer Kane's "Cleansed" as an example of her mature work, which also demonstrates the redemptive quality of contemporary tragedy: there is, at the end of this violent, uncompromising examination of the fragility of human dignity a recognition of the power of love to lift the human animal from degradation to a kind of transfigured state. I can understand why based on only "Blasted" she might be characterized as a miserabilist ("might be," I say).

Though not nearly as excessive, Wally Shawn's work in "The Designated Mourner" and "The Music Teacher" touches on the themes of politically and sexually tragic betrayal and self-betrayal.

I think it's a mistake to compare and contrast this work to earlier forms of tragedy (we don't expect Chris Durang or Neil Simon's plays to look like Aristophanes' comedies, nor Moliere's, nor Shakespeare's; since the 18th century both the tragic and comic forms have been domesticated). Nonetheless similar patterns and treatments of the stresses and challenges of our everyday lives emerge. Because, really, we're no more nor less advanced as individuals; we are still constituted, metaphysically and physically, as we were 2000 and more years ago. Prejudices, theological and philosophical constructs might have evolved (certainly not towards any perfection); yes, science and technology have advanced the possibility of comfort and even investigation of the world around us. But even science and technology can only answer "how." The "why" remains an open question. And this "why" is the center of philosophy, comedy and tragedy. To remove tragedy is to remove one conceptual and aesthetic vocabulary of response.


"Because, really, we're no more nor less advanced as individuals; we are still constituted, metaphysically and physically, as we were 2000 and more years ago." I won't argue the physically (although an archeologist might have something interesting to say about historical physiognomy), but to say that humans have not advanced metaphysically in two millennia is reactionary, complacent bullshit. It makes you sound like a home-schooled Republican with beatnik pretensions. George, I like to believe in progress and perfectibility. Perhaps you feel safe in the shade of pessimism, walking amongst prettily decayed Greco-Roman statuary in some aesthete’s dream of classical decorousness, but I see the past as something from which you respectfully disentangle yourself. As a fan of Shawn and Romeo Castellucci and Kane’s Blasted, I won’t deny the pleasures of misanthropic nastiness, stage brutality and the depiction of humans are vicious, wriggling worms, but I won’t tart my own responses up as chin-stroking intellectual poses that redeem the soul. The artist and viewer need to acknowledge the sadism underlying some tragic visions. From a certain perspective, it’s nothing but glorified bloodsport.

George Hunka

From a certain very narrow perspective, tragedy can be said to be that; and from a certain very narrow perspective, so can comedy. I don't see how this gets us anywhere; the perspective may be so narrow as to be meaningless. Or, for that matter, how characterizing this perspective as an intellectual chin-stroking pose that redeems the soul, or as pessimistic for that matter, is accurate. It's hardly reactionary complacent bullshit to suggest that we're no closer to any answer to that question "Why?" than we were then. Otherwise these ancient tragedies wouldn't still resonate with us today. They're still capable of moving us, of changing our perspectives on behavior and our condition, as contemporary tragedy attempts to do as well: to offer possibility.


Don't make me deactivate my comments, George! If your standard for definitive human advancement is answering the question of, um, "Why are we here?" then, well, have fun on top of that mountain growing your beard. The rest of us will go on fucking and killing each other. I hate to sound anti-intelluctual, but I go to the theater, generally, for rhetoric, visual stimulation and emotional manipulation. Sure, ideas, but I'm sorry, theater is not my primary source for philosophy. In fact, I don't live with or for philosophy, just prejudices, vices, ambition, fear and appetite. As for the resonance of the Greeks, I'll take Shakespeare's mongrelized tragedies over the ancients any day.

Alison Croggon

Gosh, this is generating a little heat... the danger being that it is at the expense of illumination. David, I do think you do a disservice to Kane et al by characterising them as simply exposing human nastiness. Surely there is more to it? And maybe that more is to do with aesthetic organisations of meaning? And perhaps that sadism you mention is suggested by my comment that our desires and fears are closely related.

I wish I believed in perfectability and progress, but both those ideas are so closely related to God that they're hard to sustain for those who find the whole idea of God an attractive (or otherwise) human superstition. And I don't know how a belief in progress squares with a perception that people just go on fucking and killing, at the mercy presumably of their baser ("animal") instincts. But anyway, I'll bow out here and attend to my own aesthetic organisations.


How can I square progressive optimism, a distrust of human animal instinct and a profoundly atheist worldview? Evolution, simply. We do awful things to each other, yet our morals and methods evolve towards greater kindness and complexity. But there will always be a core of violent impulse, enabled and refined by subtler technology and understanding of the body. To me, Blasted exposes that core of nastiness and wallows in it quite spectacularly. I don't quite see how Kane's "aesthetic organization" of her bleak fable illuminates the human condition. I should go back and re-read. As well as other texts on tragedy, since I'll freely admit that yesterday and last night I just freewheeled on the theory stuff. Next time, maybe I'll be able to quote chapter and verse and dangle theoretical constructs. Yeah, fun!

Alison Croggon

Dangling theoretical constructs (or building theoretical scaffolding) is kind of fun, a fascinating game. It doesn't mean that it's useless or a waste of time. It's usually what you jump from as soon as you actually write something. The more interesting the scaffolding, the more interesting the flight; or something like that. (I realise my metaphor is disintegrating).

I can't see a lot of evidence that human beings are kinder than they ever were. Some aspects of the world some humans live in might be less unkind. But neanderthal man buried his kind bedecked with flowers.

I have a very long argument about the division between "animal" and "human" and the organisation of hierarchical constructions of consciousness that won't fit here, but is pertinent all the same. Yes, women have always been allied with animals in this hierarchy, but that's only part of my objection. That model of consciousness that the neurologist Dimasio posits strikes me as the most possibly accurate, that it begins with feeling: that it is in effect feeling knowing that it is feeling, that consciousness crucially begins in what is usually posited as the opposite of conscious.

But I'll stop here, too much wine and good dinner, and I should go to bed.

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