Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
Scene4 Magazine — Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas
It's A Tragedy

My mind is on a play about a slacker.  A play about a college kid who never finishes his degree.  Luckily, he comes from good family, so he doesn't have to worry about getting a "real" job.  Sort of a "poor little rich kid," the main character has family problems that would make a decent episode of the Jerry Springer Show - murder and maybe even incest.  This slacker knows how to talk the street talk.  He can pull pranks.  He can make jokes. He can be violently angry with people with whom he disagrees.

Oddly, when I think about this play, this character and the supporting characters; I feel very deeply about the destructiveness of the human condition.  And, being a "manly man" from the wilds of the American prairie, I don't cry - but thinking about this play and this story brings a misty quality to my eyes.  

The evidence indicates I'm not alone in how I feel about this play - this story.  Hamlet has been moving people for hundreds of years.

My description of the play above is not to mock or demean a play I truly enjoy and respect.  Indeed, people collect all sorts of things - pottery, antiques, comic books, baseball cards.  Over the years, I've collected Hamlets - recordings of radio broadcasts of Hamlet, videos of stage and film performances, interviews with people who've played Hamlet. When someone performs the play, I'm there.

The issue for me centers on the nature and notion of tragedy.

Athens stood at the center of a growing economic and political empire when Aeschylus and Sophocles wrote their tragedies.  Aeschylus fought against the Persians at Marathon, and a youthful Sophocles welcomed triumphant Athenian soldiers from battles.  The Athenian citizen who sat and watched the Orestia or Oedipus Rex at their debuts could expect a sunny future for their polis. Tribute poured in from places throughout the region.  They directly commanded a growing amount of territory.

And yet. . . . at the City Dionysia these citizens would sit and watch stories of heroes and demi-gods of the legendary past meet bitter situations.

Likewise, Elizabeth’s England stood at the top of a European pecking order.  Her navy had defeated the navy of the great empire of her age – the Spanish Armada.  The Briton who came to see Hamlet at its debut could expect a growing future for his society.

And yet. . . these Britons would sit and watch stories about foreign or historic heroes meet bitter situations that lead (usually) to fairly large body counts.

Many consider Death of a Salesman to be an American equivalent to the great tragedies of the past.  Yet it was written in the age of America’s great success in coming out of Depression and WW II.   

(Even if one considers A Long Day’s Journey Into Night as the great American tragedy, O’Neill didn’t write that play during the Great Depression, but after the Depression was over.)

One of the problems I have is that I think that a major difference exists between the tragic and the merely dramatic.  I think there is a difference of quantity.  A tragedy shouldn’t be merely sad.  I also believe that there is a difference of quality. I think experience of the tragic should nearly make your world explode before coming to some catharsis (whatever that might mean).

So, I want to take the idea of tragedy at face value. In the same way that a farce should move me to great laughter, a tragedy should move me very deeply.  Aristotle says tragedy appropriately moves us to fear and pity.  I buy that. A tragedy should not make me feel vaguely sad.  At the end of a tragedy, I should not think, "Well, gosh, isn't that a shame.  Tsk."

Over the past weeks I’ve had the pleasure of working with an earnest group of actors on Romeo and Juliet.  I believe that Shakespeare’s play is a tragedy.

I don’t think that I did a good job as a director of finding the tragedy.  I think the resulting production is dramatic.  I think that the show can be moving.  But I doubt that it is a tragedy.

Is there a way for an actor to communicate tragedy in a way that is different from doing contemporary drama?  I also like Pinter.  His work can be quite sad or dramatic.  But what happens to Jerry in Betrayal is no where in the same order what happens to Lear or Hamlet.  Is tragedy diminished if the actor approaches Hamlet as if he was an everyday character?   

As soon as I say that, I'm sure that I conjure in the minds of some readers the idea of the "great" acting of a past generation with grand speaking and marvelous baroque gestures.  I don't believe I'd care for that in our world today, either.  But I'm not convinced that how we go about the business of great tragedy today is quite right either.  Some years ago I had a conversation with a professional actress who had recently played Goneril in King Lear.  In talking about her work, she went into some detail about how she had decided that Lear had been emotionally distant as a father - never physically abusive, you understand - but never close.  I wonder if this kind of conception of a character shrinks the level of evil involved.  I wonder if this takes King Lear from the tragic into the realm of the vaguely sad.  A woman’s problems with an emotionally distant father don’t seem that life-shattering to me.

Our society is strangely crazed.  On the one hand, our financial system seems to be going through an extreme testing.  Daily there are reports of food distribution and food cost problems.  We appear to be in a war that was going so poorly that we couldn’t end it, and now is going so well that we can’t end it.  And at the same time we’re a society pre-occupied with the gyrations of a stock market and a culture in which obesity is a problem and people spend time in contemplation of their navels.  The citizens of the USA seem to be roughly unanimous in their belief the nation is going in the wrong direction.

Are we in too bad a situation as a culture to fully engage with tragedy?  Is there room for contemplation of the great mysteries of the misery of the human condition? If so, what would that look like? Can any but the most optimistic cultures bear the sweet misery of true tragedy?  If a group of actors truly showed the depths of tragedy, would the audience be receptive?

I don't know the answers to these questions.  I don't know if there are answers to these questions.  But, the next time I see Hamlet advertised, I'll be in the audience.  I'll be sitting there, hushed, hoping to go on the dark ride that I think is there.


©2008 Nathan Thomas
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a senior writer and columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


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may 2008

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