Tragedy. Its Theory and History
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Hans-Dieter Gelfert, Die Tragödie. Theorie und Geschichte(Tragedy: Its Theory and History). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1995, 175 pp. (Kleine Vandenhoeck-Reihe 1570)

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What makes a tragedy tragic and why is it that in literary history tragedies appear in clusters with vast spaces of untragic culture in between? These two question are the starting point of the book. A survey of critical literature shows that there a two ways of defining tragedy. The one sees the tragic as a specifically structured universal problem, the other sees it as a historical phenomenon. The first cannot explain why during long periods tragic feeling was dormant, the second is usually modelled on Greek tragedy and will not fit Shakespearean, French or German tragedy. A definition that will do both, i.e. describe the structure and name the conditions under which tragedies are likely to appear, must find a link between the internal structure of the tragic problem and a corresponding structure in the consciousness of the society that demands the tragic experience.

    The oldest and still the most plausible structuralist definition is that of Aristotle. He defined tragedy as a mimetic process which raises and releases psychic tension by first producing phobos up to a turning point and then working off this tension by eleos with the final effect of cathartic relief. This, according to Aristotle, is only possible if the hero is neither totally innocent nor guilty beyond redemption, because in the first case phobos will turn into despair and cannot be worked off into pleasurable relief, whereas in the second case the moral gratification at the punishment of the criminal will not be preceded by any phobos at all.

The question therefore is: When and where will the collective consciousness of a given society be so structured that large audiences will find greater pleasure in the defeat of the hero than in his triumph? In an aristocratic society people will look up to the hero and will experience grief when he falls, but this grief cannot turn into pleasurable catharsis. It must be worked off in a mournful lament over a longer period. This is what must have been the case in early aristocratic cultures judging by the fragments of such laments that have come down to us. In a strictly egalitarian society, on the other hand, people will find relief in the levelling of a superior person that makes them feel inferior, but they will not be inclined to look up to him in the beginning. Only in a time of transition from an aristocratic to an egalitarian society will people be emotionally disposed to look up to the hero and admire him with one half of their hearts, while the other, egalitarian, half will feel cathartic relief at his fall.

      However forced this theoretic speculation may sound, literary history shows exactly what the theory would have predicted. The three great ages of tragedy, the 5th century BC in Athens, Greece, Elizabethan England and Germany during the long obsessive struggle towards tragedy from Lessing through Schiller, Kleist and Hebbel to Gerhart Hauptmann, are exactly such periods of transition where a vertical normative system is slowly being replaced by a horizontal one. The theory would also predict when and where tragedies are unlikely to appear. This will be the case in egalitarian societies such as the United States, for which the article in Life from December 2, 1946 entitled "Untragic America" gives ample proof. Tragedies are also unlikely to be found in times when the replacing of the aristocratic system by an egalitarian one is brought about by a revolution, because in that case the individual spectator will either be a royalist or a roundhead, so to speak. This explains why there were no tragedies at the times of the French and the Russian revolutions. The one great exception that seems to defeat the theory is French tragic drama of the 17th century. But here Jacques Maurens is quite right in calling his book on Corneille La tragedie sans le tragique, whereas Racine is an exceptional individual hovering between an absolutist and a Jansenist consciousness who must have felt exactly like the societies in the great tragic eras.

The larger part of the book is dedicated to the varying structures of the tragic problem in the successive ages, showing an agonistic pattern in Attic drama, a dualistic one in Shakespeare and a slowly emerging dialectic structure in German drama. In each case the tragic structure seems to be homologous with the general structure of thought in each period. (Here it is time to give credit to Lucien Goldman whose approach to literature was a helpful stimulus although this book applies his approach in a totally different, empirical manner.) Only two chapters deal with English literature explicitly, the one on Elizabethan tragedy and the one on "the disappearance of tragedy from English literature". The latter among others analyses Hardy's failure of giving his heroes true tragic status.

    The concluding chapter on American tragedy is meant to provide the keystone to the theory, since it is here that what the theory would have predicted came true in a twofold way. In "untragic" America there was one region where a transition from a vertical to a horizontal ideology did take place. It was the clash between the aristocratic South and the democratic North. But tragic feeling could not have developed at the time of the Civil War because then the Southern ideology was stigmatised and people must have been partisans, incapable of moral ambiguity. When, however, the so-called Southern renascence set in early in this century, Americans along that ideological Andreas fault must have felt similar to the Athenians of the 5th century or to the Elizabethans. And it is there that American literature comes closest to tragedy, though not in drama but in narrative prose with Faulkner as its chief representative.


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