The Importance of Tragedy

The Importance of Tragedy

A contemporary photograph of a panoramic view of the ancient Greek theatre in Taormina, Sicily, Italy.
A panoramic view of the ancient Greek theatre in Taormina, Sicily, Italy in 2009“Greek Taormina Theatre (Sicily-2009a)” by Bart Hiddink is licensed under CC BY 4.0

It is important to note that the dramatic performances of the ancient Greek theater were part of the annual religious and civic celebration known as the City Dionysia — an annual festival in Athens, commemorating Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and ritual madness. The theatrical performances were the central focus of the festival and included two major types of drama: tragedy and comedy (also known as satyr plays). Although it is difficult to tell when tragic drama first emerged, many scholars suggest that it was formally introduced by the actor Thespis in 533 BCE. The word tragedy comes from the ancient Greek word tragodia , which literally translates as “goat song.â€� This is important because scholars have speculated that tragic drama, as a religious ritual, originated in the sacrificial killing of a goat, or scapegoat. The song may have functioned as a kind of prayer, as well as a commemoration of the life of the sacrificial animal. Once again, we can see that like poetry, tragic drama has its origins in musical composition and performance.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–l322 BCE) provided one of the earliest accounts of the formal elements of tragic drama in his treatise entitled Poetics . According to Aristotle, tragedies involved a main character of high social standing falling out of favor or perpetrating his or her own demise through hubris (excessive pride or self-conceit, in Greek tragedy often in defiance of the gods) or a tragic flaw that leads to a substantial error in judgment (what the Greek’s called hamartia ). Most importantly, the suffering of the tragic figure provoked strong feelings of both pity and fear on the part of the audience. The notion of the tragic scapegoat, then, relates to the role of the sacrificial animal in ancient religious rituals of sacrifice. According to Aristotle, when the dramatic performance reaches its resolution, the audience experiences a therapeutic release of these feelings of pity and fear. He termed this therapeutic aspect of tragedy catharsis . Many scholars maintain the theater continues to serve this therapeutic function today.

In the media, the word “tragedyâ€� is commonly used to describe accidents, natural disasters, and even acts of seemingly random violence. Is there any relationship between this common use of the word tragedy and tragedy as a dramatic form? Theatrical performances in ancient Greece were not simply, or even primarily, for the purposes of entertainment. Tragic drama provided the audience with an opportunity to reflect on its own social, political, and religious values. Likewise, whenever so-called “tragicâ€� events occur in our contemporary world, they often lead us to ask searching questions about the nature of our society, the possibility of justice, and perhaps they even cause us to reflect upon our own mortality. In works of ancient Greek tragedy, there is always a chorus , a group of actors who sing and provide commentary on the action taking place in the play. The chorus serves as kind of substitute for the audience and often express ideas or opinions that both reflect and also guide the interpretations of the audience.

The dramatic readings in this module consist of one work of ancient Greek tragedy, Antigone by Sophocles, and two plays from the early 20 th century. Antigone will provide a vivid portrayal of the lasting literary, as well social and political importance of tragedy and the idea of the tragic in everyday life. The one-act plays in this module provide an opportunity to explore how dramatic works continue to provide a unique space for dealing with the challenges and complexities of human life. Recalling our discussion of metaphors, it can be argued that the theater provides its audience with a metaphorical space for making sense of the darkest and often most difficult aspects of human life. (1)