Friday, June 13, 2008

Limitations of Tragedy Continued

The Clay Cart suggests limitations of western drama
Recently I reviewed a Dell' Arte School's MFA Ensemble production, Between Two Winters, which was the outcome of their study of classic tragedy.  I also reviewed a production currently at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, called The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler. While it isn't itself a tragedy, it had a lot to say about tragedy as a necessary reflection of the human condition. I also referred back to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of the Sanskrit play, The Clay Cart.  I ended it suggesting that tragedy might be less a category based on human nature than on the view of a particular culture in a particular time and place, though expressed so well in a form of drama.

I quoted a literary scholar on this, but I might also mention historian of religion Karen Armstrong who also suggests that this era of Greek drama came after a long period of awful times in that part of the world.

Here's a little more of what I was thinking... Tragedy is often considered the apex and greatest form of our drama, and in a sense of our culture. The idea of the hero with a tragic flaw, undone by hubris, fated to fall from the heights, does seem to express or at least fit well with many other central notions of western culture. The fatal flaw is like original sin, hubris is offending the jealous God. There's perhaps a bit of Social Darwinism--even the mighty fall because the fatal flaw makes them unfit in the continual struggle for survival.

But what if--as van Buitenen suggests--Greek tragedy is not the consummate form against which every other theatrical form from every other culture is measured? What if it really expressed a particular culture--western culture--or even more particularly, the cultural beliefs of ancient Greece? And so it may not be humanity's best expression of the universal human condition: the way things are. Maybe just the way the Greeks thought things are. Maybe just one way things can be. And maybe the ideas that seem to fit so comfortably with tragedy--like humanity as innately sinful (as some western religions say) or humanity as predominantly selfish (dominated by selfish genes) as some western science emphasizes--maybe they are culture-bound as well, and not the whole human story?

Because we do get the sense from our culture that human nature is either damned by Divine design or evolution to accentuate cruelty, ambition, selfishness and violence. Of which humankind certainly provides many examples, which our dramas emphasize in form and content.

But Sanskrit drama doesn't do Greek tragedy, nor does it emphasize the survival of the most selfish, nor does it find drama only in people being cruel to each other. As I wrote in the earlier review: "The Clay Cart is not a religious play; the OSF program describes it as a social comedy. But comparing this play to western dramas and comedies, the most revealing and ultimately inspiring difference to me was the kind of conflict that creates the dramatic action. Yes, there is a villain (though he’s played as a ridiculous figure from the start) and human foibles that lead to complications, but the overall motives are most often generosity, loyalty, empathy and love."

I am certainly no expert on Sanskrit drama, but I wrote about my experience of that play, and found scholarly support. The (Little) Clay Cart, wrote one of its translators, is about "a man of heart" representing India's "classical aesthetic culture." The essence of his character is in how he expresses "moral duty" and "sympathetic generosity." The outcome: "The righteous man may suffer, but in the end he is stronger than the wicked, who is really a fool." He represents virtue, because "he loves his friends and forgives his enemies."

In this sense, it is exemplary drama, which can be soporific, and is certainly not the whole human story. But then, neither is tragedy. Wouldn't we be better off with a little more balance in our drama-- new interpretations of what how virtue is expressed, what it means, what it costs but what its rewards can be--in our own culture?

For after all, our science is showing that altruism is just as natural as selfishness, that animals exhibit cooperation and sharing as well as competition--if we only allow ourselves to see it. And at least in practice, our religious traditions include encouraging compassion, and modelling it. So can't our theatre produce drama (and not just the bipolar of tragedy and comedy) to reflect this? Because we're going to have to achieve a balance--to face our flaws but emphasize our ability to get beyond them, to keep trying--if we're going to be up to the challenges of the future.

To be fair, this is not precisely van Buitenen's point, in his introduction to the translation that OSF uses of The Little Clay Cart. For example, he sets the Greek idea of fate against the Hindu idea of transmigration of the soul into the next generation, making "any single life an episode in a far longer chain. No single life makes ultimate sense in itself; the chain of life does."

Still, his basic point about the culture-bound concept of tragedy allows for mine. Here's more of that passage: "This 'absense of tragedy' [in Sanskrit drama] is sometimes pointed to with a mildly accusing finger, as though any theatre worth the name should have it. Apologists then point out that India was 'prevented' from developing true tragedy by the underlying climate of its thought. This argument takes for granted that tragedy is an almost natural expression of any culture. But why not argue that Greek tragedy constitutes the exception, not the rule, and that it presupposes a very specific notion of moira (fate) that was peculiarly Greek?"

I also must confess that my point was also influenced by Daniel Mendelsohn's lovely essay in the New York Review of Books on the revival of the Philip Glass opera Satyagraha, which not entirely coincidentally, is largely about the hero of 20th century India, Gandhi (although it covers mostly his earlier years in South Africa, where he developed his methods of passive resistance.) The essay begins:

Good people do not, generally speaking, make good subjects for operas. Like the Greek tragedies that the sixteenth-century Venetian inventors of opera sought to recreate, Western musical drama has tended to be preoccupied with the darker extremes of human emotions: excessive passion and wild jealousy, smoldering resentment and implacable rage. These, after all, are the emotions that spark the kinds of actions—adultery, betrayal, revenge, murder—that make for gripping drama. Unpleasant as they may be in real life, such actions are essential to the Western idea of theater itself, in which the very notion of plot is deeply connected to difficulties, problems, disasters...[So] When we go to the theater, we want to see characters doing things. Bad things, preferably."

He finds in the work of Philip Glass another approach, which is not tragedy and probably to many people isn't even drama, or opera. But it is drama of a sort, it is theatre, and Mendelsohn finds it beautiful. And in beauty, is there not something of truth? In the end, tragedy may cause pity and terror. But it doesn't exactly inspire hope. Not only do we need that, but there is plenty in the world and in human nature that's good. To show how people can accentuate that, to show those possibilities, is as human and can be as artful as pushing the easier buttons of fight-or-flight--the reactions that could well be the fatal flaw of tragedy.

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