Modern European Tragedy: Exploring Crucial Plays

Modern European Tragedy: Exploring Crucial Plays

by Annamaria Cascetta


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The idea of the tragic has permeated Western culture for millennia, and has been expressed theatrically since the time of the ancient Greeks. However, it was in the Europe of the twentieth century - one of the most violent periods of human history - that the tragic form significantly developed. 'Modern European Tragedy' examines the consciousness of this era, drawing a picture of the development of the tragic through an in-depth analysis of some of the twentieth century's most outstanding texts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783081530
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 05/01/2014
Series: Anthem Studies in Theatre and Performance , #1
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Annamaria Cascetta is a professor of theatre history and the former director of the Department of Communication and Performing Arts at the Catholic University of Milan.

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Modern European Tragedy

Exploring Crucial Plays

By Annamaria Cascetta

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2015 Annamaria Cascetta
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78308-424-1



Janus bifrons

It makes sense to begin with Ibsen's play, though written in the nineteenth century, if we consider that it dates from a period of momentous transition.

Chamberlain Alving and Oswald Alving, the true tragic characters in the play, are like a diptych, a Janus bifrons, with one looking back at the nineteenth century and the other forward to the fin de siècle crisis that ushered in the new century. Chamberlain Alving's gaze is fixed on the idea of the omnipotence of the self and he acts accordingly, in keeping with an irrepressible, culpable hubris, whose self-destructive and other-destructive consequences fall on himself and his son. Oswald's gaze is focused on the revelation of deceit, omnipotence and the absolute domination of the ego. He sees the biological and psychological 'humiliations' of the self, which believed it was master in its own house, and its coming defeat, though only after the lapse of a generation. In the former the Romantic, positivist ethos is at work; and in the latter the lurking disquiet to which Darwin and Freud were to give a systematic order. Then followed the currents of thought of the new century, which was shaken and maimed by the blow which war inflicted on the presumption and arrogance of Western man.

Kierkegaard, who had also stigmatized the presumption of his century, was a pillar of Ibsen's thinking. He almost certainly read him in his youth. It is significant that the name of the fiancée who inspired the philosopher and the 'Regina cycle' on the issue of sin is also the name of the young woman in Ghosts.

The limit with which Chamberlain and Oswald clash is the aspiration to a full and free life of self-fulfilment and desire. It is frustrated by their social environment, by weakness of character or an unsuspected biological inheritance that are revealed unexpectedly. It is expressed in a dramatic machinery made up of everyday gestures, words uttered and unspoken, and allusions. They open up the abyss of suffering, repressions, unresolved conflicts penned up inside the characters, and the unsuspected heritability and familiarity of diseases. The play is structured like a series of doors left open for the characters to spy on each other, as some critics observe. A perfect correspondence between the two theatrical codes.

The historical setting is Norway in the late nineteenth century, within the narrow horizons of a small bourgeois world and the aspirations and ideals of the creative will to overcome weakness. But there is also the prophetic intuition of a generational fault and the perception of the continuous return, to use an expression of Nietzsche, of the dynamics of guilt and innocence.

From Ancient to Modern Tragedy: Ibsen's Sources

First of all, as we have said, Kierkegaard gives Ibsen a perspective in which to transcribe the coordinates of modern tragedy in terms borrowed from the Greek model. Confronting modernity, Kierkegaard argued (above all in his essay 'The Tragic in Ancient Drama Reflected in the Tragic in Modern Drama', published in Either/Or) that ancient tragedy reveals the nature of tragedy tout court. It lies in the disproportion between the need for a limit and the absolute and infinite tension that drives the tragic character. But it takes different forms in antiquity and in modernity (naturally meaning the kind of tragedy coeval with Kierkegaard, not long before the period when Ibsen wrote his plays). In the ancient world the limit was substantive (objective) in its nature: the state, the family or ancestry, destiny. The downfall and destruction of the hero was both action and suffering, and not wholly a consequence of his or her actions. There was a certain extrinsic factor, 'a situation that from the start involves the subjectivity of the hero yet also goes beyond it'. Guilt was similarly intermediate between acting and suffering: it was not wholly the result of a responsible act. And it aroused pity and fear. But in the hero and the audience the pain, the suffering, were deeper than the sorrow, because the degree of reflectivity was lower and individuality, singularity of consciousness, was not yet so highly developed. We can compare the situation to that of a child who sees an adult suffering: he lacks sufficient power of reflection to feel the other's sorrow; the reasons for the adult's suffering remain obscure, yet the child's feeling of sadness is infinitely deep and mingled with an obscure foreboding. The tragic fault, in this view, is not so much mere subjective guilt as hereditary guilt. Destiny is unchangeable. The wrath of the gods is not ethical in character.

Situation and character are dominant in modern tragedy. The hero acts rather than suffers. Subjectivity has a fundamental role. If tragedy is a tension between guilt and innocence, here, in the absolute freedom of the individual, we tend towards total guilt. The individual bears the burden of his life on his shoulders as his own work. It entails anguish, sorrow, total isolation, desperation and defeat by the tragic itself, which verges on the ridiculous. But in this way the age loses the gentle melancholy of the tragic. It drowns sorrow, pity and tears in the absurdity of the individual, who claims to be absolute, who does not feel immersed in a horizon (God, time, the family, a people) which relativises him, and therefore has no chorus to relate to or dialogue with.

Ibsen had to intuit this state of affairs. And while the absent character of Chamberlain Alving faces towards that 'modern' tragic pattern, the character of his son, as has been mentioned, already looks ahead to a further model, to a modernity that is far closer to our own time, one that in the twentieth century was to recover the melancholy, fear and pity, the tension between guilt and innocence of ancient tragedy.

The great sensibility to existence expressed in Ibsen's Ghosts is then Kierkegaardian. The theme of angst is Kierkegaardian. The term and concept of angst are key elements in Ibsen's text, as is clearly revealed by the Concordance. It is an indefinite disquiet, not a specific dread, which he associates with a Judaeo-Christian strand of feeling. It is closely bound up with the vertigo of freedom, with the consequences of sin. These fall on the individual who commits it and on the whole world, because no one is immune from what happens to others: 'Life proclaims aloud the scriptural doctrine that God punishes the crimes of the fathers in their children to the third and fourth generation.'

Certain qualities of Chamberlain Alving probably stem from Kierkegaard's Don Giovanni: his 'erotic, sensuous genius', his undifferentiated aesthetic, his continuous flitting from thing to thing without ever fixing on a goal, his momentary interests, the flow of desire and intoxication, 'a glass of champagne [...] one effervescent moment', the champagne in which he drowns his life and in which his son, young Oswald, drowns his sorrows.

The basic substrate of the modern reformulation of the tragic comes from the Greeks, but it makes a sharp break with them. This issue has been widely debated in criticism of Ibsen. Ibsen himself was well aware of it and the Greek tragedians entered his development in wholly unacademic ways. The key concepts of ancient tragedy and the tragic were the skeleton on which a new body grew. The limit (moira), both guilty and innocent transgression (hubris), error (hamartia), necessity (ananke), the reversal of fortune (peripeteia), recognition of the situation and the truth (anagnorisis), fear (phobos) and pity (eleos) are transcribed in a new ideological horizon in a profound and comprehensive vision of the reality of modern character. Ibsen, as is well known, did not sketch out his creations but rather sculpted them. He brought them to life without contrivance or preconceptions. He probed them in all their complexity, including their contradictions and ambiguities.

Another factor enters into Ibsen's formulation of the tragic horizon in which the characters move in Ghosts. This is the brand of Lutheran Protestantism, felt as a burden that weighs with its load of pessimism on human nature, unable to contribute to its own salvation; permanently cut off by sin from its own sources, and remaining sinful even when 'justified', unable to possess sanctification. The characters in Ghosts still bear its mark, though it is not made explicit and does not seem to affect them directly. They are inscribed in a closed, stifling and obsessive world, suffering its negatives without having the strength to embody the positives of Lutheran anthropology: identification with and loyalty to one's calling, the great Kierkegaardian theme, and the thread that runs through Ibsen's own biography. Chamberlain Alving never sought it. Oswald seeks it, but fate cuts short his quest.

And whether his influence was direct or indirect, Ibsen knew Nietzsche, principally through Brandes. Ibsen's work echoed Nietzsche's contemporary speculations. They began with The Birth of Tragedy, which straddled philology and philosophy. Leaving aside philological polemics and reservations, the culture of the period was shaped by Nietzsche's particular idea of the fundamental importance of Greek tragedy to Western culture. It revealed that 'the Greeks knew and felt the horrors of existence' and sensed the obscure matrix of all things. In the expression of both the Dionysian and the Apollonian that inform tragedy, he gave a voice and face to this chain of fate and death, sublimating it into the harmony of form and triumphing over the terror into which that vision plunged him.

The theme enters into Ibsen's Ghosts, which is entwined with other important Nietzschean ideas: the demythifying attitude that sifts political, moral and religious institutions and unmasks their historical responsibility for contributing to man's tragic destiny. Meditation on the 'return' (which in Nietzsche later became eternal recurrence, as a way of belying the linear, progressive or regressive theory of time) impressed him quite independently of expressive form. These ideas were, of course, present in a different framework of thought, commitment and influence, but were still indicative of a certain kind of climate.

The Tragic Nuclei

We will now concentrate on the nuclei of tragedy which emerge in the text, following a brief plot summary.

Young Oswald, the son of Chamberlain Alving, who died some years before, and of Mrs Alving, has returned home to the fjords of the north after a prolonged stay in Paris. There he had pursued his vocation as a painter by moving in artistic circles, with their relaxed and friendly atmosphere. His return coincides with the dedication of an orphanage, a philanthropic project undertaken by Mrs Alving to use the wealth inherited from Alving and so associate her husband's name and memory with it. But this banal circumstance culminates in a tangled web of confessions and revelations, deceits and debacles, as the past bears down heavily on the present, sweeping away the Alving family's plans and benefiting the profiteering carpenter Engstrand, his stepdaughter Regina and Pastor Manders. The truth emerges: Chamberlain Alving was not the man he was generally believed to be, but a debauched victim of his own vices. Mrs Alving was rejected by Pastor Manders, the man she loved, when she fled to him from her husband. Now she is resigned to her situation and devotes herself to defending her wealth and social position. The maid Regina is Alving's daughter, born after an affair with one of the servants. Alving's son is tainted by his father's legacy. He hopes to regain his health through Regina and the joy of living by working in the southern sun, but his dreams are shattered by dementia and the prison of a regressive relationship with his mother. The commemorative orphanage burns down. Engstrand, acting in complicity (though not explicitly) with Manders and Regina, will use the money to build a shady sailors' home.

The late Chamberlain Alving is a tragic figure, a presence-absence weighing on all that happens in the play. He is evoked in act 1, in the dialogue between Pastor Manders and Mrs Alving, and in the words, gestures and behaviour of young Oswald. He was impatient of the limitations imposed by the need to choose and stand by his choice, as required by the need for self-preservation as well as moral exigencies and to protect his reputation. He continued to transgress until his premature death. But his inhibited transgressions were not a true acceptance of his natural vocation opening onto vital horizons, they were frustrated and stifled in secret, while others spied and sneaked, as Roberto Alonge rightly observes. He indulged his depravity in private, covered by bourgeois hypocrisy and the enforced complicity of his wife, who submitted to practical expediency and a safe respectability. In this Alving was abetted by a natural charm, which made him attractive to others and prevented them from thinking ill of him. His transgressions were all committed in private, in seclusion, screened from others. He embodied, though on a smaller scale, Kierkegaard's tragic symbol of Don Giovanni, representing the aesthetic phase in the path of life, which burns for an instant and falls into the sin of not bowing to the modern law of the limit: the freedom to choose in finiteness knowing that desire is infinite.

So Alving loses everything: his life, the son to whom he has bequeathed his taint (not just syphilis, believed to be hereditary at the time, but a mode of being that breaks through the crust of his upbringing, his love and respect for his mother). This taint destroys Alving's life, his honoured memory. His name will be associated not with the charitable foundation of the orphanage but a brothel disguised as a sailors' home in Little Harbour Street, run by the coarse and ambiguous Engstrand and by Alving's natural daughter, conceived by one of his servants and likewise doomed.

At the end of the day of revelations, in keeping with the classical day traditional in tragedy, Mrs Alving sees her husband clearly and interprets his achievements differently. In his youth he took his joie de vivre wherever he went; those who saw him were overwhelmed by his festive air. Indomitable strength and fullness of life were manifest in him; but then he was fated to vegetate in a middling sort of city, ill- suited to any great purpose, frustrated by the mediocrity of business and idle amusements.

MRS ALVING. He had to live at home here in a half-grown town, which had no joys to offer him – only dissipations. He had no object in life – only an official position. He had no work into which he could throw himself heart and soul; he had only business. He had not a single comrade that could realize what the joy of life meant – only loungers and boon-companions.

This brings out the tragic implications of Alving's life. His drive was shattered by the limits of a basically moderate temperament trapped in a stifling and torpid social milieu. Oswald is his double, another tragic character. Oswald is initially enabled to freely transcend this limited world, and his transgression is sustainable. He rejects the business and official roles of his bourgeois family, choosing to work as a painter, so freeing himself from the trammels of bourgeois life. Something comparable appears in the central character in Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. Oswald turns away from the endless rain and mist of his homeland to seek the light and sun of the south. He rejects the solitude of the fjords for life in Paris; the uneventful conformism and hypocrisy of a wealthy bourgeois family for the irregularity, passion and sincerity of Parisian art circles, where things are called by their real names and hypocrisy shatters against the revelation that the moralists are great experts in immorality.

OSWALD. No; do you know when and where I have come across immorality in artistic circles?

MANDERS. No, thank heaven, I don't!

OSWALD. Well, then, allow me to inform you. I have met with it when one or other of our pattern husbands and fathers has come to Paris to have a look round on his own account, and has done the artists the honour of visiting their humble haunts. They knew what was what. These gentlemen could tell us all about places and things we had never dreamt of.


Excerpted from Modern European Tragedy by Annamaria Cascetta. Copyright © 2015 Annamaria Cascetta. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Tragic, Tragedy and the Idea of the Limit; Chapter 1: Hubris and Guilt: ‘Genganere’ (‘Ghosts’) by Henrik Ibsen; Chapter 2: Eve Becomes Mary: ‘L’Annonce faite à Marie’ (‘The Tidings Brought to Mary’) by Paul Claudel; Chapter 3: The School of Hatred: ‘Mourning Becomes Electra’ by Eugene O’Neill; Chapter 4: The Destiny of Man is Man: ‘Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder’ (‘Mother Courage and her Children’) by Bertolt Brecht; Chapter 5: The Tragic and the Absurd: ‘Caligula’ by Albert Camus; Chapter 6: Dianoetic Laughter in Tragedy: Accepting Finitude: ‘Endgame’ by Samuel Beckett; Chapter 7: The Arrogance of Reason and the ‘Disappearance of the Fireflies’: ‘Pilade’ (‘Pylades’) by Pier Paolo Pasolini; Chapter 8: The Apocalypse of a Civilization: From ‘Akropolis’ to ‘Apocalypsis cum figuris’ by Jerzy Grotowski; A Provisional Epilogue: Between the Experience and the Representation of the Tragic: Towards a Performative Theatre; Appendix: Chronology of Productions; Notes; Index

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