Stephen Drukman, American Theater
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An intelligent introduction to the wondrous works of William Shakespeare.
Stephen Drukman, American Theater
Jack Helbig, Booklist
Steven Drukman, University of Chicago, Co-Editor of the Plays for Performance Series
- Dee, Ivan R. Publisher
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- 6.36(w) x 9.26(h) x 1.61(d)
Read an Excerpt
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THE WORDS "tragic" and "tragedy" will appear in this discussion frequently enough to raise a question as to what they mean. Probably the most useful definition for those who wonder why Shakespeare's plays work so well on the stage was written 2,500 years ago by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. The ancient Greeks were great playgoers, so much so that they held festivals in which prizes were awarded for the best group of plays produced; and they must have sat through scores of productions during the weeks of the contest. Aristotle examined the prizewinners to discover if they had features in common that contributed to their success, and he described his findings in a brief work, Of Poetics, which is so packed with insight that it is thought to be a set of notes he prepared for a series of lectures. Generations of scholars have expanded on those notes, speculating on just what he might have said in the lectures themselves.
The question of the Poeticswhy do some plays work and others fail?is not an easy one to answer. Every year artists who have toiled in the theater for decades troop to Broadway to mount plays that all who are concerned with the enterprisethe producer, playwright, director, and actors alikeare convinced will have a long run to enthusiastic critical acclaim, only to find that they must close after three performances for lack of an audience. Famous Hollywood producers pour millions into films, confident of their appeal, and are dismayed when the public stays awayindroves while some unknown director fills theaters with a film made on a shoestring. It's a mystery, really, and always has been. Aristotle tried to unravel it by dissecting the prizewinners to determine why they worked.
Aristotle's explanation of what makes a play work is somewhat out of favor today. It is said, among other things, that he laid too heavy an emphasis on plotand so indeed he did. But it is his few incisive paragraphs on character that are so valuable to our appreciation of Shakespeare's tragedies; and it is to those paragraphs that we turn, seeking some firm ground on which to stand in our encounters with the puzzling figures of these plays.
Aristotle begins by making distinctions, in the manner of philosophers of any age: A tragedy is a play in which the chief figure, or tragic hero, experiences a change from good fortune to bad; in a comedy the change is from bad to good. The tragic hero, he observes, must be an important person in the community, a king, a queen, a prince, or a famous warrior, a man or woman of substance and responsibility, because that figure experiences a fall, and any fall is more moving if it comes from a great height. It is evident that a figure who tumbles to death from the top of the Empire State Building will have a more dramatic impact than one who trips over a curb.
You will notice immediately that this quality does not always apply in the modern theater, which is filled with highly effective plays about the tragedy of the common man. Willy Loman, in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, is not an important man except to his family, and the play opens upon him at the low point of his life; yet it is a highly effective tragedy. So Aristotle's observations must be taken with some cautionbut they are useful. He is simply reporting on plays he has seen; and he observes that the most successful of them are about men and women in high places.
A corollary to this quality is his further observation that the tragic figure is famous as well, from one of the houses or families with which the audience is already familiar through knowledge of their history or mythology. Again, this quality need not necessarily apply to the modern stage, but it does bring up an important point: the Greek audience already knew what was to happen before the play began. This tends to rule out surprise endings, but it introduces into the action the element of dramatic irony, an essential effect of any successful play, comedy or tragedy. To illustrate: Aristotle's favorite work was Sophocles' Oedipus the King, the story of a famous man who, with every good intention, embarks on a determined effort to find out who his parents were. The Greek audience, familiar with the myth, were aware that unknown to Oedipus he has murdered his father and married his mother. Hence, when he says, "I must unlock the secret of my birth!" the audience becomes emotionally engaged in unfolding events.
This tragic hero, Aristotle tells us, should not be absolutely evil, since the death of such a figure, being only just, would fail to move the audience; nor should the figure be absolutely good, for his death would violate our concept of right and wrong, evoking not a tragic sense but a feeling of outrage. According to these guidelines, it would be impossible to mount a tragedy based on the lives of either Adolf Hitler, whose death we would feel was richly deserved, or of Jesus Christ, whose crucifixion was a gross miscarriage of justice. The figure must be, rather, an essentially good person, but one who suffers from an "error or frailty" in charactera person, in brief, much like ourselves. Moreover, the downfall of the tragic hero must come as a consequence of that same "error or frailty" in character, traditionally referred to as a "tragic flaw." Thus it may be said that Lear is rash, Macbeth ambitious, Othello passionate, and Hamlet melancholy, each possessed of emotions which we acknowledge in ourselves from time to time, but which these characters manifest to a degree fatal to themselves and those about them. Only thus can we recognize them as profoundly human and be moved by their fate. The tragic hero, in brief, illuminates everyday human choices by raising them to the level of life-or-death decisions, dramatizing the ordinary so that we may see significance in the common events of our lives.
Central to Aristotle's critique is the idea that something happens in the breasts of the audience as they watch events unfold on the stage. He suggests that we are moved by certain emotions, and he singles out pity and fear as the principal effects of tragedy. At certain points in the action these emotions, he says, having been aroused in the audience, are released, that is, either purged or purified. The Greeks called such a response a catharsis, an experience not unlike the release of grief through tears, or tension through laughter. All successful plays, he finds, include such moments, and if nothing of this sort occurs, the work fails to please. The skillful playwright will elicit this response, again, by placing before us the actions of a recognizable human being, one essentially good, indeed noble in nature, but possessed of an "error or frailty" in character that sets in motion a tragic chain of events. Such figures arouse pity in us, Aristotle explains, because they are flawed human beings; and they excite fear because we acknowledge ourselves subject to the same flaw, one fully capable of growing to an excess of ambition like Macbeth's or of passion like Othello's. Pity and fear may occur at different intervals in the play, but Aristotle seems to imply that they are most effective when they come simultaneously. Commenting on the phenomenon, one scholar asks the reader to imagine walking down a narrow, dimly lit corridor and seeing a pitiable figure approach from the other end, one hobbling on crippled legs, gasping for breath, and dressed in ragged remnants of discarded clothes, and to further imagine drawing near the figure only to discover oneself facing a mirror.
Oddly, the great tragedies that reflect the qualities Aristotle has described do not leave an audience despairing. They depict the human condition as one in which the tragic hero struggles against all the flaws and follies of his nature and, even though he falls victim to them, achieves a kind of triumph in the end. Shakespeare achieves this effect in his closing scenes by restoring the hero momentarily to his former stature, reminding us briefly of the height from which he has fallenas with Othello, or Lear, or even the villainous Macbeth. Although the curtain may fall on a stage strewn with the dead, leaving an audience stunned with a sense of loss, they depart the theater aware as well that the terrible events they have witnessed somehow affirm the inherent nobility of the human spirit.
What People are Saying About This
One will find that some prep time with Fallon has gone a long way in enabling a 21st century mind to receive and contemplate Shakespeare's magnificent dramas.
An eloquent, lucid guide for prospective theatergoers, but also rich enough to enhance digestion when the show is over.
Meet the Author
Robert Thomas Fallon is professor emeritus of English at La Salle University in Philadelphia. In addition to A Theatergoer’s Guide to Shakespeare (which concerned itself largely with plot), A Theatergoer’s Guide to Shakespeare’s Themes, and A Theatergoer’s Guide to Shakespeare’s Characters, and How to Enjoy Shakespeare (all published by Ivan R. Dee), he has written three books on John Milton. He lives in Lumberville, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia.
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