The idea of tragedy has a wide currency. We speak of tragic accidents, tragic lives, tragic stories, tragic mistakes, and of course tragic plays. On the principle that life imitates art, some of these senses spring from out notion of tragedy on the stage. On the reverse principle our idea of tragic drama crystalises some prior perception of tragedy in life.
John Orr’s book, though a sociological study of drama and society, does not concern itself with any social (non-theatrical) sense of ‘tragic’. His concern is the neo-Aristotelian one of categorization: what is a modern tragedy as it is to be found in the plays of Ibsen, Chekhov, O’Casey, O’Neill, Williams, Miller?
In the beginning was Greek tragedy: universal man’s fate played out in the presence of the gods. Then the renaissance: the ‘doomed grandeur’ of man as noble as his feudal rank and person are pulled apart. After this the tragic theatre went dark to be re-opened by Ibsen as the ‘tragedy of bourgeois alienation’ in which modern (bourgeois) man acts out his isolation and estrangement from (bourgeois) society.
How are we to recognize such an acting out? By the presence in a play of ‘tragic strife’ which is a ‘climactic confrontation between the dramatis personae and the cultural values of the bourgeois social order.’ A play is a tragedy if such strife is the dramatic resolution of social alienation, ‘a movement present in the social fabric of the theme and equally in the sequential flow of the action itself. Within this flow the traditional Aristotelian elements are usually incorporated and given social resonance. The reversal of personal fortune becomes a key element in the dynamic process of estrangement, the self-recognition of tragic fate a liberating of social consciousness which comes too late to alter the experience of loss.’
Orr finds it of primary significance that the tragedy of bourgeois alienation originated in Norway, Russia, and Ireland, in the cultural outskirts of Europe. For here, not only were the bourgeoisie estranged from their own social order, but this very order was subject to a dislocating dialectic of periphery against centre, giving to the oppositions of noble/bourgeois and family/society the further tragic dimension of wilderness/civilization; an opposition invisible within the cultural centres of Londan and Paris.
Tragedy in Orr’s conception is realist in its subject matter and naturalistic in its theatrical form. It portrays ‘irreparable human loss’ suffered by socially and domestically rooted individuals. It operates, as Orr repeatedly says, within the conventions of ‘figural realism’. Consequently Orr has little to say about the possibilities of tragic theme arising from the theatre of mask, verse, mime, music, and ritual. What he does offer is a solid original survey of realist tragedy from Ibsen to Arthur Miller; well researched and full of examples of close textual attention to particular plays which makes many interesting and intelligent points. He also makes some not so intelligent points – or rather employs a not so intelligent strategy. His account is constantly distorted by the attempt to identify True Great Tragedies. The medal – ‘a tragedy’ – is pinned only on plays that exhibit ‘authentic’ tragic strife, deep-rooted bourgeois alienation, and so on. Thus, Ibsen achieves it, for example, in The Wild Duck, Rosmersholm, John Gabriel Borkman, but not in Ghosts, The Doll’s House, The Master Builder. (When We Dead Awaken, patently not about bourgeois alienation, isn’t mentioned.) Chekhov’s The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard (despite Chekhov’s refusal of the epithet) are authentic tragedies, The Three Sisters isn’t. And so it goes through the plays of Yeats and Synge to O’Casey whose Shadow of the Gunman gets the medal; and then, via a highly tenuous ‘Irish connection’ to O’Neill whose Long Day’s Journey Into Night provides Orr with the most perfect and total example of tragic bourgeois alienation: ‘…O’Neill among all modern writers has produced the most prophetic vision of human extinction on a scale made possible by nuclear war. The personal darkness is also the darkness of the universe as a whole. It is a darkness more intense and resounding than anything Beckett subsequently created during a period when the possibility became widely known, and it ranges back and forth without constraint from the personal to the social and from the social to the universal. The night of O’Neill’s play is the darkness of the twentieth century fully brought to light. Concentrated in the life of one family, it explodes outwards to embrace the whole of modern civilization.’
O’Neill’s dark over-written lament of fog and suffocation is undoubtedly an important play. But Orr’s eulogy is overblown, his swipe at Beckett critically fatuous, and his inclusion of nuclear war is just rhetoric. The result is a celebration that says more about Orr’s enthrallment by bourgeois realism than it does about modern society or the status of O’Neill within twentieth century theatre.
A consequence of Orr’s unwillingness to distance himself from the tragic fireworks of bourgeois realism is that the omissions in his account produce a feeling of unease and irritation. One feels bludgeoned by the strength of his selectivity and imprisoned by all the unnecessary medal pinning. Thus, for example, French Theatre is never mentioned, presumably because it produced no tragedies of bourgeois alienation. But several pages and much fuss devoted to the plays of the Irish dramatist F.C. Murray and nothing about Claudel or Anouilh makes for a strange unbalance.
A more serious distortion occurs with Brecht. Orr is too informed and intelligent not to recognize the importance of Epic theatre and Brecht’s critique of illusionism. But he is completely out of sympathy with either the motives or the achievements of Brecht’s programme. His isolation of Brecht within a short and bitty chapter called Germany’s Political Theatre has the effect of avoiding all the questions by preventing Brecht’s notions of alienation and gestus from impinging on his own idea of tragedy. He fails to discuss, except through cursory remarks, any single play by Brecht, and indeed back hands Brecht by examining, in detail, Gunter Grass’ The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising – a clever Brechtian satire on Brecht himself. Now it may be (as Steiner wants to argue in The Death of Tragedy) that the promise of salvation inherent in Marxism, means that Marxism is incapable of providing an ideological or metaphysical backdrop against which ‘tragedy’ can be written – tragedy being about that which cannot be salved. Unfortunately Orr doesn’t address the issue since his uncritical acceptance of the formulaic ‘irreparable human loss’ begs the question. Much turns on ‘irreparable’: it was Brecht’s contribution to theatre to have invented a dramatic form in which the all too reparable losses of humanity are able to wear the mask of tragedy. There is great anguish, human loss and waste portrayed in Mother Courage and her Children, and if the play doesn’t fit into Orr’s conception of a tragedy, then so much the worse for ‘tragedy’.