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January 02, 2007

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David

Lots to think about, in this post and in George's (to which you're responding). And, as seems to be the norm, I agree with some things, and disagree with some things, in both write-ups.

But I assume that George's statement that there are no tragedies "in the Microsoft Word documents of American playwrights in the early 21st century" must involve some hyperbole. Because my knee-jerk response to that snippet is that George obviously doesn't have access to the laptop I'm typing on at this moment. Nor the laptops of a number of our fellow playwrights.

Of course, there will always be individual differences in people's definitions of "tragedy," "melodrama," "play," "fun," etc... What I define as one of several tragedies that I've written and am working on this very afternoon, may not fit George's definition perfectly (or it might -- in fact, privately, I think it does). If anyone is going to be in Chicago this weekend or next, let me know and I'll give you the info on a couple of staged readings, where you can be the judge.

Do 21st-Century American tragedies manage to get off writers' laptops and onto stages? Sometimes... I had a play produced earlier this year that I think qualifies. But I would venture to say that the current, general appetite for diversion definitely makes it much more difficult to get a tragedy produced.

Alison Croggon

I think Death of a Salesman is a great tragedy, so George and I are at odds right there...! He doesn't mention O'Neill, but Long Day's Journey into Night is a fairly respectable piece as well. And it's in American prose - Carson McCullers wrote some of the most beautiful and heartbreaking stories I ever read. And isn't Moby-Dick tragedy par examplar, straight out of Shakespeare? I confess, I'm puzzled too (and rather sad the comments aren't working). Of course Americans can do tragic.

Also, Sarah Kane (like Beckett) can be funny; I think you mischaracterise her badly there. She's not a miserablist. And I don't think Crimp can do tragedy, but I think Caryl Churchill can. Etc.

I know what George is getting at with his distinction between "play" and "fun". I think there's a place for both of them. It's when one obliterates the other possibility that there's a problem.

Also, Isaac, I'm over 40 and I, er, listen to new albums all the time. (Currently Joanna Newsom's latest, Ys.) Generational distinctions can often be very tempting but are also misleading.

George Hunka

It's not a generational thing at all; I'm very excited by a number of young artists, writers, and composers, many of them in their late 20s and early 30s. But I do find this tragic perception rare, in older artists as well.

I can name a number of Americans, in various fields, with what I would call a tragic vision. Alison's named Melville, of course (and to be fair, I did say that America's poets, of whom I would consider Melville one, have attempted and are attempting that form), and though I pity Willy Loman I don't really find fear in his experience; mewling cowardice is a pretty poor tragic flaw (and that awful epilogue in "Death of a Salesman" tries to make up for that, and fails). And I would say that Feldman's tragedy is not in those chords, but in his silences, in decay. We'll have to disagree on Reich, whom I've never found as evocative as a half-dozen living composers (many of them younger than Reich) who don't get nearly the press (this recent 70th birthday of his has attracted about as much press as ... as, well, The Coast of Utopia). In photography, there's the work of Paul Cava, an immensely tragic and sensual recognition of the hopeless yearning of the phenomenal for the noumenal; in poetry, Anne Carson and, I hope she won't mind my saying, Alison herself. But where is this recognition in the American theatre?

What bothers me is that there's this profound denial of a worldview here, a profound mistrust of those who seek the essence of darkness without remission. That there might be one small corner of theatre and drama reserved for this, that this might serve, too, as reaction against other kinds of theatre, and as passionate, antagonistic reaction (for what is true reaction if not passionate and antagonistic?), is dismissive of the very real and felt wound of being. If Kane (and Barker, and to a lesser extent Crimp) does not desire to tart it up, that makes her work no less nuanced and complicated than Nicky Silver's.

And, by the way, hopelessness may not be ameliorative. But it is every bit as complex, supple, profound and defensible as hope.

Alison Croggon

Passionately said, George. Though, you know, I think what you're saying has little to do with either hope or hopelessness: more a staring of medusa in the face without turning to stone (as they said of Beckett). And I accept, catastrophe is a reality that is cheapened daily. To be perfectly honest, Saddam's death by hanging, in a squalid little room on a makeshift gibbet, mocked and abused by those who hated him, strikes me as a compelling contemporary tragedy, in the classic sense. His executioners had good reason to hate him, and he certainly never extended much mercy to those he called his enemies. But for sure, there's not a lot of light in those symmetries. Long before this, I thought Saddam and his sons were like something out of Seneca. Perhaps there is a sickness in our cultures, if the realities that hog our headlines can't be expressed in our art.

George Hunka

I find it additionally sick, and worthy of comment on its mere perversity, that the distribution of this horrible death to the world takes the form of jibbering cellphone pictures. You find it on YouTube next to all those self-produced music videos (I wonder how many of these snuff films exist now that we're so able to produce our own spectacles for public consumption). Where does Saddam's death register on iPod video playlists this morning?

David

Agreed, George and Alison. One of the reasons I write -- and I shrink a bit from making such statements, because there's so much I don't know about why I do anything -- is to say:

"Look."

Not voyeurism. Not rubbernecking. Simply looking. And, after that, perhaps, acknowledgment. And then...

(Then again, maybe I write in order to say, "Look at me!")

Scott Walters

Where I tend to disagree with George is in his definition of tragedy as "the essence of darkness without remission." Perhaps he is speaking of a contemporary view of tragedy -- we have debated Steiner in the past. But when I look at tragedy, it is about courage and defiance in the face of disaster. The protagonist is destroyed, but is he goes down fighting. I feel the same way about Beckett's late one-acts -- for instance, the old woman's repeated "More" in "Rockaby," that is, at last, followed by "Fuck life" has all the defiance and dignity of Lear's
No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!

I find Willy Loman tragic because, like Macbeth, he is destroyed by a mistaken belief in a lie. The difference is that, at the end, Macbeth realizes his error and fights on to his death, whereas Willy never does realize his error. But he sacrifices himself for the next generation.

I think George subscribes to one wing of tragic theory, and I another. And where he and I both run into problems is when we try to universalize our preferences.

Mac

I'm not the biggest fan of "Death of a Salesman," but I would differ with George on one point: I think mewling cowardice is the defining tragic flaw of our time.

Alison Croggon

Slight aside here: I actually broke and went and looked at that YouTube video yesterday. Daniel told me that I should (he thinks everyone should). It wasn't as pornographic as I feared, but it was shaming and sordid. I didn't think anything could make me feel sorry for Saddam Hussein, but this did. For all his monstrousness, he's a human being like the rest of us. And so are his executioners. It doesn't make you very proud to be of the same species.

Maybe what interested me most was the comments underneath - the usual sprinkling of "yay the bastard's dead, George Bush 4evah" and "Allahu Akbar", but mostly people were shocked and repelled. Which is the reality of those executions, though here very exposed. I actually think it is an interesting thing that people can see something like this for themselves, because it exposes the lie of "justice" for what it is, a shabby lynching.

George Hunka

It is a horrible thing to watch, even if the picture's shaky and unclear. GWB's handwringing over the last few days and Iraq's own self-serving "investigations" into the matter only underscore this gruesomeness; one can guess that they were taken and distributed as a form of viral propaganda: to scotch any possible rumors that he might have escaped the execution. Publicity.

Richard

Macbeth being a much better Play than Salesman. Macbeth is always in action. The Saddam footage was truly a low point in our culture. This Youtube, ipod generation is embarrasing.

Abe Goldfarb

A.C. Douglas?! What are YOU doing here?! And from a grammar and spelling standpoint, that was appalling.

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