A Brief History of Tragedy
Tragedy begins in ancient Greece, of course, and the first great tragedies were staged as part of a huge festival known as the City Dionysia. Thousands of Greek citizens – Greek men, that is, for no women were allowed – would gather in the vast amphitheatre to watch a trilogy of tragic plays, such as Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Going to the theatre in ancient Greece was, socially speaking, closer to attending a football match than a modern-day theatre.
Because audiences were so vast, actors wore masks which symbolised their particular character, so even those sitting towards the back of the amphitheatre could tell who was who. In Latin, the word for such a mask was persona, which is to this day why we talk about adopting a persona whenever we become someone else – we are, metaphorically if not literally, putting on a mask. This is also the reason why the list of characters in a play is known as the ‘Dramatis Personae’. The Romans were the first civilisation we know of to allow women to act in plays. Although women would not be allowed on the English stage until after the Restoration in 1660, the Romans got there first. In Roman plays, the colour of characters’ robes would often signify their role, so a yellow robe signified that a character was a woman, a purple robe that he was a young man, a white robe an old man, and so on. However, the Romans are more celebrated for their comedies – witness the very different styles of Terence and Plautus – than for their tragedies.
The City Dionysia in Greece possibly grew out of earlier fertility festivals where plays would be performed, and a goat would be ritually sacrificed to the god of wine, fertility, and crops, Dionysus – the idea was that the sacrificial goat would rid the city-state of its sins, much like the later Judeo-Christian concept of the scapegoat. Tragedy, then, was designed to have a sort of purging effect upon the community – and this is even encoded within the word tragedy itself, which probably comes from the Greek for ‘goat song’.
However, tragedy is, perhaps surprisingly, not the earliest of all literary genres. Nor is comedy: instead, a third genre of drama, known as the satyr play, is thought by some critics (such as Oscar Brockett in his History of Theatre) to have been the first of all literary genres, from which comedy and tragedy both eventually developed. Satyr plays were bawdy satires or burlesques which featured actors sporting large strap-on penises – the phallus being a popular symbol of fertility and virility, linked with the god Dionysus. Only one satyr play survives in its entirety: written by the great tragedian Euripides, Cyclops centres on the incident from the story of Odysseus when the Greek hero found himself a prisoner in the cave of Polyphemus, the one-eyed monster (we won’t make a phallus joke here).
One of the most celebrated tragedies of ancient Greece was Oedipus Rex, Sophocles’ play about the Theban king who unwittingly had killed his father and married his mother. This story gave Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, the idea for his ‘Oedipus complex’, where every male child harbours an unconscious desire to do what Oedipus did. The child has to repress this, but is often only partly successful (Hamlet, for instance, doesn’t fully manage it, according to Freud’s reading of Shakespeare’s play).
In terms of genre, tragedy requires a tragic hero (and usually it is a man): one who is usually tempted to perform a deed (frequently, though not always, a murder), after which the hero’s fortunes eventually suffer a decline, ending with his death (or her death, as in the case of Antigone – though whether Antigone is the tragic ‘hero’ of Sophocles’ play remains a moot point). When viewed this way, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is not really the tragedy of Julius Caesar at all: he is merely the character who is killed by the real tragic hero of the play, Brutus. It would be like calling the story of Macbeth Duncan, after the victim. Brutus is the one who is tempted to perform a murder (of Caesar himself), after which event his fortunes suffer a catastrophe (or ‘downturn’), eventually ending in his death near the end of the play. (We’ve got more interesting Shakespeare facts here.)
(Left: Sarah Bernhardt, the first ever Hamlet on film, 1900.)
More recently, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen created the definitive tragic heroine of modern theatre, Hedda Gabler, in his 1890 play of that name. Hedda has been called ‘the female Hamlet’, because it is the ‘Holy Grail’ role which actresses want to take on. Recently, star of the West End (and many television dramas and comedies) Sheridan Smith offered her interpretation of Hedda. Hedda is the ‘female Hamlet’ in other ways, too: like Hamlet, she is uncomfortable with femininity, both in herself and others (she dislikes the feminine qualities of her husband, such as his fondness for slippers and his clucking aunts), and, like Hamlet, she is ‘haunted’ by the ‘ghost’ of her father (whose presence looms large in the play, and whose portrait hangs in the living room throughout).
And while we’re on the subject of women and Hamlet, it’s worth noting that the first ever Hamlet recorded on film was a woman, Sarah Bernhardt, in 1900. The first radio Hamlet was probably a woman, too – Eve Donne, in 1923. Since the seventeenth century a whole host of actresses have been attracted to the role of the Danish Prince. Tony Howard, author of the excellent Women as Hamlet and a professor at the University of Warwick, has even stated that the best Hamlet he has ever seen was played by a woman. You can see him talking about women playing Hamlet here.
In 1949, US playwright Arthur Miller wrote ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’, an essay in which he justified the concept of having an ordinary person as the central character of a tragic play. This was something of a revolution, since many tragic heroes prior to this had been exceptional people, princes or kings, and Miller’s decision to take an ordinary salesman as his central figure was viewed by some as inappropriate for the subject of tragedy. He wrote his essay in response to hostile reviews which his play Death of a Salesman had received.
Horace Walpole, inventor of the Gothic novel, once opined that ‘The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.’ More recently, Mel Brooks said: ‘Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.’
For more classical fun, check out our interesting facts about the first historian, Herodotus. For more information about the curious world of classical literature, why not check out our book full of literary trivia, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History?