Wednesday, 13 June 2018 16:32

Tragedy: a caution from Brecht

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King Lear and the Fool in the Storm by William Dyce
King Lear and the Fool in the Storm by William Dyce

Tragedy: a caution from Brecht

by Chris Norris

Our representations of human social life are designed for river-dwellers, fruit farmers, builders of vehicles and up-turners of society, whom we invite into our theatres and beg not to forget their cheerful occupations while we hand the world over to their minds and hearts for them to change as they think fit.
- Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre, ed. Willetts

Great theoretical obstacles prevent us from recognising that the concreteness with which life is depicted in Aristotelian drama (drama which aims to produce catharsis) is limited by its function (to conjure up certain emotions) and by the technique this requires (suggestion), and that the viewer thus has a stance imposed on him (that of empathy) which prevents him readily adopting a critical attitude to the things depicted.
- Brecht, Journals, ed. Rorrison and Willetts

Before you talk of 'tragedy', just think:
It goes right back to Ancient Greece,
To Oedipus and all
Those boneheads who
Brought upsets sure to call
Down retribution without cease
Even to the umpteenth generation, link
By bloody link, till civil peace
Required that empires fall,
That heroes stew
In their own juice or haul
Themselves offstage for a short lease
Of fate-tormented life. So, in a blink,
You've got the gist: it's sheer caprice,
The way things go in small
With folk like you
And me or states in thrall
To divine wrath. So why increase
The sum of woes by kicking up a stink
With social change your Golden Fleece,
Or your device to stall
Word getting through
That though you won't play ball
Just yet the cost of your set-piece
Display's to boost the stock of Creon Inc?

My point: that tragic stuff's a clear non-starter
If what you really want’s to bring
Real change about and smash
The bourgeois state,
Not just to tap a cache
Of maudlin sentiments. They ring
True only if you're keen to give your heart a
Quick tug at every feeling-string
That answers to the trash
Put out as bait
For fools with each rehash
Of some old plot. The tragic thing
Is just their age-old need to play the martyr,
Enjoy vicarious suffering,
And relish how the clash
Of love and hate
In rival clans can dash
A glorious career and fling
It on the pile of heroes whose life-data
Involve just that which has them swing
From high to low, then crash
As gods or fate
Prescribe. They cut a dash,
Those tragic figures, but they spring
From dullard stock: good comedy's much smarter!

It's that ‘catharsis’ notion we should blame,
That Aristotle-backed idea
Of tragedy as what
Requires a well-
Designed dramatic plot
To generate 'pity and fear'
In a well-tempered audience. They'll tame
At one remove the wild career
Of passions that are not,
As primers tell,
Allowed to grab a spot
Stage-centre lest such violence steer
The soul on stormy sea-tracks apt to claim
More victims. Better they appear
As just 'our human lot'
In forms that swell
With pathos yet have got
Nothing of use to say when we're
On strike, or unemployed, or blind and lame,
But don't need Oedipus or Lear
To tell us just how hot
The inner hell
Of lives long gone to pot
For reasons squarely in the sphere
Of politics, beyond that tragic frame.

It makes you think, rage, argue, answer back!
That's why a comic twist best goes
With taking Marx to heart
About the need
To change things, not let art
Or art-talk lead us by the nose
So we make up in chatter what we lack
In will-to-change. All that high shows
Of tragedy impart
Is a fool's creed
That puts the feeling-cart
Before the action-horse and throws
The glove in sooner than defy the pack
Of moralising frauds or those
Whose sermons always start
And end up keyed
To narratives that chart
The self-same tale. Its downbeat close
Is meant to show how tragic odds just stack
Up steadily like hammer-blows
That no-one can outsmart
Since they exceed
The power of life or art
To hold at bay. It's fate bestows
All weal or woe: ours just to take the flak!

A stupid doctrine, surely you'll agree,
And one that just might tell us why
A so-called tragic play
Like 'Hamlet' had
Its audience making hay
And prone to split their sides, not cry,
When viewed by Soviet workers brought up free
Of bourgeois notions. So this guy,
This Hamlet, with his way
Of acting mad
Through having lots to say
About himself they'd classify
As clown, as joker, one the bourgeoisie
Might count the pinnacle of high
(Since tragic) art, while they,
An audience glad
To find such stuff passé,
Could give the comic side a try.
They’d set their more inventive wits to see
What novel tactics might apply
In order to convey
How such a sad
Though risible display
Could yet be made a means whereby
The tragic’s stripped of bourgeois dignity.

That's why I say leave tragedy alone,
Or anyway make sure you treat
It with the cheerful kind
Of insolence
That comes of wit combined
With tactics picked up on the street.
Such ploys are best, most intimately known
To those whose long tale of defeat
In the class-wars may find,
At times, a sense
Of clouds still dark yet lined
With silver. That’s why they can greet
The tragic ethos of high hopes long flown
With comic strategies to cheat
The fate of lives consigned
To impotence
By the same turn of mind
That led those dumb-clucks to repeat
The Attic horror-show. So they'd atone
For deeds enacted in the heat
Of passions mute and blind
Whose recompense
Required the double-bind
Of guilt pre-rigged to have us beat
Until the tragic mode’s one we’ve outgrown!

Read 185 times Last modified on Wednesday, 13 June 2018 20:33
Chris Norris

Christopher Norris is Distinguished Research Professor in Philosophy at the University of Cardiff. He is the author of more than thirty books on aspects of philosophy, politics, literature, the history of ideas, and music.