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Essay

Backstory: Notes on Tragedy

Over time, words change meaning, and language evolves just like everything else. Back in the day, for instance, if your son was a “determined bachelor,” you’d be proud of his knighthood,   and if he brought home his broke, underage girlfriend to meet you, you could call her a “naughty wench” without ruining Christmas. “Sick” was ill, and so was “ill”; “thongs” were flip-flops, “bad” was bad, and a “gay marriage” wasn’t anything to argue about. And whether you consider the evolution of language a science, a history lesson, or a damn shame, it's an insight to the evolution of how we think.

One of the many striking accomplishments of The Christians is that Lucas Hnath has managed to write a true, old-school tragedy: a dramatic height that contemporary writers rarely aspire to, and one that seems so hard to pull off in the context of a 21st-century worldview. Because the word “tragedy”—and by extension, of course, the whole notion of “tragedy” as a human experience—has evolved since the Good Old Days when, for example, Oedipus blinded himself and Antigone fashioned a noose. And I wouldn’t presume to imply that this semantic change is for better or worse—it has already happened—but when I suggest that Pastor Paul is a tragic hero, it seems important to be specific about what “tragedy” means to me, compared with the way the word is more commonly used today, and to take stock of the difference.

In any discussion of tragedy, a guy pretty much has to start with Aristotle, who was hanging out by the stage door waaaaay before any of us poser-groupies were. In Poetics (ca. 335 BCE), Aristotle proposed that tragedy is characterized by an unforeseen reversal of fortune (peripeteia) for our hero, brought about by a character flaw or frailty (hamartia); and through this downfall, s/he achieves some revelation (anagnorisis) about our place in the world: an experience that arouses fear and pity in the attempt to cleanse these emotions (catharsis) and purify us, using horror to elevate and enlighten. Which was more or less the dominant theory until the 19th century, when German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel offered another possibility in his Aesthetics (ca. 1820), and one that seems more generally applicable to the modern world and Hnath’s play: that tragedy is not achieved through character flaw or moral fault, but through two conflicting ethical forces which can’t coexist. So, for instance, while Aristotle would argue that tragedy in Antigone is caused by, say, her stubbornness, Hegel would suggest it’s caused by a collision of two equally viable principles: religious values in conflict with the needs of the state.

From either vantage point, tragedy arises when we become aware of a fissure in the world, a crack or conflict that can never be reconciled; and it plays out as we witness a character who employs his/her complete self to engage in that conflict, only to recognize that it’s the human condition in a universe which will always be beyond our comprehension. Tragedy is an inquiry, at its best a doorway into a more exalted kind of consciousness, an enlightenment.

In contemporary parlance, though, the word “tragedy” is used to describe anything that’s acutely sad; its meaning has been conflated with “pathos.”   And distinguishing between the tragic and the pathetic, it seems to me, is not just crucial in considering the theater we make today, but also a possible window into the way we see our place in the world. “Let me put it this way,” Arthur Miller wrote in The Nature of Tragedy (1949), “When Mr. B, while walking down the street, is struck on the head by a falling piano, the newspapers call this a tragedy. Of course this is only the pathetic end of Mr. B. Not only because of the accidental nature of his death… It is pathetic because it merely arouses our feelings of sympathy, sadness, and possibly of identification. What the death of Mr. B does not arouse is the tragic feeling.”   Not to devalue the life of Mr. B, or the grief of the entire B family, but the story of a falling piano illuminates nothing about the human condition more insightful than, basically, Shit Happens: an aphorism that fits neatly on the tire flap of a semi on I–95.  

So as we ascribe “tragedy” to stories liberally—not just in the media but on stage as well—such that the concept of a tragic hero has become synonymous with anyone who, like Mr. B, is simply a victim of suffering or injustice, we’re replacing the pursuit of enlightenment with something more defeatist: a call for sympathy. And what this implies—to me, anyway—is a startling reflection of how we think of ourselves: that, despite our suffering, nothing important can really be learned that might elevate our condition. Tragedy, rather than probing the soul and the cosmos, becomes a recounting of accidents and disasters befalling a species that’s more-or-less blindly making our way through some unknowable maze, finding comfort only in our ability to form a huddle.  

All of this is to say that, when I invite you to consider Lucas Hnath’s beautiful play through the lens of tragedy, I’m using the archaic, lofty, fussy, purist, borderline-pretentious definition of the word—not the epithet tossed around lazily on daytime TV. As Pastor Paul embarks on an ethical inquiry before God, his family, and his congregation (there’s even a chorus!), he opens a rift in the world as he knows it, only to get lost there. The simple belief he introduces can’t exist within his church’s accepted dogma, and this irreconcilability unravels everything he has built. But through his pursuit—whichever side of the argument we find ourselves on—we’re exalted by his human ability to strive for an understanding just outside of our grasp.

Adam Greenfield
Associate Artistic Director