MA English Criticism: Modern Tragedy by Raymond Williams

Modern Tragedy is a compilation of 11 essays written on various aspects of tragedy and a play ‘Koba’. These essays were published in various magazines, later they were printed in book form ‘Modern Tragedy’. Modern Tragedy is the most important 20thc inquiry into the ideas and ideologies that have influenced the production and analysis of tragedy. William sees tragedy in terms of both literary tradition and in relation to the tragedies of modern times, of revolution and disorder and of experiences of all of us as individuals. Modern Tragedy has three major parts: the first part is about the history and criticism of ideas regarding tragedy; the second part deals with Drama from Ibsen to Eliot as the name suggests. This part if s revised version of the lectures delivered by Williams at Cambridge and the third part consists of a play called ‘Koba’. The literature of ideas and of experience is a single literature. Tragedy is the most important example of this complex and necessary unity. So, the writer says, the book is about the connections, in modern tragedy between event and experience and idea and its form is designed at once to explore and to emphasize these radical connections. He presented tragedy of experience as contrasted with tragedy of theory. The essays: Tragedy and the Tradition, Tragedy and Contemporary Ideas and A Rejection of Tragedy are part of the syllabus.

Like Culture and Society, Modern Tragedy discussed texts—the main tragic texts and texts about tragic theory that had been written in Europe and the United States since Ibsen—and extracted from them a political message about the inadequacy of individuation and about the desirability of revolution.

Modern Tragedy was written in a dense, coded prose. Decoded, it manifests the confusion between the cultural elite and the people which was a feature of Williams’s doctrine throughout his work and which became particularly troublesome in this book, where dramatic and fictional tragedy were presented as realizations of the

“shape and set” of modern “culture,” and the dramatists and novelists who had produced it were assumed to represent “our” minds and experience.

This thesis was both elitist and anti-elitist, naïve about the prospect of bridging the gap between the cultural elite and the people but emphasizing the affiliations that kept Williams, as a member of the former, in conscious empathy with the latter. The effect was nevertheless odd, implying that Strindberg, Brecht, and Arthur Miller, for example, were not arcane, and amalgamating the “we” who went to their plays or listened to Williams’s lectures in Cambridge with the “we” who had been described appreciatively in Border Country. However deep Williams’s desire was to make “critical discrimination” relevant to the people among whom he had grown up, moreover, it neglected the consideration that critical discrimination was in fact a minority activity which spoke meaningfully only to those who had already heard Leavis’s voice.

In Drama from Ibsen to Eliot (1952) Williams had criticized the English theater as a manifestation of literary decline and for failing to achieve either “the communication” of an “experience” and a “radical reading of life,” or that “total performance” which reflected “changes in the structure of feeling as a whole.” In Modern Tragedy the central contentions were that “liberal” tragedy, while being liberal because it emphasized the “surpassing individual,” and tragic because it recorded his defeat by society or the universe, reflected the inability of the money-oriented privacy of the bourgeois ethic to provide a “positive” conception of society. It was the “individual fight against the lie” embodied in “false relationships, a false society and a false conception of man” that Ibsen had made central, but it was the liberal martyrs’ discovery of the lie in themselves and their failure to relate themselves to a “social” consciousness that

heralded the “breakdown of liberalism” 

and the need to replace its belief in the primacy of “individualist” desire and aspiration by a socialist perception of the primacy of “common” desire and aspiration. Williams wished to give tragic theory a social function. He pointed out that “significant suffering” was not confined to persons of “rank,” and that personal belief, faults in the soul, “God,” “death,” and the “individual will” had been central to the tragic experience of the present. It was the “human agency” and “ethical control” manifested in revolution and the “deep social crisis through which we had all been living” that were the proper subjects of “modern” tragedy, and it was human agency and ethical control that tragic theory needed to accommodate.

The first point that had to be explained was the Burkean point that revolution caused suffering. The second point was the anti-Burkean point that revolution was not the only cause of suffering, that suffering was “in the whole action” of which “revolution” was only “the crisis,” and that it was suffering as an aspect of the “wholeness” of the action that needed to be considered. And this, of course, disclosed the real agenda in Modern Tragedy—the use of tragic texts to formulate a socialist theory of tragedy in which revolution would receive a literary justification and society would become more important than the individual.

In all this, Williams was moving out from the defensiveness of Culture and Society and making a central feature of the argument that, when the revolutionary process was complete, “revolution” would become “epic,” suffering would be “justified,” and pre-revolutionary institutions, so far from being the “settled … innocent order” that they had claimed to be, would be seen to have been rooted in “violence and disorder.” This was the route by which tragedy and tragic theory could remove cynicism and despair, could give revolution the “tragic” perspective that Marx had given it, and could show what tragedy had hitherto failed to show, that “degeneration, brutalization, fear, hatred and envy” were endemic in existing society’s “tragic” failure to “incorporate … all its people as whole human beings.” It was also the route by which tragedy and tragic theory could incorporate the fact that further “degeneration, brutalization, fear, hatred and envy” would be integral to the “whole action”—not just to the “crisis” and the revolutionary energy released by it or the “new kinds of alienation” which the revolution against alienation would have to “overcome … if it was to remain revolutionary,” but also, and supremely, to the connection between “terror” and “liberation.”

Williams’s rhetoric was ruthless, and yet in retrospect looks faintly silly. Nor were the tasks that he attributed to tragic theory plausible. It remains true, nevertheless, that Modern Tragedy, while reiterating the formal denial that revolution was to be identified with the violent capture of power and identifying it rather as a “change … in the deepest structure of relationships and feelings,” implied, more than any other of Williams’s works, a circuitous but indubitably evil attempt to encourage the young to think of violence as morally reputable.

In evaluating Williams, one wishes to be just. He should not be dismissed merely because his followers have helped to keep their party out of office, since many of them, and perhaps he also, regarded party politics as merely a convenient way of inserting their moral messages into the public mind. Like the theorists of the student revolution of the Sixties, Williams was “against liberalism,” but those who are against liberalism for conservative reasons do not need his sort of support. They should not be misled by the “organicism” of Culture and Society, which ignored the moral solidarity of twentieth-century English society and used the language of solidarity in order to subvert such solidarity as monarchy and two world wars had created by denying that it existed.

The most general fault in critical works is not avoided by even Williams. Most of the critical books are written with and on the general assumption of some creative work by others. To write or give views on others is certainly not objectionable. What seems objectionable is the way of giving views or opinions without quoting the original creative work.

What most of the critics do is very non-critical in a sense. They give first their own understanding of the work and then their views or opinions against or for this said work. What they do in this way is the critical analysis of their own understanding. It seems having nothing to do with the understanding of the writer’s work or others’ views about it. While going through a book of criticism one should keep in mind the original work the criticism is about.

In Modern Tragedy, the central contentions were that ‘liberal tragedy’, while being liberal because it emphasized the ‘surpassing individual’ and tragic because it recorded the defeat by society or the universe, reflected the inability of the money-oriented privacy of the bourgeois ethic to provided a ‘positive’ conception of society. William wished to give tragic theory a social function. He pointed out that ‘significant suffering’ was not confined to the persons of ‘rank’ and that personal belief, faults in the soul, ‘God’, ‘Death’ and ‘Individual Will’ had been central to the tragic experience of the present. It was the ‘human agency’ and ‘ethical control’ manifested in revolution and the ‘deep social crises through which we had all been living’ that were the proper subjects of modern tragedy and it was human agency and ethical control that tragic theory needed to accommodate.

Williams criticized the English theater as a manifestation of literary decline and for failing to achieve either the ‘communication’ of an ‘experience’ and ‘a radical reading of life’ or that of ‘total performance’ which reflected ‘changes in the structure of feeling as a whole’

Tragedy and Tradition: William’s writings in the post-war period had a kind of existentialist motif of blocked individual liberation. This essay is a discussion on the common and the traditional interpretations of tragedy. He has used his power of perception and has come with a strong thesis on the evolution of tragedy in the essay. In the previous essay, he tells the basics of tragedy in these words: we come to tragedy by many roads. It is an immediate experience, a body of literature, conflict of theory, an academic problem.

He believes that tragedy is not the death of kings; it is more personal and general. Tragedy is not simply death and suffering and it is certainly not accident. Nor is it simply a response to death and suffering. It is a particular kind of event and particular kind of response which are genuinely tragic and which the long tradition embodies. His basic thesis in this article is: the meaning of tragedy, the relationship of tradition to tragedy and the kinds of experience which we mistakenly call tragic.

We usually try to make a contrast between the traditional and the modern and try to compress and unify the various thinking of the past into a single tradition. About tradition Williams explains: it is a question, rather of realizing that a tradition is not the past; but an interpretation of the past – a selection and evaluation of ancestors rather than a neutral record and the present serves as a link between the traditional and the modern. When the unique Greek culture changed, the chorus which was the crucial element of dramatic form was discarded and the unique meaning of tragedy was lost. People think that the medieval period produced no tragedy, but Monk’s Tale is the example in which we see protagonist falling from prosperity to adversity. Later tragedy became more secularized in the Renaissance and Neoclassical age. Now a change was visible. The moving force of tragedy was now quite clearly a matter of behavior, rather than either a metaphysical condition or metaphysical fault.

Lessing (1729-81) was a noted German critic and dramatic poet. His major contribution to idea of tragedy is (a) a theoretical rejection of neo-classicism (b) a defense of Shakespeare (c) and an advocacy and writing of bourgeois tragedy. He said the Neoclassicism was a false classicism and the real inherit of the Greeks was Shakespeare and the real inherit of Shakespeare was the new national bourgeois tragedy. RW doesn’t agree with Lessing he holds that Shakespeare was not the real inherit of the Greeks; rather he was a major instance of a new kind of tragedy. The character of Elizabethan tragedy is determined by a very complicated relationship between elements of an inherited order and elements of a new humanism. If the historical idea of the development is to be fully understood, we must understand the complicated process of secularization. In a sense, all drama after Renaissance is secular and the only fully religious tragedy we have is Greek because Elizabethan drama was totally secular. There was a concept of good and evil and poetic justice.

Hegel (1770-1831) was a famous German Philosopher did not reject the moral scheme of poetic justice but he described it as a triumph of ordinary morality and the work that embodied it as a social drama rather than tragedy. What is important for Hegel is not the suffering ‘mere suffering’ but its causes. Mere pity and fear are not tragic. Tragedy recognizes suffering as ‘suspended over active characters entirely as the consequence of their own act’. It does not consider the external contingency beyond the control of the individual i.e. illness, loss of property, death or the like. For genuine tragedy, there must be individual freedom and independence. This conscious individuality is the only condition of tragedy.

Williams points two differences between modern and ancient tragedies. First, in ancient tragedy, the characters clearly represent the substantive ethical ends; in modern tragedy, ends are wholly personal. Secondly, in ancient tragedy, there is not only the downfall of conflicting persons and ends in the achievement of eternal justice. An individual may surrender his partial and under a higher command; in modern tragedy, the whole question of resolution is more abstract and colder. Reconciliation, when it comes, will often be within the character and will be more complicated. Hegel’s interpretation of tragedy is part of a general philosophy rather than a historical criticism.

chopenhauer (1788-1860) and Nietzsche (1844-1900) are two German philosophers whose views also contributed to the development of tragedy. Before Schopenhauer, tragedy was associated with (a) ethical crises (b) human growth and (c) history. He secularized the idea of fate when he said, ‘the true sense of tragedy is the deeper insight, that is not his own individual sins that the hero atones for, but original sin, i.e. the crime of existence itself’. Tragedy, according to Nietzsche, dramatizes a tension, which it resolves in a higher unity. There the hero, the highest manifestation of the will, is destroyed, but the eternal life of the will remains unaffected. According to him, the action of tragedy is not moral, not purgative, but aesthetic.

Tragedy and Contemporary Ideas presents the discussion on tragedy in relation to the contemporary ideas. The writer has discussed the four things: (a) order and accident (b) the destruction of the hero (c) the irreparable action and its connections with death and (d) the emphasis of evil.

It is generally said that there is no significant meaning in ‘everyday tragedies’ because the event itself is not tragic; only becomes so with a through a shaped response. Williams does not not agree to this view. He cannot see how it is possible to distinguish between an event and response to an event, in any absolute way. In the case of ordinary death and suffering, when we see mourning and lament, when we see people breaking under their actual loss, we have entered tragedy. Other responses are also possible such as indifference, justification, and rejoicing. But where we feel the suffering, we are within the dimensions of tragedy. But a burnt family or a mining disaster which leaves people without feeling are called Accidents. The events not seen as tragic are deep in the pattern of our own culture: war, famine, work, traffic, and politics. To feel no tragic meaning in them is a sort of our bankruptcy. Rank was the dividing line because the death of some people mattered more than others. Our middle class culture rejects this. The tragic of a citizen could be as real as the tragedy of a prince. The emerging middle class rejected rank in tragedy. The individual was not a state; but the entity in himself.

Order in tragedy is the result of the action. In tragedy, the creation of order is related to the fact of disorder, through which the action moves. It may be the pride of man set against the nature of things. In different cultures, disorder and order both vary, for there are parts of varying general interpretations of life. We should see this variation as an indication of the major cultural importance of tragedy as form of art.

The most common interpretation of tragedy is that it is an action in which the hero is destroyed. The fact is seen irreparable. In most tragedies, the story does not end with the destruction of the hero; it follows on. It is not the job of the artist to provide answers and solutions; but simply describe experience and raise questions. Modern tragedy is not what happens to the hero; but what happens through him. When we concentrate on the hero, we are unconsciously confining our attention to the individual. The tragic experience lies in the fact that life does not come back, that its meanings are reaffirmed and restored after so much suffering and after so important a death. Death gives importance and meaning to life. The death of an individual brings along the whole community in the form of rituals and condolence as in Adam Bede; so tragedy is social and collective and not individual and personal. Death is absolute and all our living simply relative. Death is necessary and all other human ends are contingent (social collectivity). Death is universal so a man tied to it quickly claims university.

Man dies alone is an interpretation and not a fact; because man dies in many different conditions i.e. among machines, due to bombs, in the arms, with or without family, in their presence and absence. When he dies, he affects others. He alters the lives of other characters. To insist on a single meaning is not reasonable. Our most common received interpretations of life put the highest value and significance on the individual and his development; but it is indeed inescapable that the individual dies. Tragedy dramatizes evil in many particular forms: not only Christian evil but also cultural, political and ideological. Good and evil are not absolute. We are good or bad in particular ways and in particular situations; defined by pressures we at one received and can alter and can create again.

A Rejection of Tragedy essay is a study of the rejection of tragedy in modern age with special reference to Bertolt Brechet who founded epic theater as compared to the emotional theory of Aristotle. He rejected the conventional idea of tragedy and made tragedy more experiential and rational. He also said, ‘the sufferings of this man appeal me because they are unnecessary’. He made people think above the situation presented in the tragedy and not within. Aristotelian drama enforced thinking from within and Brechet’s theater from without. He used distancing affects to turn people like who sit in the chair, smoke and observe. He showed that the audience wanted to see. Williams has discussed six plays: The Three Penny Opera, Saint Joan of the Stockyard, Die Massnahme, The Good Woman of Sezuen, Mother Courage and Her Children and the Life of Galileo. In the last play mentioned, the hero is offered two choices one between accepting the terms or the other being destroyed. Nevertheless, the hero recants. Tragedy in one of the older terms has been rejected by Brechet.

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