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Terry Eagleton—

All art has a political dimension, but tragedy actually began life as a political institution. Indeed, for Hannah Arendt it is the political art par excellence. Only in theatre, she writes, ‘is the political sphere of human life transposed into art’. In fact, ancient Greek tragedy is not only a political institution in itself, but two of its works, Aeschylus’s Eumenides and Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, concern the founding or securing of public institutions. It is a familiar fact that tragic drama, performed in ancient Greece as part of the festival of Dionysus, was funded by an individual appointed by the city state, whose public duty was to train and pay the Chorus. The state supervised the proceedings in a general way under the authority of the chief magistrate, and held the scripts of the performances in its archives. Actors were paid by the polis, and the state also provided a fund to pay the entrance fee for citizens too poor to pay it themselves. The judges of the competition were elected by the body of citizens, and would no doubt have brought to bear on the dramatic performances the critical acumen they were accustomed to exercising as jurors in the law courts and members of the political assembly. As Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet comment, it was a question of ‘the city turning itself into a theatre’. ‘The text of tragedy,’ remarks Rainer Friedrich, ‘becomes part of the larger text of the civil discourse of the polis.’

Tragedy, then, was not only an aesthetic experience or dramatic spectacle. It was also a form of ethico-political education which helped to inculcate civic virtue. For Hannah Arendt, there is a parallel between politics and tragic theatre, since when the former is conducted in full public session, as in ancient Athens, it turns its participants into performers akin to actors on a stage. Later tragedy is not for the most part an official political institution, though in eighteenth-century Germany Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister and the dramatic theory of Gotthold Lessing reflect on the need for a state theatre which will unify the nation. For Lessing, as for some other German thinkers of his age, the theatre fosters public virtue and a sense of corporate identity. Whether nationally based or not, however, tragic drama continues to deal with affairs of state, revolts against authority, thrusting ambition, court intrigues, violations of justice, struggles for sovereignty, all of which tend to centre on the careers of high-born figures whose lives and deaths have momentous consequences for society as a whole. 

Politically speaking, Greek tragedy had a double role, both validating social institutions and calling them into question. Art may legitimate a social order through its content, but also by providing its audience with a psychological safety-valve, fostering harmless fantasies which might distract them from the more unsavoury aspects of the regimes under which they live. Aristotle’s Poetics does not view tragedy as harmless fantasy, but it does regard it as feeding its audience strictly controlled doses of certain emotions (pity and fear) which might otherwise prove socially disruptive. It is, in short, a form of political homeopathy. As far as tragedy as critique is concerned, it is astonishing that an official political event, part of a revered religious festival, could shine so bold a light on the dark subtext of ancient Greek civilisation – on madness, parricide, incest, infanticide and the like, however prudently these matters were thrust into the mythological past. It is as if a pageant in honour of the Queen of England were to present a series of tableaux from the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere to the exploits of Jack the Ripper.

In Aristotle’s view, Greek tragedy can provide a form of public therapy, purging an emotional flabbiness that might endanger the health of the polis. Like Plato, however, you can also see certain aspects of the theatre as politically subversive and demand its strict regulation by the state. Later tragedy has a range of political roles. It can remind its audience of how sickeningly precarious the power of the mighty can be, or provide a body of mythology around which the nation may be reborn. We shall see later how German philosophy of tragedy sets out to resolve certain contradictions which spring from an early stage of middle-class civilisation. The public or political dimension of tragedy lives on in the theatre of Henrik Ibsen, even if the setting of his drama is for the most part domestic. This is because the family in Ibsen serves as a medium for deeper social issues, so that private and public domains become hard to dissociate. It is only after this point that we encounter on a sizeable scale what might be called private tragedy, foreshadowed in some domestic drama in the eighteenth century in which what is primarily at stake is an incestuous father, a drug-addicted mother or a married couple who survive by tearing one another apart. 

The politics of tragedy, however, involves more than what happens on stage. It also means a struggle over the meaning of the tragic itself. In his study The Death of Tragedy, the critic George Steiner sees tragedy as a critique of modernity. The truly tragic spirit expires with the birth of the modern. It cannot survive an era which places its faith in secular values, an enlightened politics, the rational conduct of human affairs and the ultimate intelligibility of the universe. It is ill at ease in this disenchanted world, so that the term ‘modern tragedy’ becomes something of an oxymoron. Tragedy cannot tolerate a utilitarian ethics or an egalitarian politics. As an aristocrat among art-forms, it serves among other things as a memory trace of a more spiritually exalted social order at the heart of a distastefully prosaic epoch. It represents a residue of transcendence in an age of materialism.

From Tragedy by Terry Eagleton. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced by permission.

Terry Eagleton is Distinguished Visiting Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University, and the author of more than fifty books in the fields of literary theory, postmodernism, politics, ideology, and religion.

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