John Jr.'s Reviews > The Death of Tragedy

The Death of Tragedy by George Steiner
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Apr 21, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: literature-history-criticism, play-project-1, drama-history-criticism
Read from September 15 to October 15, 2005 — I own a copy

George Steiner here surveys tragic drama and what could be called the tragic spirit from Greek tragic drama of the fifth century B.C. to the 20th century. That's his subject. Broadly speaking, his purposes are three: to show in what view of life the tragic spirit has been grounded; to illuminate that view through detailed appreciations of dramatists as varied as Sophocles, Shakespeare, Racine, Ibsen (rather briefly), and a number of others; and then to argue that, with the fading of that view of life under the progress of modern rationalism, the tragic spirit, and hence true tragedy itself, has become impossible. That we have, in Steiner's view, no full-fledged tragedies anymore is not a matter of individual writers, then: it's not because no one happens to have come along in the Western world lately who can produce a good tragedy. It's a matter of the changing ethos of succeeding ages. To borrow a simplification from Steiner's foreword, the tragic spirit possesses "the image of man as unwanted in life, as one whom the 'gods kill for their sport as wanton boys do flies.'" Where it does not prevail, tragedy cannot thrive.

A good illustration not discussed by Steiner, which is (as I write) apropos in New York because of a current production, is Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Miller's salesman clings to deluded views of his sons and, to put it crudely, is sorely disappointed in himself. But it's not the universe that has brought him low; he is, to speak crudely again, simply not a very good salesman or a very good father. We can conceive of reasons for his failures; they are all in some sense susceptible to amelioration--we can imagine how, with some social, political, or psychological adjustments, he might've done better. That's the spirit of rationalism that Steiner discusses in this book, and it's fatal to tragedy as the form was understood for centuries. Miller himself believed he had written a tragedy, but the case he made for that view (available in the edition reviewed here) is, in the light of this study by Steiner, unconvincing.

The majority of the text was written in the 1950s and first published in 1961. Beyond prepending a foreword written in 1979 for another edition, Steiner has made no attempt to revise or extend his study. It's possible that some more recent dramatists such as Howard Barker would alter the story, and that the flickers of fatalism one can nowadays detect here and there represent some sort of cyclical return to the spirit of the Greeks. (The rise of superhero tales, which so far have been mostly subliterary, may likewise represent a cyclical return to the mythic mode; Northrop Frye suggested a similar idea in the first essay of his Anatomy of Criticism.) Contemporary theorists, such as George Hunka, are far better equipped than I am to attempt an answer. And other views of many modern dramatists are certainly possible, such as those in The Theatre of Revolt: An Approach to Modern Drama. But none of that affects the power or the beauty of this book.

An unnecessary postscript: The Death of Tragedy originated in Steiner's doctoral dissertation at Balliol College, Oxford, where it was not at first accepted. A Paris Review interviewer, indirectly quoting Steiner, reported that it was rejected "because it was too close to a field that Oxford did not teach in those days: comparative literature." He was later appointed to a chair in that very field at Oxford, the first at either of the Oxbridge universities. Those two facts together will provide some idea of the range of Steiner's knowledge and abilities.
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message 1: by Rick (new)

Rick Peeples I seem to remember having read this book when it came out back in the early 80's. I admire his arguments without wholly subscribing to them; I think they largely revolve around an essentially semantic debate - how does one define Tragedy? If you go strictly with the Aristotelian definition, you can argue that a real tragedy hasn't been written since, well, Sophocles. Certainly "Salesman" doesn't adhere to that definition (Willy neither recognizes his flaw, nor reverses his course - both of which are essential for Aristotelian tragedy - and goes to his death in ignorance). Strictly speaking, neither does Hamlet. But surely both of those characters can be considered tragic in a more liberal sense of the word. Even the greeks would have agreed that the purpose of tragedy is to instruct and relieve the audience - "There, but for the grace of God, go I. I should count my blessings, avoid his mistakes, and live thankfully." I think both Willie and Hamlet can have this effect on their audiences. So I think tragedy is still with us, even in a secular, rationalistic world.


John Jr. Probably in some sense even a handful of Greek dramas ordinarily counted as tragedy don't fit Aristotle's system, though I can't name any without study. Since I don't have to write any kind of consistent, or even inconsistent, argument on the matter, I'll accept your views. Certainly some works feel like tragedy without embracing the worldview Steiner proposes.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments!


message 3: by Older (new)

Older Curmudgeon It's been a long time since I read this book of Steiner's, but your review brings to mind both the substance of his argument and my own reaction to it back in the day. As his title implies by its hommage to Nietzsche, in this book Steiner is at least as much a historian of taste as he is a literary critic, and "The Death of Tragedy" fell into my hands at a time when my generation was in no mood to elegize; we were all for the future, with its promises of social rebirth (remember "Star Wars" and Lucas's later subtitle "A New Hope"?) no matter how many heads had to roll or genres had to die. Well, all that changed as the decades rolled along, and while I haven't yet turned to elegy, I probably cut Steiner more slack. And what's so bad about unconvincing arguments anyway? Dissertations are obliged to make arguments, but the best ones survive the inevitable obsolescence that overtakes those arguments as the conversation continues. Most interesting to me right now is what you have to say about the possibilities for the contemporary or imminent rebirth of tragedy (in the spirit of Frye and Vico, perhaps); there are signs across the universe of pop culture that a remythologizing of human experience might be possible even as the older myths dry up and blow away--but that's a subject for another day and another review.


John Jr. Older wrote: "It's been a long time since I read this book of Steiner's, but your review brings to mind both the substance of his argument and my own reaction to it back in the day. As his title implies by its h..."

Ah, Vico: I must read him someday, to get past only having read about him. Thank you for the comments. I'm glad my notion about "a remythologizing of human experience" (nicely put) has resonated with someone else.


message 5: by Older (new)

Older Curmudgeon Last night I attended a reading group started by some younger friends of mine; we're reading Blake and last night settled down to a close look at "The Book of Urizen," before which one member of the group brought out a longish paragraph from Frye's "Fearful Symmetry" (I suppose there's something redundant about combining "longish paragraph" and "Frye" in one clause). Frye connected Blake, Newton, Vico, and Joyce (not to mention Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, and Stevens) in a way that left us almost giddy, as though a door had ever so briefly opened on an alternate world. Run the labyrinth whatever way you want to, it still leads, sooner or later, to Vico. Then we got down to work on Blake and had a blast! Well worth the loss of sleep that followed on our conversation, at least for me. By all means put Vico on your list, and don't leave out Blake, either--he wasn't a dramatist by any stretch of the word, but he did understand why dramatic form was important to visionary writing.


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