There once was a king named Oedipus Rex.
You may have heard about his odd complex.
His name appears in Freud’s index
’Cause he loved his mother.
His friends all used to say quite a bit
That as a monarch he was most unfit.
But still in all they had to admit
That he loved his mother.
Here was the challenge. A recent ATB blog examined the decidedly dark side of some famous musicals. Could I do the same thing with plays (i.e., tragedies)? Well, harrumph. Theatre was created by the Greeks from tragedies. Now, I know many of you prefer discussions about musicals here (and I can discuss them for hours on end), but it’s good to broaden your horizons and get down to the lower depths (more about that later). I’ve done a little time travel to pick and choose some of the great ones for your consideration.
The Greeks invented tragedy (and comedy), as I noted. To me, the “Oedipus Trilogy” by Sophocles is perhaps the greatest extant set of Greek tragedies: Oedipus Rex, which was followed by Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone. (I have special affection for Antigone having once played the Grumpy Olde Guy in the show, but Oedipus Rex is the best.) Oedipus accidentally kills his real father (he was adopted), solves the riddle of the Sphinx, marries his mother, has four children, discovers the truth, his mother/wife hangs herself, he plucks out his eyes, his children war on each other and their Uncle Creon, and ultimately kill each other and/or themselves. It’s a devastating story, based on mythology, with no happy ending in sight. And yet it’s great theatre.
In Greek mythology, Electra was the daughter of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra, and princess of Argos. She and her brother Orestes plot revenge against their mother Clytemnestra and stepfather Aegisthus for the murder of their father. She appears in two Greek tragedies, Electra by Sophocles and Electra by Euripides. She is also the central figure in plays by Aeschylus, Alfieri, Voltaire, Hofmannsthal, and, our own great tragedian, Eugene O'Neill (more about his version shortly).
(Just a note for you musical purists: all Greek tragedies were actually sung and danced by the actors and chorus.)
After the Greeks (and their inferior Roman copycat tragedies), theatre came under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church—which pretty much frowned on the artform. It was the age of morality plays (like Everyman), which weren’t really tragic or comic but instead served to keep the unwashed masses in check (really—theatre as political propaganda; ah, well, that’s a subject for another blog which I’m not supposed to write). And then, well, Welcome to the Renaissance, as they sing in Something Rotten.
The greatest tragedian (oh, hell, playwright) of that age (or any other) was, of course, William Shakespeare. His plays have been classified into four categories: the comedies, the histories, the romances, and the tragedies. And what tragedies they were:
· Hamlet—Arguably the greatest play Shakespeare wrote (and certainly his longest), this is the tragic story of a young Danish prince whose father is killed by his uncle (who then marries Hamlet’s mother). He seeks revenge when challenged to do so by his father’s ghost. He employs a troupe of wandering players to perform a dumb show in front of the new king, who realizes Hamlet is on to what he did and exiles the young prince. In the end, just about everyone dies in the last scene and Denmark is conquered by Norway. Hamlet certainly contains the most exquisite language Shakespeare wrote. I fear you can’t call yourself a true theatre person without knowing Hamlet.
· Julius Caesar—It’s about greed. It’s about ambition. It’s about murder. And a funny thing happened to poor Julius on the way to the Forum—he was stabbed multiple times by the Roman senators, including his beloved Brutus (“Et tú, Bruté?”). It’s another Shakespeare play where almost everyone ends up dead, except Mark Anthony (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”), who lives to show up in another tragedy.
· Anthony and Cleopatra—Middle-aged Will Shakespeare set his sights on mature love in this tragic tale of a beautiful Egyptian queen and the two Romans who come to control her (though she really controls them), love her, and ultimately doom her. In his time, onstage lovers were usually portrayed as comic foils and not tragic characters. In this play, Shakespeare completely turned the tables on the contemporary norms (he had started to do that in an early play discussed below) and made this the stuff of tragedy.
· Romeo and Juliet—My late, great college Shakespeare professor, Dr. Irving Ribner (of the Ribner-Kittredge acting editions) made us change our thinking about this play. As I noted above, in Shakespeare’s time, love—especially young love—was the stuff of farce. And the first two acts of R&J are some of the funniest material Shakespeare wrote. Romeo is a foolish cad. Juliet is a silly young teenager. The balcony scene is actually very funny (with Juliet trying her damnedest to get Romeo to leave). But when Mercutio dies, the play goes from farce to tragedy in a heartbeat. A series of misunderstandings and miscommunications kills the main characters (ironically in a tomb). And this is the true brilliance of this tragedy. It completely upset the theatre norms of the time, making Shakespeare a truly revolutionary playwright. We don’t consider R&J to be a comedy because Shakespeare so skillfully changed the way we look at young (and foolish) love.
· King Lear—“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” But nothing could be worse than to have a foolish old king (along with his fool) divide up his kingdom based on which of his daughters professed undying love for him. A great tragedy, yes. Easy to pull off as an actor? I’ve seen Lear many times with great actors and I’ve never liked it.
· Othello—Someone once described this play (Shakespeare’s shortest) as a lesson in how wives should be careful with their personal linen. Othello is a great but foolish and jealous soldier who loves his wife Desdemona. Iago is his evil lieutenant who hates Othello (racism definitely fuels the engine of this play) and plots his downfall. While Othello and Desdemona die tragically, Iago essentially gets away with his evil doings, which makes this yet another revolutionary moment for Shakespeare.
· The Scottish Play—If you don’t know what play I mean, then stop reading. Seriously, one of the greatest tragedies ever written, this is another story of greed, ambition, revenge, and a moving forest.
· And more (Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus).
(Around the time Shakespeare was creating his tragedies, another artform arose, closely akin to the original Greek drama—the opera. Tragic stories sung to beautiful music. But opera is fodder for a different discussion, so I’ll let it go at that.)
The late 19th and early 20th centuries gave rise to stark realism in the theatre, perhaps to counterbalance the frivolous romanticism of the age. Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths is perhaps the greatest of these tragic plays, depicting a group of impoverished Russians living in a shelter near the Volga. It is stark, humbling, difficult to watch without being moved. Gorky is said to have been inspired by the denizens of a Russian homeless shelter. The play was initially slammed for its pessimistic outlook (not much happens and everyone who starts out poor ends up poor), but still, The Lower Depths is a masterpiece.
Henrik Ibsen plays often bordered on tragedy, though they depicted more political themes than real tragic ones. But one of his plays does stand out, Ghosts. No spectral characters, but the tragedy of the father is visited upon the son, with an underlying story of venereal disease (never stated but firmly implied) making this one of the playwright’s most controversial works.
Two playwrights came to dominate American tragedy in the 20th century—Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller.
It has been argued Miller’s greatest play is Death of a Salesman. In this piece, Miller takes the majesty of Greek tragedy and applies it to a humble traveling salesman (He argued strenuously for tragedy not always being about people of noble birth, which I believe to be a correct stance). Willy Loman is one of the great figures of American tragedy. His frustrating life (for both himself and his family) makes for a towering work. Still, it can be hard to like this piece for some of us. It creaks. It’s verbose. But the story itself is infinitely sad. (I would argue The Crucible the better and more tragic piece, and certainly better written.)
O’Neill simply turned tragedy on its ear. He made it compelling. He paid tribute to its Greek roots in plays like Mourning Becomes Electra (based on the Electra plays), moving the Orestes tragedy to 19th century New England. But perhaps his greatest tragedy (one of the rare tragedies where nobody dies) is his most autobiographical one: Long Day’s Journey Into Night. This intimate look at the disintegration of a family tells a tale of frustration, drug addiction, serious illness, and alcoholism. And it all plays out in less than one day. It is perhaps the greatest American tragedy ever written.
There are hundreds more tragedies out there and I’ve barely scratched the surface. One of the great joys I had growing up as a theatre nerd was discovering new tragedies written long before I was born. They speak to universal truths beyond their settings—the foibles of human beings and the unfortunate consequences they can cause.
Michael Kape is a Grumpy Old Guy® and definitely a cynic, but he does so love a great tragedy. Lighten up. It’s only a play.