The Value of the Tragic in Contemporary American Drama: Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain, Sam Shepard’s The Late Henry Moss, Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County

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Editor: Jennifer Stock
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,338 words

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[(essay date 2014) In the following essay, Blatanis discusses Shepard’s and other writers’ attempts to create tragic dramas in the postmodernist period when, he contends, there was an intense hostility toward the genre of tragedy.]

Over the course of the past four decades a substantial number of diverse thinkers and artists have become engaged in a multileveled debate concerning the consequential modes in which the genre of tragedy is denied ample space in postmodernity. Indeed, the epoch’s antipathy towards the genre is often cast as one of its most distinctive features. Heir to late modernity and its instances of “liquidating the tragic”—minutely documented by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer1 in the 1940s—, the postmodern moment proves “too shallow” (x) to offer adequate room for tragedy, as Terry Eagleton specifically stresses. The critic argues that “[t]here is an ontological depth and high seriousness about the genre which grates on the postmodern sensibility, with its unbearable lightness of being” (Eagleton ix). In the same vein, scholar Mark Houlahan contends that “the terms ‘postmodern’ and ‘tragedy’ lie uneasily beside each other” (249), and explains that it is absurd to ask for pathos, pity, and terror in societies “saturated in images and prior texts” (250). Similarly, Catherine Silverstone points out that tragedy appears to have lost its gravity in “a period which has registered (and continues to register) massive political and cultural change and violence on an unprecedented global scale” (284). Evidently, critical responses of this type constitute proof that the theoretical discussion on tragedy is currently far from being replete. More importantly, they also offer us the incentive to pose the pressing question of whether postmodern life experience is actually immune to “the meaning of sorrow and its beauty” (Wilde 211).

This article focuses on the efforts of a small, yet representative number of contemporary American playwrights who explore aspects of the tragic within the confines of the present socio-historical and cultural moment. The primary aim of the discussion is to interrogate how these authors’ endeavors materialize in a context which rarely recognizes connections between suffering and sophrosyne.2 Furthermore, attention is given to the ways in which these instances interrelate with the long tradition of Western drama and theater. Perennially, the reserves of both cultural forms have been highly trusted by artists aspiring to “bear witness to the worst and most exemplary moments of sorrow and desperation that face us as human beings” (1), as critic Jennifer Wallace accurately notes. On this theoretical plane, Kierkegaard’s emphasis on the “healing power in the tragic” (143) cannot be ignored. The issue thus highlighted is whether this compelling force can ever be thoroughly annulled. Last but not least, the article investigates the modes in which these attempts on the contemporary American stage may “share important correspondences with our response to particular crises—political, ethical, social—which occur in history” (Wallace 3). In terms of methodology, this is a scope of interest which does not necessarily exclude positions supported by “obituarists of tragedy” (Eagleton 10).3...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100126225