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Related: catharsis - drama - Greek - theatre - tragicomedy
Key text: The Birth of Tragedy (1872)
Tragedy is a form of drama which can be traced as far back as the Greek theatre. The Greek tragedies were originally written and produced for theatrical competitions, and the winning team in the tragic competition would receive a goat to feast on. The word "tragedy" is thus derived from the Greek language word "tragodiai," meaning "goat-songs". Greek tragedy rose out of religious rites and dramatic enactment of tales of the gods in the early Greek religion and mythology. Aristotle theorized that catharsis (emotional cleansing) results from viewing a tragedy and explains why humans enjoy seeing dramatized pain.
The hallmarks of a tragedy are:
- that the play's denouement is catastrophic
- that the play's denouement is inevitable
- the hero's suffering is disproportionate to his guilt
- the hero's anguish appears to the audience as unjust and unfair
- the hero's pain appears to be beyond human endurance
- the hero's pain is to some extent redemptive
Greek literature boasts three great writers of tragedy whose works are extant: Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. The largest festival for Greek tragedy was the Dionysia. The Roman theatre does not appear to have had the same tradition of tragedy writing, but Seneca was one of those who adapted Greek stories, such as Phaedra, into Latin for the Roman stage.
One of the greatest specialist writers of tragedy in modern times was Jean Racine, who is often considered more brilliant than his rival, Pierre Corneille, and brought a new face to the genre. When his play, Berenice, was criticised for not containing any deaths, Racine disputed the conventional view of tragedy.
In the English language, the most famous and most successful are the tragedies of William Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries.
In modern literature, the definition of tragedy has become less precise. A Doll's House (1879) by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is an example of a more contemporary tragedy. Like Ibsen's other dramatic works it has been translated into English. It has enjoyed great popularity on the English and American stage.
The rarity of tragedy in the American theater is probably due to the American ideal, that man is captain of his fate and that justice inevitably rules the affairs of men. However, Arthur Miller stands out as a successful writer of tragic plays. Among them The Crucible and Death of a Salesman --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy [Jun 2004]
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