Tragedy, Arthur Miller and the Common Man
Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and Arthur Miller. At first glance this quartet seems like an simple case of “one of these things doesn't belong with the others,” though dig a little deeper, just beneath the surface, and you'll discover that something unbreakable and timeless binds these seemingly disparate names tightly together. What could these four men all possibly share? Three of them were contemporaries, relatively, born well over 2,000 years ago in Ancient Greece. The other was born less than 100 years ago in Harlem, New York (Arthur Miller Files, University of Michigan, 2006). One is responsible for giving us Oedipus Rex and Antigone. Another collaborated with Socrates. One is referred to as the “Father of Tragedy,” and the other one was married to Marilyn Monroe. However, despite superficial differences and existing centuries apart, one pure and simple force connects Arthur Miller with the Ancient Greek Tragedians: the written word. Miller's poetically powerful ruminations on the American Dream in works such as All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, plus his metaphysical probing and constant evaluation of the 20th century man and his place in the world, helped bring the Tragedy- which Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus first introduced to theater goers- into the sphere of the common man. Never before had Tragedies been written with average men as protagonists. Miller dared to see the everyday as epic in every conceivable sense of the word, to harvest material generally reserved for kings and queens from the mundane and common occurrences of modern day life. The standards and rules for what constituted a Tragedy were changed forever.
Let us begin by first defining what is generally agreed upon as a Tragedy. A Tragedy, or Ancient Greek for he-goat-song, is a type of drama based on human suffering that simultaneously attempts to illicit in its audience a sense of catharsis or pleasure (Banham, Martin, The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. 1998). Many cultures have developed genres of drama that attempt to generate the same paradoxical response, however the term Tragedy usually refers to a specific tradition of drama that has continually played a uniquely insightful role in the self-definition of Western Civilization. Societies ranging from the Ancient Greeks to the Elizabethans have used the Tragedy as a means of asserting a cultural identity and in a more temporal sense, establishing a presence historically speaking. In his Poetics, Aristotle sought to give a scholarly definition-
Tragedy is, then, an enactment of a deed that is important and complete, and of [a certain] magnitude, by means of language enriched [with ornaments], each used separately in the different parts [of the play]: it is enacted, not [merely] recited, and through pity and fear it effects relief (catharsis) to such [and similar] emotions. (Poetics, VI 1449b 2–3)- Greek Tragedy was an extension of the ancient rites done in honor of Dionysus and was heavily influenced by Ancient Roman Theater. Many of the earliest tragic plots were myths treated in the oral tradition of archaic epics. Instead of being presented by a chorus, in the tragic theater actors presented the narratives. It is difficult to pin down the exact moment when the Tragedy was created. Ruth Scodel notes that due to lack of evidence and doubtful reliability of sources, we know nearly nothing about tragedy's origin (Scodel, An Introduction to Greek Tragedy, 2011). R.P. Winningston-Ingram raises a contrarian voice and states that we can easily trace the veins of various influences from other genres. The stories that tragedy deals with stem from epic and lyric poetry, its meter - the iambic trimeter - owed much to the political rhetoric of Solon, an Athenian statesman credited with laying the foundation for Athenian Democracy (Stanton, Athenian Politics c800-500 BC: A Sourcebook, 1990), and the choral songs' dialect, meter and vocabulary...
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