Tragedy of Language in French Theatre

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Tragedy is undeniably one of the oldest forms of theatre. Tragedy as a genre invokes images of Ancient Greek dramas depicting moral dilemmas and the downfall of great men, or of Shakespearian romances doomed to end in failure and death. When considering tragedy’s place in French theatre, we can see a dominance of tragic works in the classical period of the 17th century, and works by Corneille and Racine dominated the theatre. However, with the progression of the years, we can identify a dramatic shift in theatre, and tragedy itself has evolved in French theatre; still abundantly present in contemporary works, tragedy’s form and structure has altered. This essay will explore the traditional forms of a tragedy from its ancient roots, and consider how ‘tragedy of language’ is manifested in classical and contemporary French theatre. Jean Racine’s Phèdre, is a widely accepted classical French tragedy, based on a subject from Greek mythology, in this play, we can see an objective tragedy, but with further consideration, we can identify that the tragedy is manifested in the language of the play. With the development of avant-garde theatre in France, came Eugène Ionesco and later, Bernard-Marie Koltès. Ionesco and Koltès have both referred to their works as ‘tragedy of language’, and this essay will examine Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and Koltès’ Black Battles With Dogs to explore the ways in which language can manifest itself and how it can become the direct root of the disastrous events that form a tragic play. Language is the fundamental tool of any dramatist, and tragedy is a pillar of French theatre to this day, but what can so often be overlooked, is the integral role that language plays, not only in communicating the tragedy of a play, but often as the root cause of the tragic events themselves.

The genre of tragedy is an ancient one, however, to effectively classify any theatre as a ‘tragedy of language’, first the term tragedy must be defined. Every work of tragedy involves ‘conflict’; “ ‘Tragedy’ represents any play in which the conflicts are necessarily insoluble, whereas a ‘drama’ is any play in which the conflicts are solved.”1 This ‘conflict’ is almost always as a result of contact with ‘Otherness’; in Racine’s Phèdre, it is the contact Phaedra makes with ‘the Other’ (Hippolytus) which ultimately leads to the conflict and fatality of the play. However in more and more examples of contemporary theatre, we can identify language as a base cause for much conflict; through a breakdown in communication, the use of language as a weapon and the communication of characters with ‘the Other’. ‘Otherness’ is a third, integral element of all tragedy. ‘The Other’ defines any element outside of the ego of a character; Phaedra represents ‘otherness’ to Hippolytus, Alboury represents ‘the Other’ to Horn and Cal, and the Rhinoceritis takes the form of ‘otherness’ to Bèrenger in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. Any contact or communication between the tragic heroes and ‘otherness’ will lead to conflict, which in turn aids the fulfillment of the fatal destiny of the tragic heroes. Having defined the basic necessities of tragedy, we can see the multitude of ways that language can be the creator of tragedy. A breakdown of communication, the use of language as a weapon and communication with ‘the Other’ are all ways in which language can become the root cause of tragedy and there are a multitude of examples throughout the history of French theatre which draw upon this ‘tragedy of language’.

As earlier set out, one of the key defining elements of a tragic work is “The Other”. In Racine’s play, communicating with ‘The Other’ is the cause of conflict, language becomes a weapon when dealing with ‘Otherness’’; in Phèdre, ‘The Other’ is represented as love - Phaedra’s sinful love is the primary source and leads to her interactions with Hippolytus and Theseus which are the main sources of conflict in the play. Phaedra confronts ‘The Other’ in Hippolytus when...
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