Friday, March 10, 2006

Maxwell Anderson on Tragedy

I may have mentioned that I am preparing a new class for the fall on the American theatre of the 1920s and 1930s. I began reading plays and essays this week (I just finished The Time of Your Life, which was quite engaging). In a little book entitled American Playwrights on Drama, I found an essay by Maxwell Anderson entitled "The Essence of Tragedy." In it, he says the following:

"And since our plays...are exaltations of the human spirit, since that is what an audience expects when it comes to the theatre, the playwright...must so arrange his story that it will prove to the audience that men pass through suffering purified, that, animal though we are, despicable though we are in many ways, there is in us all some divine, incalculable fire that urges us to be better than we are...[I]n the majority of ancient and modern plays it seems to me that what the audience wants to believe is that men have a desire to break the molds of earth which encase them and claim kinship with a higher morality than that which hems them in...[They want to see plays that show] the groping of men toward and excellence dimly apprehended, seldom possible of definition. [Such plays] are evidence to me that the theatre at its best is a religious affirmation, an age-old rite restating and reassuring men's belief in his own destiny and his ultimate hope. The theatre is much older than the doctrine of evolution, but its one faith, assseverated again and again for every age and every year, is a faith in evolution, in the reaching and the climb of men toward distant goals, glimpsed but never seen, perhaps never achieved, or achieved only to be passed impatiently on the way to a more distant horizon." (1939)

What I see in this quotation, among many other things, and what I also say in The Time of Your Life, is a tremendous sense of optimism, a belief in mankind's ability to remain hopeful in the face of adversity, and a belief in his ability to make things better. Many would call this naive, and others would say it is impossible to hold onto those beliefs in the face of everything that has happened in the world. But what Anderson is saying, and I agree with him, is that the basis of tragedy is exactly this sense of courage and hope in the face of pain and inhumanity; the refusal to allow such inhumanity to seep into one's own consciousness. At one time, 75 years ago, such tragic pluck was valued, and the theatre served to reinforce the courage necessary to face the trials of each day. And so far, it has been a joy to encounter it.


Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for this post, Scott, which made me go and find out a little about Maxwell Anderson. He's pretty interesting. Of course, what catches my eye is his rejection of "prose" in the theatre, his insistence that poetry is its proper language: that theatre is not about discussion, but experience. And he is explicitly reacting, in the '30s, against commercialism. And his insistence, also, on the essential loneliness nd fear of existence... To be honest, it recalled nothing so much as George's recent speculations about the erotic and the tragic in theatre:

"I have a strong and chronic hope that the theatre of this country will outgrow the phase of journalistic social comment and reach occasionally into the upper air of poetic tragedy...Men have not been altered by the invention of airplanes and the radio. They are still alone and frightened, holding their chance tenure of life in utter isolation in this desolate region of revolving fires. Science may answer a few necessary questions for them, but in the end science itself is obliged to say that the fact is created by the spirit, not spirit by the fact. Our leading scientists are already coming to this conclusion, rather reluctantly and with some surprise.

"It is incumbent on the dramatist to be a poet, and incumbent on the poet to be prophet, dreamer and interpreter of the racial dream. Men have come a long way from the salt water in the millions of years that lie behind them, and have a long way to go in the millions of years that lie ahead. We shall not always be as we are-but what we are to become depends on what we dream and desire. The theatre, more than any other art, has the power to weld and determine what the race dreams into what the race will become. All this may sound rather far-fetched in the face of our present Broadway, and Broadway may laugh at it un-conscionably, but Broadway is itself as transient as the real-estate values under its feet. Those of us who fail to outlive the street in which we work will fail because we have accepted its valuations and measured our product by them.

"For though on the surface we are still a pioneer people, ashamed of aspiration, offended by the deliberate quest for beauty, able to accept beauty only when it seems achieved by accident, our pioneer days are over and we must set about molding ourselves at least one art form worthy of the leading nation of the world or be set down finally as barbarians and carry that name with us into the darkness to which all nations sooner or later descend. Our theatre is the one really living American art. It has size, vitality and popular interest. But it is still in the awkward and self-conscious age, concealing its dreams by clowning, burlesquing the things it most admires. Those who have read their literary history carefully know that now is the time for our native amusements to be transformed into a national art of power and beauty. It needs the touch of a great poet to make the transformation, a poet comparable to Aeschylus in Greece or Marlowe in England. Without at least one such we shall never have a great theatre in this country, and he must come soon, for these chances don't endure forever."

(From A Prelude to Poetry in the Theatre, Maxwell Anderson)

It reads a little old-fashioned in some ways, perhaps especially in its nationalist and "racial" agenda, but there are things in there I rather like. And his language is so ambitious, in how it handles the vernacular, quite gorgeous: reminds me in some ways, oddly, of some contemporary alternative British poetry.

Zay Amsbury said...

Without a doubt any theatre text that doesn't realize it's closest relative is poetry dies before it begins.

All playscripts need to dance on the page.

Myrhaf said...

I'd be interested in seeing a post of all the plays you will teach in your American drama of the 1920's and '30s class.

John Branch said...

I'm glad to see a post on something other than the Rachel Corrie issue. However (I hope I don't sound like a crab or a crank), I think Anderson's got some things wrong, and perhaps our host here does as well. As I see it, tragedy (to reword Scott) is more likely to involve a recognition that courage can be misdirected, that hope in the face of pain may not suffice, that inhumanity can and has crept into one's self.

I haven't directly encountered any of those old sources of terror and pity lately, but I have some trouble reconciling my recollection of Medea and Antigone and Lear with statements such as "the groping of men toward an excellence dimly apprehended" or "the reaching and the climb of men toward distant goals." (Anderson's own words there.)

There is an optimism in Anderson's statement, and in Saroyan's Time of Your Life as well, and one might even come away from an encounter with the tragic feeling a certain sense of uplift, but I'm not sure the tragic itself says any such thing as Anderson proposes. To put it in other words, tragic pluck is a far cry from tragedy.

Alison Croggon said...

The "groping towards excellence" etc is a rather Victorian (not to say imperialist) take on it, I think. But from my scatty readings, I don't think that's wholly what Anderson is on about - his view of life is, if the passages I quote above are indicative, somewhat less optimistic than that (man alone in a meaningless universe).

To be fair, also, I think Lear's tragic understanding and hard-won compassion for humanity ("poor naked wretches, who so e'er you are /who bide the pelting of this pitiless storm... O I have ta'en / too little care of this!") is the kind of thing that Anderson might be pointing toward as "excellence". Though of course, I can't be sure.

Anderson's Winter play (apologies, I forget its name) deals with lowlifes, but as characters capable of poetry and significant passion, and I think what he is partly on about is a possibility of theatrical/poetic beauty and seriousness in a world which rejects this possibility. Now, I'm all for that...and I find such possibilities in the contemporary theatre in writers like Kane and Barker. And also, since I've just discovered them, Charles Mee and Mac Wellman, who also have distinctively poetic approaches to theatre.

Scott Walters said...

Alison -- I am puzzled as to why "groping toward excellence" is Victorian and imperialist? Have we reached a time when excellence is old-fashioned and aggressive?

John -- I find your definition of tragedy puzzling as well. Traditionally, tragedy has been about courage in the face of horrific events. As Alison writes, Lear achieves some sense of compassion and also self-understanding as a result of what happens to him. He starts out a self-centered, blind old man and by the end, he has broadened his sense of self. "Antigone" is not about Antigone, it is about Creon, who has to learn that putting man's wishes before the gods' leads to destruction -- he begins as a tyrant, and in the end is humbled, and enlightened. But Lear and Creon both face their fates with dignity, and their pain ennobles them. (I would also say that "Medea" is not a tragedy -- my experience of Euripides is that he is not particularly interested in tragedy, but rather in humbling his human characters (Jason or, in "The Bacchae," Hippolytus) who dare to cross the gods. Those human characters never really learn anything, they are simply destroyed.) To me, tragedy is about the achievement of wisdom through suffering.

Alison: "Winterset" is the title you're trying to remember, and I believe it comes out of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. Anderson doesn't limit tragic scale to the nobility (although he wrote many plays about royalty: "Mary, Queen of Scots," for instance).

myraf: I'd like to see that post, too! I'm afraid I'm just beginning to put the reading list together. Much will depend on what is still in print and available in anthologies. Some playwrights and possible plays: Maxwell Anderson (Winterset), William Saroyan (Time of Your Life), Clifford Odets (Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing!), John Howard Lawson (Processional), George S. Kauffmann (Stage Door), Thornton Wilder (Our Town), Sherwood Anderson (Petrified Forest), Elmer Rice (Adding Machine or Street Scene), Sophie Treadwell (Machinal), Susan Glaspell (Trifles), Eugene O'Neill (the sea plays, Beyond the Horizon, Desire Under the Elms, Strange Interlude)...and examining the work of Privincetown Players, Theatre Guild, Group Theatre, Federal Theatre Project, and the Little Theatre Movement (as discussed in the pages of "Theatre Arts" magazine). Those are initial thoughts.

Alison Croggon said...

I am puzzled as to why "groping toward excellence" is Victorian and imperialist? Have we reached a time when excellence is old-fashioned and aggressive?

It's absolutely Arnoldian, Scott, and that means Victorian and imeprialist. I'll paste below a couple of pars from a talk I gave on "The Imaginative Life and the Social Responsibility of Writers", which explains what I mean; you might find the essay interesting itself (it's online here:

The humanistic western tradition of art, a tradition which has not yet died despite many attempts on its life, maintains the opposite. Perhaps the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold sums up this tradition best: in 1860, he influentially defined culture as being “the best knowledge and thought of [its] time”. To Arnold, culture was a force which palliated the brutalising realities of modern urban existence and which was, in every sense of the word, “above” it. But, as Edward Said has demonstrated in his remarkable and necessary studies, Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, this idea of culture is by no means separable from the worlds of mercantile or imperial power within which it existed. By reinforcing European culture and art as central and the culture of the rest of the world as “inferior”, and more importantly, by appropriating to itself the right to know and represent the Other (by which I mean all marginalised peoples: women, “inferior” races and cultures, the poor, the insane), culture was as important an instrument of wordly power as the armies of the British Empire.

In his conclusion to Culture and Anarchy, Arnold identified culture, “the best knowledge and thought”, with the State. “Culture,” he said, “is the most resolute enemy of anarchy, because of the great hopes and designs for the State which culture teaches us to nourish”. He opposed strikes or protests, no matter how justifiable, on these grounds: the State, as the embodiment of “the best”, was, as he said, “sacred”. And he wholeheartedly approved of the brutal repression of rebellions against the British Empire by the native populations of Ireland and India. By his lights, they were not only irrational but blasphemous.

John Branch said...

(I wrote, but apparently lost, an answer earlier. Now I'm trying again, in minutes stolen from work.)

I'm sure my comments on tragedy could be better worded. As for the ideas, they're influenced by my reading of George Steiner's _Death of Tragedy_. I don't have it at hand, but in a quick search I found a quotation on Amazon: the tragic worldview shows us that "necessity is blind and man's encounter with it shall rob him of his eyes, whether in Thebes or in Gaza."

As for my examples, they were named off the cuff. To continue with them, though, the view I'm talking about arises not for one character by the end of the action but from a viewer's grasp of the whole play: the situation Antigone is put in as well as what Creon eventually learns; the Lear of Acts I-IV as well as the Lear of Act V; what happens to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as well as to Hamlet.

Implacable fate, blind necessity, the random turns of the wheel of fortune, man's own imperfect and imperfectible nature--the phrases are familiar enough that they may sound like clich├ęs, but these are the elements of tragedy that I'm thinking of.

Scott Walters said...

Alison -- I have encountered your dislike of Matthew Arnold before, and I find I cannot share it. Lionel Trilling is my critical idol, and he was an Arnoldian. First of all, I don't know enough about Arnold's politics to comment, but I don't find his politics particularly relevant to his criticism, in the same way that I don't find Ezra Pound's politics relevant to his poetry. To condemn Arnold for the fact that his ideas may have been used by others to suppress other people is like condemning fire because it has been used to burn libraries. His idea of the best that has been written and thought is hierarchical, true, but I don't find that it is possible to disconnect oneself from hierarchy; for me, the key is to be explicit about what values underlie the hierarchy.

But I will certainly try to find time to read your talk. Perhaps I will be persuaded.

Scott Walters said...

John -- Yes, that does sound like Steiner. I tend toward a more Aristotelian model of tragedy, rather than Steiner's rather grim-faced 20th-century ideas. And therein lies our discussion over Anderson!

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Scott - For the record, I adore Dover Beach. Just as I adore the Cantos.

But Arnold's aesthetics are, I fear, absolutely inseparable from his politics. He was very clear-eyed about that. Check out Culture and Anarchy. Therein probably lie many of our arguments, because I have lots of problems with those politics.

Didn't Aristotle talk about "pity and terror"? Man's hubris bringing him in conflict with the Gods?

John Branch said...

Man's hubris brings him into conflict not only with the gods but also with other men and even with himself. And the results aren't pretty. That's a quick and slightly understated account of tragedy, for me.

Though I think Scott has identified the basis of our difference of opinion, I might add one thing: the Victorian culture (I too detected notes of it in Anderson's statement) is one of those that failed to produce any worthy tragedies, unless I'm forgetting something again; one might say the American culture has too. And part of the reason for it, at least from Steiner's point of view, is the spirit of optimism underlying Anderson's remarks. Another element in this failure might be a certain Roman attitude toward conquering everything in one's reach, which broadly speaking is what Allison has been talking about.

I'm curious to know whether anyone counts Miller's _Death of a Salesman_ as a tragedy (apparently he did), or for that matter whether anything the English-language theater has produced in the last 150 years counts. There's much I don't know, so I won't state an opinion on it, but I'm inclined to guess (as the previous paragraph suggests) that I would answer no.

Alison Croggon said...

Was it the Victorians who edited Shakespeare's tragedies so they would have happy endings? Or maybe it was slightly earlier. I know it happened.

I'd call Death of a Salesman a tragedy, shifting the emphasis from kings and gods to the middle class. Buchner's Woyzek has always struck me as a sketch of modern tragedy.... I had some theory once abou tragedy being an expression of the tragedy of consciousness, which inevitably leads to consciousness of mortality.

I just remembered that George Lukacs has an interesting essay on Death of a Salesman and tragedy, which I can't remember in any detail, but might be interesting to reference; I can't put my hands on it at present. Tragedy, as in confrontation with the Gods, is not possible now as it was in Greek society, but that doesn't preclude the possibility of a contemporary tragic theatre. I read some of Charles Mee's fragmentary collages recently, and I thought they were reaching for the tragic.

Apologies for the bittiness of this...much to think about.

George Hunka said...

I would also say that The Iceman Cometh is an example of contemporary tragedy that reverses the Aristotelian ideas of pity and terror in turning these inward, to self-laceration and the impossibility of denying mortality, instead of outward, to catharsis. (Walter Davis's essay on the play in "Get the Guests" is very good on this.)

Contemporary tragedy, I think, inheres in reversals and recognitions, not necessarily in catharsis -- an effect of tragedy but not part of its cause. Its cause, and the fatal flaw of the tragic hero (an idea that could use some redefinition itself), in the tragedy of consciousness is the awareness that consciousness itself is aware of its own inevitable obliteration. Heroism then inheres in the ability to absorb this awareness, to internalize it, instead of spending a life trying to repress its inevitable truth. (Which would make O'Neill's Hickman more of a tragic hero than Miller's Willy Loman, though one can see this awareness in Willy's final tragic action.) The question then arises of what constitutes the "good life," what one is to do with this awareness, and we can then turn from the Poetics (which doesn't help with this) to the Nicomachean Ethics and other contemplations on the matter.

Josh Costello said...

Seems to me, on a practical level, that the tragic flaw is key. The definition I like is the simple one: one characteristic that simultaneously defines the character, makes the audience care about the character, and causes the character's downfall. I'm not sure what this says on a philosophical level, but as a director this seems very functional. I don't know much about Nicomachean Ethics, but I know what I like.