Why we need tragedy

Having recently absorbed a whole season of Netflix-original Bloodline, that’s 13 hours of television viewing in the space of a few weeks, I have been impressed upon by, not only the marvel of on-demand long-form drama, but also the importance of the genre of tragedy.

Bloodline is thriller-drama based around several generations of the Rayburn family. It focuses on the return of black-sheep Danny, to the Rayburn home in Florida Keys on the occasion of the 45th wedding anniversary of his parents. Several decades of lies and family secrets are slowly uncovered, leading to greater and greater treachery and ultimately, tragedy.

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Percy Shelley in his essay, “A Defense of Poetry” famously stated,

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

Tragedy is an interesting example of such legislation, as the catharsis it offers is often a reaffirmation of just desserts for hubris. Protagonists of tragedy rarely emerge unscathed, and if they do their lessons are sorely learned.

A theme of Bear Skin is how the hard stuff of life such as conflict, tension, pain, sorrow, and misunderstandings can be redeemed through story. Story tellers combine these raw elements with a character journey and use the readers inherent sense of justice to create a crescendo of crisis.

Resolution then occurs through catharsis or emotional release, often through the payoff required by justice. If our protagonist is not, as it were, caught by conventional justice or punished for their crimes, they often suffer worse through pain, guilt, trauma or an ever increasing slide into self compromise.

Why tragedy then? Why do we or anyone want stories about people suffering? Tolstoy, Shakespeare and the Greek playwrights old all knew the power of tragic narrative.

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Tragedy presents us with a protagonist full of foibles, flaws, human faults, and vices. The audience is invited to both empathise with the protagonist, but also to judge with the objectivity of a third party observer.

By creating a degree of separation, the story-teller can lead the audience through the experience of cleansing punishment experienced by the protagonist or the key players, and to process internal behaviour change, without deep self-mortification.

Tragedy is in many cases, salvation, for it is another who suffers for our sins. We observe the evils, the justified motives, the small steps which lead to a crime – and while we can empathise with their journey, and we suffer with them, we are reborn to live anew.

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Waking as from a dream, we return to life, granted a second chance, the chance to live a better, wiser, more integrated life.

Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot

In 2002, American TV journalist and news anchor Kim Barker accepted a 3 month posting to Afghanistan. She stayed four years.

Her experiences were recorded in an observational memoir entitled, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan and made into 2016 film, produced by and starring Tina Fey.

Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot, radio-code for acronym WTF, captures, like M*A*S*H and other war biopics, the ‘dramedy’ or the ‘tragicomedy’ of war time experiences.

Kim, underwhelmed with the state of her career, heads as war correspondent to Kabul, Afghanistan. There, she is engulfed in the ‘other worldness’ of what is affectionately coined ‘Kabubble’ by the community of expat journalists and war reporters she encounters there.

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Quickly befriended by notable British journalist, Tanya Vanderpoel [Margot Robbie], she is inducted into the rules of Kabubble. She learns not to be ripped off, black-mailed or hit up. Immersed in surreal “lost in translation” moments, newly-single Kim bonds with the curious assortment of expats and locals who guide her through life in her new home.

The story is a journey of sorts;  it’s a hero story but it’s told by a woman in war time middle east. Kim is immersed in gender politics throughout, from her deployment as “childless unmarried staffer” to her induction in Kabul to the  4-10-4 rule. Woman, usually ranked an attractiveness quotient of 4 on home territory, can be ranked a 10 in Kabul, but as she is cautioned by the US  Marines Commander, she will only be disappointed upon her return home to discover she is simply a 4 again.

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Despite these early dismissals as an inexperienced nuisance, Kim is good at her job. Very good.

She grows close to her Afghan colleague and interpreter Fahid and is pseudo courted by the Afghan minister for Defense. She elicits candid interviews from soldiers and dares to penetrate  behind closed doors of Afghan culture to interview and understand idiosyncrasies of the local people and their experiences of war.

But as with all war stories this journey is tinged with tragedy. Kim increasingly puts herself and others in danger to gain insights into wartime Kabul.  A soldier she interviews is injured by mortar fire because of an interview she broadcasts with him. Concerned for her safety and aggravated by her growing boldness, Fahid an MD, cautions her that adrenaline is like a drug, and drugs destroy lives.

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Kim’s story is one of journey to self realisation. She transitions from a frustrated journalist at a desk covering pedestrian daily news, to a critical player in a crisis zone. She is a change agent, who uses her unique diplomatic skills and in fact the privileges of her gender to gain access to information and connections her male colleagues could not. But there is a world weariness that grows with her as the romance of the war-zone loses its shine and tragedy cuts close to home.

Kim returns to the USA, having found her soul and passion but also having lost friendships, and her thirst for danger.

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The story is refreshing but somewhat ill told. Tina Fey and Margot Robbie are delightful with Martin Freeman playing a unexpectedly charming romantic foil., Iain MacKelpie. However, the choice to cast Americans in the leading Afghan parts  with stilted accents, missed a wonderful opportunity to partner with the film industry of central Asia and lend the story some genuine gravitas.  One feels sub-plots are underdeveloped and the tragicomedy of war time Afghanistan not truly tapped in favour of the American obsession with the evolution of the solitary protagonist.

Nevertheless, I give Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot 3 out of 5 stars. 

The Wild Duck

It is not often that plays made into films, particularly remakes of classics written in another language and era, translate well. However, sometimes it is done well and a particularly good case in point is the 2016 Australian film, The Daughter, based on Henrik Ibsen’s classic, The Wild Duck [1884].

Adapted for screen and directed by Australian film and theatre director Simon Stone, the film features an ensemble cast including Geoffrey Rush, Miranda Otto and Sam Neil.

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The original play, The Wild Duck, is a Norwegian classic, set in the 1880s. It is considered to be Ibsen’s greatest work and recounts what he discerned to be the fatal effects of the “life lie” and the destructive nature of idealism in a quest to dislodge fantasy.

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It centers around the rather singular character Gregers Werle who returns to his home town after a self imposed exile to visit his father Hakon Werle, a wealthy merchant and industrialist. He encounters his old school friend Hjalmar Ekdal, who married a servant girl of his father and is working under Hakon’s patronage. Gregers  is bitter with his father over the suicide of his mother 16 years earlier from an affair with the servant girl Gina and discerns that she was married to Hjalmar as a cover for her pregnancy.

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Feeling his old school friend is living a lie, particularly in relation to his 16 year old daughter Hedvig, who is in fact not Hjalmar’s child but rather Gregers own half-sister and Hakon’s daughter. The idealist Gregers cannot help but reveal the truth. However, in doing so, he upsets the fragile equilibrium of everyone’s life. His idealism drives him to speak frankly and bring all to light. However, in exposing the skeletons in the closet he rips up the foundation of the Ekdal family and their whole dreamworld collapses.

Deprive the average human being of his life-lie, and you rob him of his happiness.

Re-written into rural Australia, the film opens with wealthy landowner Henry shooting down a wild duck. As the story unfolds we see the return of unhappy Christian after 16 years in the USA, to his home town for the wedding of his father Henry. Tension between father and son expose the unresolved pain from the suicide death of Christian’s mother 16 years prior. Christian encounters his childhood friend Oliver and observes his seeming idyllic rural life with wife Charlotte and daughter Hedvig. Oliver works at Henry’s sawmill and looks after his father Walter, a slightly doddery old man who rehabilitates injured animals. It is Walter who takes the injured bird from Henry to convalesce it with the help of 16 year old Hedvig. It is Christian, alcoholic and facing the demise of his own marriage, who cannot help but reveal the painful truths to not only Oliver but also eventually Hedvig, leading to the unraveling of their family.

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The Wild Duck is littered with symbolism centered chiefly around the wild duck. Gregers  imagines Hjalmar as the wild duck in his entrapment in the “poisonous marshes” of his household – shot down by wicked Hakon. The old Ekdal lives in a fantasy world, rehabilitating animals when he himself had been fatally wounded by Hakon and willingly conceals the truth about Hedvig from his own son. Moreover, Hedvig figures as the wild duck in that she loses her family and place of origin and is caught up in the mendacity of three generations of deceit. Most significantly, it is Greger’s “truth telling ” which catalyses the fatal blow for Hedvig and the duck, bursting the fragile fantasy world of their imagined protection.

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The story in modern form is still as powerful as the 19th century stage-play and a credit to the film makers and actors for translating it so effectively to film.

Poetics

Around 335 BC Aristotle wrote, Poetics (Περὶ ποιητικῆς) the earliest known work of the theory of drama. So comprehensive is it, that it is still used by literary theorists, writers, educators and directors of theatre of film. Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters [2002, Michael Tierno] is a modern application and case in point.

Interestingly, the whole work was lost to the Western world for a long time until the Middle Ages when part of the original was discovered, through an Arabic translation of the scholar Averroes.

In the work, Aristotle defines “poetry”, a term which in Greek literally means “making” and includes treatises about drama, comedy, tragedy, satire, lyric and epic poetry.

He outlines various rules for the construction of drama, which still form the bedrock of story telling and narrative theory. These include [among others]:

  • Character [ethos] is the moral or ethical character in tragic play and supports the plot. Their personal motivations somehow connect parts of the cause-and-effect chain of actions producing pity and fear.
  • The tragic accident or crisis, is what happens to the hero because of a mistake he or she makes (hamartia). That is because the audience is more likely to be “moved” by a character driven accident than by a random occurrance. A hero may have made the mistake knowingly (in Medea) or unknowingly (Oedipus).
  • Discovery must occur within the plot and the poet should incorporate complication and dénouement or resolution within the story.  The poet must express thought through the characters’ words and actions, while paying close attention to diction and how a character’s spoken words express a specific idea.

 

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  •  Catharsis, or tragic pleasure, is the experience of fear and pity produced in the spectator. According to Aristotle, tragedy arouses the emotions of pity and fear in order to release the audience and purge away their excess.  Aristotle also talks about “pleasure” one gets from contemplating the pity and fear that are aroused through the play.
  • Aristotle defined levels of narration and audience knowledge of what is happening in the plot. His tripartite division of characters, means some are  in a superior position (βελτίονας) to the audience, and know more than the audience. Most narrators know the full story and so are superior to the audience. Other characters are in an inferior position to the audience (χείρονας) for example a character could be lost yet we audience members know that around the corner lies the murderer waiting for them. Finally, some characters are at the same level (τοιούτους) as the audience, and as they discover truths, so does the audience.

Interestingly, Aristotle points out that the origins of tragedy stem from the dithyramb or Dionysic rites and the origins of comedy, stem from phallic processions. These pagan rituals continued throughout the classic period until they were discontinued under Christian Emperors such as Constantine. Unfortunately, drama and theatre itself along with the works of classical authors such as Aristotle were consequently lost throughout the dark or medieval ages.

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However, Aristotle’s theory of Poetics, underpins the logic and structure of all epic narratives, including the ancient Jewish and Christian scriptures.

To Aristotle, tragedy is rooted in the fundamental order of the universe; it creates a cause-and-effect chain that clearly reveals what may happen at any time or place. Within the order, the characters act knowingly and unknowingly act, facing crises often by their own mistake [harmartia].  Interestingly harmartia is the same Greek word used by biblical writers for sin . Artistotle’s tragic characters experience catharsis, or the purging of emotions, through the denouement or resolution of their wound [harmatia]. This occurs through satisfying of the logic of the universe within which it is set. This satisfaction creates pleasure within the audience through the purging of emotions.

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The Idiot

First published in 1868, The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky has long been a favorite of Russian literature.

The novel seeks to expose the tragedy that occurs when a truly good and beautiful human being encounters the rudeness and cruelty of the real world. Its character portrayal is likened to another literary great, the 17th century Spanish classic, Don Quixote.

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The Idiot gains its title from the central character, Prince Lyov Nikolaevich Myshkin [Myshkin], a young man troubled by epilepsy which was at the time equated with simplicity of mind, or idiocy.  His condition highlights his goodness and open-hearted simplicity and much of the novels tension is created by his interaction with characters who mistakenly assume that he lacks intelligence and insight.

Dostoevsky’s account of one man’s struggle with the conflicts, desires, passions and egoism of worldly society is according to philosopher A.C. Grayling, is:

..one of the most excoriating, compelling and remarkable books ever written; and without question one of the greatest.

So, what happens when the ideal human being comes into the real world?

The world that Prince Myshkin enters is one of moral corruption and decay. With money as the principal object of importance, the value of human dignity and the source of human love are redefined in relationship to it. Beautiful, intelligent women such as Nastassya Filippovna, are objectified, dishonored and consequently destroyed by the people who supposedly love and desire them.

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This world of the novel is also full of drunks and rogues, even murderers,  and a high society full of superficial nothings who are surrounded by self serving underlings seeking a high position.

In contrast to this world, Prince Myshkin stands out with simple goodness.

In the midst of this world Dostoevsky depicts Myshkin as an almost Christ-like character, epitomised so by his immense compassion and love for others.  The novel contains an series of encounters between Myshkin and the other characters, many of whom have committed offenses against him. His attempts at assisting them even after their slights, emphasise his selfless compassion.

The novel is a tragic satire. Dosotoevksy used the novel to discuss and critique Russian Christianity. In it Prince Myshkin describes religion as an immensely strong feeling similar to joy, the joy God feels for his creation. For him, true religion is more akin to a feeling than a set of rules to follow.

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This idiotic sentiment of his leads him only to suffering. Though he attempts to help those around him, he fails and this failure, finally drives him to insanity. The tragedy of the novel is that it would seem his effect on this world is ultimately zero.

Does Myshkin fail to bring good? Is his own goodness inverted and manipulated, leading to the destruction of both himself and his ideal?

Far from it.

The novel remains a classic for its embodiment of true religion, one of compassion and a quest to right injustice. It remains a timely warning against the vices of wealth and privilege and false morality. And it points beyond itself to the truest man, the one who suffered so that we might see inequalities redressed and true humanity valued.

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Heathcliff

This post is dedicated to Tamlyn, whose birthday it is today !!

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Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte is considered to be a classic of English literature. Written in 1846, it was published in 1847 when Bronte was 29 years of age. It was her only novel and her premature death meant she never knew of the popularity and fame the work would bring her.

The novel is characterised by its dark gothic tones and was met with mixed reviews because of its depiction of mental and physical cruelty. It challenged strict Victorian ideals of the day, featuring religious hypocrisy, immorality, class and gender inequality.

But its enduring popularity demonstrates that it is the depth of love between the two protagonists, Cathy and Heathcliff, both profound and tragic that resonates with its readers.

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Heathcliff and Cathy’s love story is caught up in a complex web of class struggles and human vice. Heathcliff is abominably treated by his adoptive brother Hindley and later, crushed by Cathy’s rejection of him, to marry the more genteel Edgar. Cathy describes the choice before her:

It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.

Foolishly she believes she can use her marriage to better Heathcliff’s position in life and have him close. In fact, he departs and returns a wealthy man but remains tormented even after her early death.

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Heathcliff is Byronesque, the archetype of the tortured romantic hero whose all-consuming passions destroy both him and those around him.

Lord Byron writing 30 years before Bronte, described his hero in The Corsair [1814]:

That man of loneliness and mystery,
Scarce seen to smile, and seldom heard to sigh— (I, VIII)

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He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d
The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loath’d him, crouch’d and dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt: (I, XI)

Doubtless, Bronte was influenced by such a character.

Interestingly, Emily herself was described by her Belgian teacher, Constantin Heger in heroic terms:

She should have been a man – a great navigator. Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery from the knowledge of the old; and her strong imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty, never have given way but with life. She had a head for logic, and a capability of argument unusual in a man and rarer indeed in a woman… impairing this gift was her stubborn tenacity of will which rendered her obtuse to all reasoning where her own wishes, or her own sense of right, was concerned.

So Emily Bronte wrote a novel of a man, Heathcliff who is Byronesque in character; perhaps she wrote of herself, wild and free yet trapped by the world she inhabited? Or is it Cathy and the choices she faces that Emily presents as though her own?

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Cathy’s choice has terrible consequences. The violence visited on Heathcliff by Hindley and others did not come close to the cruelty of Cathy’s actions.

When Heathcliff finds her dying in childbirth, he sobs:

You teach me now how cruel you’ve been — cruel and false! Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. Yes, you may kiss me, and cry; and wring out my kisses and tears: they’ll blight you — they’ll damn you. You loved me — then what right had you to leave me? What right — answer me — for the poor fancy you felt for

Linton? Because misery, and degradation, and death, and nothing God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart — you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine. So much the worse for me, that I am strong. Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you——oh, God! would you like to live with your soul in the grave?

The novel is a figure of 8, completing one circle when, before Cathy dies, she is reunited briefly with Heathcliff. The second loop does not fully close until their children are fully grown and Heathcliff himself dies, finally reconciling him to Cathy in the graveyard.

The novel is a tragedy in all regards, except that shepherds report the ghosts of Cathy and Heathcliff haunt the moors. True love, thwarted by social class, race, hypocritical choices and hubris –  only finds peace beyond death.

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The choice Cathy made is not unlike the primal choice of humans to their maker. Their decision to take knowledge of “good and evil” was perhaps thought at first to better themselves and still maintain a relationship with God. But instead they perished.

And God, when they lie dying – sobs:

how cruel you have been – cruel and false. Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart?…. you have killed yourself….. I have not broken your heart – you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine.

While Heathcliff is left cruelly to live on alone, the other story tells of the lover that followed us into death, and restores relationship with us beyond death.

That’s a love story I love to read again and again and again.

Breaking Bad’ and modern day tragedy

Breaking Bad is widely regarded as one of the greatest television series of all time. By the time the series finale aired, the series was among the most-watched cable shows on American television. The show received numerous awards, including sixteen Primetime Emmy Awards, eight Satelite Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, two Peabody Awards and a People’s Choice Award. In 2013, Breaking Bad entered the Guiness World Records as the highest rated show of all time.

– http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breaking_Bad

The show which lasted five seasons, between 2008 and 2013 is described by series creator Vince Gilligan as one in which the protagonist becomes the antagonist.  It tells of the metamorphosis of middle class high school teacher, Walter White who missed big chances to be an award winning chemist and finds himself turning 50, working two jobs to support a pregnant wife, a disabled son and a diagnosis of inoperable cancer. Brother-in-law Hank is a drug enforcement administration [DEA] officer and laughs with Walter about the money in meth amphetamines, and before the first episode is out, Walter is attempting to cook premium crystal meth from the back of an RV in the desert of New Mexico.

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His subsequent journey into the criminal underworld, reveals to him a grit and determination and a “bad ass” fighting spirit long hidden in his middle class comfort. Initiatlly motivated by the high fees for cancer treatment and to provide for his family, Walter maximises his chemistry prowess to cook the best crystal meth in Alberquerque, becoming both successful and more  and more compromised, descending deeper into the criminal world throughout the series, and  becoming less and less a sympathetic antihero.

An article in the New Stateman recently, refers to David P Pierson opening essay in , Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style and Reception of the Television Series. Pierson’s essay, examines how the show has such a terrible and enduring resonance.

Breaking Bad is, he argues, a demonstration of the true consequences of neoliberal ideology: the idea that “the market should be the organising agent for nearly all social, political, economic and personal decisions”. Under neoliberal criminology, the criminal is not a product of psychological disorder, but “a rational-economic actor who contemplates and calculates the risks and the rewards of his actions”. And there is Walter White in a nutshell.

– http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/12/capitalist-nightmare-heart-breaking-bad

The phenomenal popularity of the show is curious in the contemporary climate. For it’s darkness, the moral narrative is complex. A good man, turns to crime to support hims family. He takes on the criminal world to make dirty money clean. His disenchantment with cosy middle class life and the hand of cards dealt him, forces him to take matters into his own hands and to become somewhat of a renegade. However, his personal dissolution and increasing moral compromise winds downward without much sign of redemption.

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The show combines some familar narrative elements we are comfortable with – the disenchanted male leaving the domestic sphere to head out into the dessert to do combat vigliante style,  in the Western cowboy tradition. War tales are full of good characters faced with grey moral choices in unspeakable circumstances, drawing on both good and bad motivations to achieve their ends. However, the show was popular throughout the tail end of the GFC and housing bubble collapse in the USA. When life and society let him down, Walter turns bad. Irredeemably so.

Audiences world wide watch with curiosity the dissolution of a man “breaking bad”, going off the moral deepend under terrible stress, so they don’t have to. It’s catharsis.

Breaking Bad was distinctive because we always knew where its road would end. We knew that right from the start, in the way that the first audiences of Shakespeare’s tragedies knew what lay in store for Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. But these days we like to think that the hero, even if he is an anti-hero, makes it through….. In 21st-century culture it is difficult to consider the fact of mortality, as the surgeon (and this year’s Reith lecturer) Atul Gawande reflects in his recent book Being Mortal. If Walter’s cancer weren’t terminal, there would be no story. There is no escape.

– http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/12/capitalist-nightmare-heart-breaking-bad

The modern day tragedy of epic proportions has gone down in history now as the most popular series of all time – far above comedy, romance, sci-fi, thriller and reality TV. This fact is illustrative of the power of narrative, to with a darkly humorous style,  to map out the depth of human suffering, to journey through terrible moral choices, to give catharsis by telling a nuanced tale of a society and culture and one man’s journey to take things into his own hands.

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I say, let tragedy as a genre, live on!