On the Nature of Tragedy

I’m a sucker for a good tragedy. Or a dark comedy, the darker and sadder, the better. And who knew I’d get a fix by watching last week’s Grey’s Anatomy? The show’s pretty decent about drama, which is diferent than tragedy in ways I’ll get to in a bit. But this past week, the major subplot was classic, totally devastating, Greek tragedy.

In the begin, there was theatre as religious ceremony. No, not in the Middle Ages, with the Greeks. The basic form of Western theatre started when the Greeks began doing plays at sunrise to honor the god, Dionysus. They had two basics forms for their plays that have remained with us up to today: the comedy and the tragedy. The shows dealt with the same thing that shows today do: politics, religion, social issues. Very basically, comedy dealt with these in a humorous way as the characters decided what to do about them. Tragedy, on the otherhand, was a solemn look at how these various events acted upon the characters.

I love tragedy; I think a good tragedy has more staying power, more educational power, and stronger resonance than good comedy (not that I’m not a fan of comedy). Good tragedy forces us to look at ourselves and evaluate our true place in the whole of nature; if we do that honestly, we can’t help but come away wiser.

So, back to Grey’s Anatomy. WARNING PLOT SPOILER To young twenty-something girls come to the hospital, one of them with cervical cancer (which is diagnosed after she comes in). The girls have an unusually strong bond, seemingly more than what you might expect for best friends, and we don’t quite get it. After the diagnosis it is suggested that she call her parents. We learn then that the girls have run away from home, when they were 16, and they’ve always been best friends. The friend is adamant about not get the other girls parents involved, though it turns out that the patient does call her parents.

The kicker is that the girls are Amish. After being baptized, the friend decided to leave the community which results in her being shunned. This means that no Amish can talk to her, acknowledge her, indeed it is as if she were dead. The other girl (eventual cancer patient) decided that she couldn’t let her friend wander the world alone and decided to leave with her. Now, she had not be baptized yet, so she was not shunned. After 7 or so years of living in the outside world, the sick girl calls her parents and they come to the hospital. While there, they talk to their daughter but shun her friend.

The girl’s cancer has spread too far to be operable and she is going to die. She decided to go back to the community and die with her family and have an Amish funeral. She struggles with this decision until her friend tells her to do it, knowing full well that when she goes back to the community her friend will have to shun her. They will never see each other again. In fact, she will not be able to attend the funeral, or visit her friend’s grave.

As with all good tragedy, it is not merely sad, but the tragedy actually takes palpable action. An event (cancer, in this case) becomes a character or a mover and forces our human characters to make decisions and face fears not because they wanted or decided to, but because their hands were forced. The quick actions people take on short notice in these situations are the root of tragedy.

This scene was very well written and acted. I’m glad for Grey’s, after last season’s “separating siamese twins” show I thought they’d already jumped the shark. It looks as if that episode was merely a Grey’s Anomoly.

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2 Comments

Filed under Entertainment, musings, Television, Theatre

2 responses to “On the Nature of Tragedy

  1. Wyoming

    I am glad there are two sides of a coin among other things. “Good tragedy forces us to look at ourselves and evaluate our true place in the whole of nature; if we do that honestly. . .”?? Isn’t this the source of comedy?
    I have to believe that comedy gives us a refreshing look at the world, along with ourselves, and we are more likely to take action that leads to change if we are not bogged down in the morbid morass of tragedy and despair.
    Tragedy mutes the call to action while comedy rejuvenates man’s desire to act by lifting the sense of futility and discouragement. The comedy was a staple of prisoner of war camps in that comedy lifts man’s spirit and gives him the power to move on knowing that to laugh is to live.

  2. The source of good comedy is certainly taken from the same spring as that of good tragedy. I was speaking mostly to a performance / technical sense of what the two forms are.

    Comedy: the characters take actions upon something(s) in order to manipulate them to their benefit / desire.

    Tragedy: characters are acted upon by the forces of nature / fate / etc, and spend their time reacting to events that are out of their control.

    The dramatic effect of these forms is very different. While I generally agree that actually living a tragedy would be terrible (by definition :O), seeing tragedy played out dramatically can have immense social, personal, and political power.

    we are more likely to take action that leads to change if we are not bogged down in the morbid morass of tragedy and despair.

    This is the power of theatre and live performance (and film in a less immediate way). A good performance or film will show us and let us experience tragedy in a way that does not do us lasting harm, but leaves a lasting impression.

    Tragedy mutes the call to action while comedy rejuvenates man’s desire to act by lifting the sense of futility and discouragement.

    Actual tragedy can be the ultimate discouragement to action. But, it can also be a resounding call to action. Look at what the current administration did with the War on Terror and 9/11.

    Conversely, comedy can also be seen as something ephemeral and inconstant, something to be enjoyed but not remembered–a balm to heal the current wound or amusement for the here and now.

    Certainly, comedy and tragedy can both have lasting impact. I personally believe it is harder for comedy to have this impact. Constructing a comedy performance that is lasting and has far-reaching societal impact is tough to do.

    Keeping with my strict, technical definitions of comedy and tragedy, I think it is tragedy that holds up the longest: Hamlet, Othello, Romeo & Juliet, A Doll’s House, Oedipus the King, Doctor Faustus, Cleopatra, and many others.

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