Sean McEvoy. 2017. Tragedy: The Basics. New York: Routledge.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Life in 2021 is full of tragedy. The classic image of postmodernity is a collage in which random objects are strung together, but individually have nothing to do with each other. The idea that one’s life should express unity and purpose is counter-cultural. More typically one sees students living hedonistic lifestyles and then wonder why job recruiters shun them when they wash out or graduate. Suicide. Drug overdoses. Pandemic parties. Gender confusion. Willfully out of touch with themselves, God, and others many eschew all sources of meaning in life focused only on the eternal now. And their lives are tragically short.
When I found myself musing over a tragic character in a novella that I am working on, I wondered how best to develop this character more fully. I looked for a craft book focused on writing tragedy. Finding none, I turned to Sean McEvoy’s book, Tragedy: The Basics, who writes:
“This book will consider different theories of tragedy, but won’t offer one of its own … What tragic works of art have in common is that they deal with death, grief, and suffering, both physical and psychological … tragedy has a crucial role to play in how we cope with, and try to make sense of those things which cause us most distress and which are the sources of our deepest fears.” (1)
Based on this understanding of tragedy, the focus of my second book, Life in Tension, on the spiritual tension within us, with God, and with others could almost be considered a work on tragedy by another name. McEvoy focuses on tragedy as a drama performed on the Western stage, consistent with his teaching at Murray Edwards College in Cambridge, UK.
McEvoy writes in six chapters:
- Greek and Romans: Classical Tragedy (5-42)
- When the bad bleed? Early modern English tragedy. (43-84)
- Neoclassicism, Restoration tragedy and sentimentality (85-97)
- From hero to victim: Romantic tragedy and after (98-112)
- Modernism and tragedy (113-141)
- The survival of tragedy (142-169)
These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments and an introduction, and followed by a conclusion, glossary, references, and an index. Judging by the number of pages devoted to each period, McEvoy’s focus is clearly on the classical period.
Greek Drama as a Religious Event
Perhaps one of McEvoy most startling revelations about tragedy is one of his first—Greek drama was a religious ritual. He writes:
“All the ancient Greek plays which have survived were performed in Athens at the great annual festival in honour of the god Dionysus, who was the god of wine and drunkenness, but also of the theatre.” (5)
He goes on to show the civic role played by Greek tragedies:
“The Theatre of Dionysus, located on the southern slope of Athens citadel, the Acropolis, had a similar layout to both the Assembly and the law courts, and at the end of threes days of tragic performances the audience would also vote.” (6)
The social location of the theatre was formerly to shape public opinion among the prominent citizens, all of them men, who ruled the city and attendance was required. Those who could not afford the entrance fee were granted a waiver (6). The theatre therefore functioned as a hybrid among a media outlet, a movie theatre, and diversity training.
Importance of Tragedy in Philosophy
Philosophy functioned as religion in pre-Christian Greece even as it functions as a secular interpreter of religion today. McEvoy writes:
“Hegel believed that it was only in certain periods of historical transition hen new forms of consciousness arose that genuine tragedy can be written.” (26)
Calling tragedy an art form is almost to miss the point, from Hegel’s perspective. The observation that Karl Marx was the great student of Hegel in the modern period suggests how influential this perspective remains.
Sean McEvoy’s Tragedy: The Basics provides interesting insights into the role of dramatic tragedy as a shaper of and mirror of cultural change. The observation that notable philosophical commentators—Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche—all took great interest in tragedy got my attention. McEvoy may also get yours.
Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2020, Life in Tension: Reflections on the Beatitudes Revised. Centreville, Virginia: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.