How Are We Moved and Why Do We Like it?–with notes on the death of tragedy.

Another term we get sloppy with is “tragedy,” so I’ll try to delimit what I mean by it here. I’ve never forgotten a one-sided mano a mano I witnessed in my youth. It occurred during the Q&A following a lecture by the eminent Francis Fergusson. Fergusson was a drama critic and teacher, the author of The Idea of a Theatre, a book then regarded as one of the essentials for any student of the subject. He had just held forth, in loftiest terms, on the nature of  tragedy, from which category he had unequivocally excluded The Death of a Salesman, then only a few years old. Willy Loman, he explained, did not qualify as a tragic hero. One listener, an earnest salt-of-the-earth type expounding in best New Yorkese, objected on the grounds of how the play’s ending made him feel—overwhelmingly sad, holding back the tears. Fergusson did not care how it made him feel; a play either met his requirements for tragedy or it didn’t. After several exchanges, the increasingly exasperated listener finally blurted out, “Aren’t I entitled to my opinion?”
.     “No,” answered  Fergusson, and moved on to the next questioner.

In Fergusson’s Aristotelian view, only a few of even the greatest operas could properly be called tragedies, and Traviata would certainly not be among them. But because the kind of tragedy I’m talking about is operatic it cannot be confined by a formal literary definition, and in any case such definitions, used prescriptively, are soon detached from the question they seek to answer, which is: “What are the elements of an artform that account for the powerful emotional effect it generates?” In opera, the answer lies with music, above all sung music, as the realization of dramatic action. And the most powerful such effect, the kind that evokes emotional response on the visceral, life-and-death plane we feel as tragic, is associated with particular kinds of music, arising from particular sequences of dramatic action, conveyed by  particular sorts of singing. An opera that meets the formal requirements of a “tragedy” without arousing the anticipated response may still please us aesthetically and evoke other, milder feelings or stimulate intellectual enquiry, but as tragedy it’s useless. And as with the other lyric “art of the act” (I)a term I use to distinguish performed art from fine art or literary art, dance, it can happen only in performance, and is therefore ever-dependent on its interpreters. Probably even Fergusson would agree that Verdi’s Otello is a tragedy. But that’s only its formal category. Realistically, whether it’s tragedy or not depends on what happens tonight.

So, my street-level definition of operatic tragedy is this: a work in which the character or characters with whom we are led to empathetically identify (nearly always one or both partners of a protagonist couple) dies, and through whose musical realization we have come to trust its performance potential for evoking a deep, emotionally compelling awareness of mortality. Whether or not we want that depends on what value we attach to such awareness, perhaps for perspective and acceptance, or perhaps for the urgency of living life meaningfully. Opera is unique in its oft-proven power to do this, and in its ambition to do so. It is not until very late in the development of symphonic and chamber music that those forms did not resolve dark tone, the threat of the tragic, with concluding uplift, and the same is true of ballet. In spoken drama, the 18th and 19th centuries brought forth many plays designated “tragedy,” but very few that now seem so except in a purely formal sensesave for the many that were turned into operas.

Footnotes   [ + ]

I. a term I use to distinguish performed art from fine art or literary art