With what terms do we describe horrific events? Some
of the strongest come from literary tradition. When something
unthinkable happens, when evil forces seem to be at work, when many
innocent people die, and the subject is war, carnage, and
threatened national identity, we call this spectacle a tragedy.
But we often use that word with little understanding of its history
and meaning over time.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines tragedy as "A play or
other literary work of a serious or sorrowful character, with a fatal
or disastrous conclusion: opp. to COMEDY," then as "An unhappy or
fatal event or series of events in real life; a dreadful calamity or
disaster." Aristotle, in his Poetics, perceptively argued
that the literary representation of suffering and disaster can produce
an elevating effect, which he called "catharsis" - a purging of the
emotions of pity (for the victims) and terror (of the gods or their
laws). A tragic hero, superhuman in his or her moral strength,
infused with unusual daring and ambition, which the Greeks called
"hubris," is shown, in the end, to have too much pride. It is the
deep flaw, or "hamartia," which, while making the hero great, also
brings him or her into fatal conflict with the universe.
Although Aristotle had in mind a specific body of plays that follow
this tragic pattern, the term has become more flexible over the
centuries, no longer limited to dramatic action on a stage. And
whereas tragedy was once considered a serious form of worship, the
highest expression of dramatic art, representing human nature at its
noblest and most poetic, it has lost its centrality as cultural
ritual. Part of this shift took place during the revolutions in Europe
in the late eighteenth century, when working- and middle-class
theaters strove for space to present their plays outside the courts,
where tragedy and comedy still reigned for elite patrons. As these
court forms demanded literacy, they protected themselves by banning
from popular stages plays that depended on lengthy and refined speech.
As a result, new theatrical forms emerged that depended less on speech
and more on mime and music. This new genre was called "melodrama,"
literally theater with music.
Historically melodrama has striven for some of the effects of tragedy
- high emotional excitement, serious and often violent action - but
with significant changes. Instead of noble heroes concerned with
national themes, divine law, or social order, the heroes of melodrama
are ordinary characters, often caught in the throes of love, lost
identity, family crisis, or class conflict. Their predicaments may
have fatal results, but good always triumphs over evil in the end.
Actions speak louder than words, gestures count more than speeches,
and music provides a universal language.
Melodrama has been immensely popular and, one could argue, culturally
useful, as capitalism has emerged in the modern world as the dominant
political and social structure; its appeal across class, gender,
racial, and national boundary lines has made it the preeminent genre
in an increasingly global culture. Although from the late nineteenth
century melodrama has suffered from the distaste of critics who
lambaste its aesthetic of emotional excess, simplified moral
conflicts, and concern with the personal, sometimes at the expense of
the political, it has continued to give expression to marginalized
groups, to provide aesthetic and emotional satisfaction, to spur
reform, and to innovate constantly on its basic premises. At the same
time, melodrama has been criticized for working, as many products of
mass-produced culture do, to provide entertainment that resolves
cultural differences into a single plot with predictable and
We are reminded at times of crisis of how much our experience as a
culture depends on our narratives about ourselves. The news media
can serve the function of epic bards and tragic playwrights in
articulating those narratives for us; but we give them enormous power
when we cede our own story-making to others. The power of judging
events - are we involved in a national tragedy or a melodrama? Is this
question relevant to what is really happening? - ultimately resides in
the hands of individuals.
Wyn is a senior lecturer in literature at MIT.
Back to definitions