Frontiers

The Evolution of Tragedy

School of Arts and Sciences Dean Rebecca Bushnell’s new book reinvigorates a classic genre for today’s readers.
February 2008

In this season of film and television awards shows, critics and audiences usually devote the greatest effort to appraising the most serious dramatic offerings.In this season of film and television awards shows, critics and audiences usually devote the greatest effort to appraising the most serious dramatic offerings. The profound emotional and intellectual impact of the best of these dramas may be due to their little-acknowledged roots in an ancient genre many associate with bygone eras. But a new book by Rebecca Bushnell, Dean of Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, Thomas S. Gates, Jr. Professor and Professor of English, shows that the classic form of tragedy still has much bearing on the way people live today.

Tragedy: A Short Introduction explores the elements of the genre in past and present social, political and cultural contexts. As examples, Bushnell offers selected case studies not only of classic tragedies such as Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s King Lear but also of more modern plays not typically classified as tragedies (e.g. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot) as well as popular movies such as King Kong and Chinatown.

“I wanted to make sure that what otherwise seemed old and dusty or encased in marble to people felt current and relevant,” Bushnell says. “Everything that is produced in contemporary drama somehow ties back to the ways of telling and presenting stories that you get in tragedy.”

In writing Tragedy Bushnell distilled more than two decades of teaching and researching the genre into a compact volume written for a general audience. “I started my academic career writing about prophecy in Homer, Sophocles and Shakespeare, and then I did my dissertation at Princeton on the subject,” Bushnell explains. “While I did for a period of time stop writing about tragedy, I’ve never stopped thinking and teaching about it.”

In addition to her own scholarship, Bushnell drew inspiration for the book from the questions and ideas of students in her courses on tragedy. “My students always make me think, and they will often challenge my assumptions about things,” Bushnell says. “When you teach something for 25 years, you can get stale unless you listen to what your students say, because they will always bring something to the text that you didn’t see is there.”

Despite her longstanding fascination with tragedy, Bushnell describes herself as a “relentlessly optimistic person” who generally has a comic perspective on life. Tragedies, though, are not merely about unhappy endings, and she continues to be drawn to the genre because she believes it “grapples with the things that most cut at our hearts, such as questions of suffering, destiny, identity and authority.”

"What will be really interesting going forward is how tragedy can play out cross-cultural conflict and the way we live, more and more, in cultures in which we are not all alike." - Rebecca Bushnell

For this reason Bushnell argues that people will always need tragedy because it provides a means to ask the most profound questions about the conditions of human existence. She notes in her book, however, that not all literary scholars agree with this point of view. For example writer and critic George Steiner says that contemporary society has lost the ability to produce tragedies because it lacks the kind of shared culture and beliefs that united fifth-century Athens or Renaissance England. Bushnell counters that those societies, known for producing some of the greatest tragedies, were divided in their own ways, and that this conflict actually allowed the genre to flourish. She writes, “Tragedy could never emerge in the context of stasis or self-satisfaction, because it is a genre that rises out of the fissures of belief, authority, law, and social convention.” The genre is especially relevant today, Bushnell explains, because globalization increasingly brings together societies with different and often opposing beliefs.

“What will be really interesting going forward is how tragedy can play out cross-cultural conflict and the way we live, more and more, in cultures in which we are not all alike,” Bushnell says.

Bushnell speculates that the future of tragedy will be shaped by technology and, unlike classical forms of the genre which were produced for a single place and time, will be circulated globally. She writes that the power to share video and text instantly and by anybody has “mostly lent itself to the circulation of the cheap fragment of horror, comedy, or scandal, but it does hold great potential for the future of a new democratic art and thus the art of tragedy.” While it is impossible to know exactly what form the tragedies of tomorrow will take, Bushnell hopes her book conveys that the genre is alive and still developing.