tragedy

Twentieth-Century Tragedy

The cataclysmic events of the 20th cent.—two world wars, the destructive use of atomic power, the disintegration of family and community life—have caused a radical diminution of the vision of life embodied by the earlier domestic and political tragedy. Its shrinkage is evident in such plays as Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) and Long Day's Journey into Night (1956), Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage (1941), Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949), and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1953).

Each of the latter works can be labeled tragedy, if rather loosely. The pattern first seen by Aristotle is still discernible. The protagonist is, as always, defeated by opposing forces—Freudian behavior patterns, wartime attrition, loss of identity, drugs, or alcohol, if not pride, ambition, and jealousy. And still felt is the mysterious cathartic exaltation at the end of a powerful theatrical experience. Despite quibbling about the exact meaning and application of the word tragedy, most critics would agree in saying that some of the works of such 20th-century dramatists as Anton Chekhov, August Strindberg, Luigi Pirandello, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Ugo Betti, Michel de Ghelderode, Sean O'Casey, Jean Anouilh, and Tennessee Williams may be classed as tragedy.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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