Review of “Tragedy and Materialist Thought” – Hugh Grady

pages 128-144 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

What is Grady’s Materialism?

Grady comes from a line of critics that include Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton. Like Williams and Eagleton, he approaches tragedy from a political perspective. “Materialism” to Grady is a combination of three strands of theory that began in the 1980s: American new historicism, British cultural materialism, and international feminism. Marx and Engels themselves used the term “materialism” to describe their method of analysis, and, in the end, these three strands can be traced back to the founders of Marxism. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition of “dialectical materialism” as:

The Marxist theory of political and historical events as due to the conflict of social forces caused by humans’ material needs and interpretable as a series of contradictions and their solutions.

In this article, Grady argues that materialists who deny that tragedy has a universal meaning go too far. Materialists have denied the view that tragedy has an unchanging and static form because such as view smacks of right wing conservative political views. Materialists, by definition, espouse left wing Marxist political views. Materialists who deny tragedy’s universal significance, argues Grady, do disservices to the Left, as it surrenders the art of tragedy to the Right. If materialists can allow that tragedy from Aeschylus to O’Neill has a universal function, the Left can wrest the discourse of tragedy back from the Right. Underlying Grady’s view is the belief that materialist thought can decode tragedy’s secrets:

Materialist thought, I believe, if it is redirected, is a major, probably the major vehicle through which to rethink tragedy for the twenty-first century.

If tragedy does not have a universal significance, it at least appears to have a transhistorical dimension: it springs up in fifth century Athens, in the English Renaissance, in the neoclassical French writers, the German romantics, and finally arrived in America with Miller and O’Neill. How can materialism, which denies tragedy’s universal significance, take into account tragedy’s transhistorical dimension? Grady grapples with this question in this article.

Look to Hegel

If Marx’ struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is Hegel made political, then perhaps there is also some kind of universal, transhistorical, and Hegelian dynamic at play in tragedy. Or so Grady argues. Grady finds this dynamic in tragedy in the collision between two problematic forms of rationality. Hegel’s model of synthesis and antithesis provides the bridge for the Left to incorporate tragedy’s transhistorical dimension into a new theory or materialism.

Grady illustrates Hegelian dialectic at work in tragedy through Shakespeare’s King Lear:

The play seems to follow a more Hegelian pattern, posing two problematic forms of rationality against each other, enacting the defeat of tradition by modernizing instrumental reason, only to show the subsequent collapse of instrumental reason. At the end of King Lear, especially, the audience is teased, made to imagine hope and despair, as Cordelia and Lear appear now to have lived, now to have died. The space is created for a new form of rationality, which would be neither of the other two. But the space is, as it were, blank, not filled in, symbolized but not enunciated in discourse. In short, the dialectic is a negative one, never arriving at a final synthesis, but certainly going beyond its two previous stages.

To Grady, when this Hegelian dialectic plays out at critical junctures in history, tragedy becomes possible. In fifth century Athens, as mythos (stories) gave way to logos (rhetoric), tragedy became possible. In the English Renaissance, as instrumental reason was replacing the Great Chain of Being, tragedy became possible.

Grady’s argument here is of interest, as he arrives at roughly Nietzsche’s position on the birth of tragedy through Hegel, an avenue that Nietzsche would not have taken. It appears in scholarship that you can arrive to the same place by different avenues.

Materialist Thought and Tragedy

For Grady, tragedy arises during a cultural and political changing of the guard. In fifth century Athens, traditional wisdom was giving way to logic and rhetoric. In Renaissance England, feudalism was giving way to modernity. And in our own time, religion is giving way to a post-religious society.

When this cultural sea change occurs, the definition of good and evil is blurred. In a materialist interpretation, tragedy, says Grady, helps us “to assess and understand good and evil in a post-traditional world.” Tragedy, in materialist thought, dramatizes how difficult it is to stand upon the firm ground of good and evil, right and wrong. By problematizing morality, tragedy invites us to ponder how societal changes impact traditional moralities. When we revaluate all values, tragedy is there, dramatizing, in a Hegelian dialectic, the struggle between old and new.

First Question for Bushnell

This Blackwell edition, being a guide for students and available “on the desk of every reference librarian at the college and university level” would surely present a balanced perspective to students? So far, the book chapters have been left leaning. Grady’s article, for example, debunks right wing perspectives. But the attacks are directed to a book over a hundred years old and already falling into discredit by the 1950s. I would be interested in seeing a more balanced perspective, with some contrasting viewpoints of tragedy from the right. My question for Bushnell: why does this companion to tragedy give voice to the left and not the right?

First Question for Grady

Grady shows how materialism offers a superior way of looking at tragedy and debunks conservative points of view. On the materialist side he primarily cites: Michel Foucault (The Order of Things 1966), Raymond Williams (Modern Tragedy 1966), Jonathan Dollimore (Radical Tragedy 1989), and Terry Eagleton (Sweet Violence 2003). On the conservative side, he has A. C. Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy 1904) and E. M. W. Tillyard (no specific work, but was active in the 1940s and 50s). The conservatives hold that tragic heroes, because human nature is everlasting and unchanging, fall victim, over and over again, to an equally everlasting and unchanging idea of evil. When heroes go to the dark side, they upset the play’s internal moral order.

The materialist view denies all this because, first of all, human behaviour is a product of social structure. Nurture over nature. Because human behaviour is a product of society, evil likewise, far from being fixed, changes over time. What is more, tragedies, argues Grady, dramatize the changing of the guard, insofar as moral orders are concerned. The two great flowerings of tragedy (5th century Athens and Renaissance England) both occur in ages where one moral code was giving way to the next.

My first question for Grady: why not pit Eagleton and the other materialists against more recent conservative adversaries? Grady pits Foucault (1966), Williams (1966), Dollimore (1989), and Eagleton (2003) against E. M. W Tillyard (who, as he admits, does not directly write about tragedy) and A. C. Bradley, a bag of bones who wrote Shakespearean Tragedy in 1904. The tale of the tape shows a heavyweight pitted against a dead guy. I mean, who’s going to win? And, if more recent conservative critics are nowhere to be found, then the question becomes: is the bogeyman of conservative criticism is a straw man?

Second Question for Grady

To Grady, tragedy is about morality. If you’re on the left, tragedy dramatizes the clash between socially constructed moral values (the correct view). If you’re on the right, tragedy dramatizes the clash between everlasting and metaphysical moral values (the incorrect view, as good and evil are transient social constructs). If you don’t believe tragedy is about morality, you don’t get it. Chaucer, for example, writes that tragedy dramatizes “the fickleness of fortune” in the world. Chaucer, according to Grady, doesn’t get tragedy because the medieval world had separated common human experience from the misfortune of the great. I would trust, however, the instincts of Chaucer–a preeminent artist–over the instincts of an academic. Perhaps Chaucer “gets” tragedy and it is the academics who do not “get” it?

My second question for Grady is: what if tragedy is not about morality? What if both the right and the left are mistaken? What if there’s a new paradigm?–instead of morality, risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action in tragedy. This is the point I argue in my 2019 book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected.

In my reading, each dramatic act of tragedy is a gambling act. Tragedy makes risk palpable. By the high stakes action, heroes trigger unexpected outcomes. By dramatizing low-probability, high-consequence outcomes, tragedy is a theatre of risk. This theatre of risk entertains by showcasing the impact of the highly improbable. These risk acts can be good or bad, but the point is not that they are good or evil, but that they are high risk gambles that trigger unexpected outcomes.

Tragedy has long been an intersection point for human intention and chance outcomes. For some reason, scholars have passed this over. When Chaucer and others point to chance, they are pooh-poohed. Let’s see what the tragedies actually say. In the ending to many of Euripides’ plays, Euripides has the chorus tell the audience that the point of tragedy is to dramatize the unexpected. Take the ending of Bacchae:

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. Such was the outcome of this story.

Then compare this to Chaucer’s understanding of tragedy, taken from the Monk’s tale of the tragedy of Croesus:

Thus hanged at last was Croesus the proud king,

His royal throne to him of no avail.

Tragedy is no other kind of thing,

Nor can lament in singing nor bewail,

Except that Fortune ever will assail

With unexpected stroke the realms that are proud;

For when men trust in her, then will she fail

And cover up her bright face with a cloud.

And then look at the ending of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as Horatio sums up the action:

And let me speak to th’ yet unknowing world

How these things came about. So shall you hear

Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,

Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,

Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,

And, in this upshot, purposes mistook

Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads. All this can I

Truly deliver.

Professors and philosophers enjoy looking at moral issues. But playwrights are not professors and philosophers. Playwrights, I think, are primarily concerned with writing an exciting play. And risk, rather than morality, is the dramatic fulcrum because risk is inherently dramatic. Risk is inherently dramatic because it triggers the unexpected ending. As we can see from the passages from as varied sources as Euripides, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, risk and the unexpected is a cornerstone of tragic writing.

Are playwrights thinking about risk and exciting plays, or are they thinking about the Hegelian dialectic and how instrumental reason clashes with tradition as they write their plays? Risk theatre, I think, presents a new and welcome apolitical and amoral interpretation of tragedy, and one grounded in the process of playwriting, which, first and foremost, strives to create a captivating play that has the audience on the edge of the seat.

Third Question for Grady (and also Raymond Williams)

Grady writes:

Tragedy is a concept that has been falsely universalized over and over in its long critical history, both in its guise of designating a particular set of perceptions and feelings and in naming a literary genre of differing times and places. Raymond Williams eloquently wrote on this issue, “Tragedy is … not a single and permanent kind of fact, but a series of experiences and conventions and institutions.”

My question for Grady (and Williams), is whether they would say the same thing about comedy, philosophy, and history. Like tragedy, these three other genres also came to us from ancient Greece. Certainly tragedy, comedy, history, and philosophy are products of the time: English Renaissance tragedy is not modern tragedy. But when authors write comedy, philosophy, history, or tragedy, do they not take part in the conversation and tradition of that genre as well? If there is nothing universal about tragedy, how could, say, Anouilh rewrite Oedipus (The Infernal Machine) in the twentieth century? Just as comedy is about laughs and the us/them mentality, philosophy is about categorizing and understanding nature with the categories of the mind, and history is an inquiry into an event, it strikes me that one should be able to look at tragedy from Aeschylus to O’Neill and identify a common denominator because we identify all these works as tragedy.

Grady proposes a solution: “Tragedy, we might say, is universal in its exploration of human suffering.” But, what if, instead, a more primary consideration is that tragedy is universal in its exploration of downside risk? The suffering is secondary, and risk is primary. Most playwrights (unless it is Howard Barker) do not start by saying: “I want to make characters suffer,” but rather “I want to thrill audiences by dramatizing the impact of downside risk, of how, when the hero least expects, Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane Hill.” Risk is primary; suffering is secondary.

Fourth Question for Grady

Grady debunks the notion that tragedy presents a moral world order by drawing attention to Nietzsche:

Tragedy reveals the disorder inherent in human nature underneath the ego’s Apollonian appearances. This is particularly true of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, with its critique of Apollonian rationality and its assertion of the reality of power and desire.

Nietzsche did not give priority to either the order affirming Apollonian or the order denying Dionysian: both are parts of a larger whole. So, I would ask Grady why he gives priority to Nietzsche’s Dionysian over the Apollonian. Both the Apollonian and the Dionysian are world orders, albeit incomplete. It is in their clash that the true nature of reality emerges.

Fifth Question for Grady

Grady see tragedy as the product of colliding and problematic rationalities. When a newfangled instrumental reason collides with traditional reason, tragedy emerges. Grady argues that tragedy was popular in fifth century Athens and Renaissance England because, in both these time periods, a new instrumental reason was displacing the old traditions (in Athens it was the rise of rhetoric and in Renaissance England the possibility of post-religious society).

My question to Grady: if it is true that tragedy arises during a societal changing of the guard, then why, in the 2600 years from the origin of tragedy to today we only have two great flowerings of tragedy? Is Grady’s theory of tragedy statistically robust? Perhaps it is if in the last 2600 years there has only been two major paradigm shifts. That cannot be true by any stretch of the imagination. For Grady’s argument to hold, he would also have to explain why, during other sea changes in society–of which there have been many in the last two millennia–tragedy did not arise.

First Question for Bradley and Tillyard

Grady writes that it was supposed that Shakespeare was a traditionalist since Bradley and Tillyard demonstrated that the malicious characters in Jacobean tragedy practised instrumental reason, the rationality of the voices clamouring for change. My question for Bradley and Tillyard: why is it that we must fight over the classics to own them and control them? This scholarly wrangling reminds of how, back in the old day they used to fight over the bodies of the saints. By possessing such artifacts, the possessors could benefit themselves and hinder enemies. Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus, for example, dramatizes the fight over Oedipus’ corpse.

Scholars fight over the right to claim the classic texts. While most of us no longer fight over saints’ bones and ancient relics, it surprises me, in this so-called enlightened age, how we continue the same sort of behaviour fighting over the classics like they were the bones of old saints. Playwrights, most of the time, are thinking: “How can I create an entertaining play that will thrill all sorts of audiences?” rather than “How can I demonstrate the superiority of traditional or avant-garde rationalities?” Scholars, by ascribing traditionalist or liberal viewpoints to playwrights, turn playwrights into versions of themselves.

A playwright who makes risk the fulcrum of the action is not a priest who makes morality the fulcrum of the action. And a playwright who presents fruitfully ambiguous points of view is not an academic who breaks down these viewpoints into definitive for/against positions (which often coincide with their own views). Playwrights are, first and foremost, entertainers. They are aiming to tell a good story, that is all.

First Question for Raymond Williams

Scholars have questioned why tragedy could not arise in the Middle Ages, but had to wait until the early modern period of Shakespeare’s time. They frequently cite the Monk’s tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to support how people just didn’t get tragedy in the Middle Ages.

In this article, Grady talks about how tragedy critic Williams explains the failure of tragedy to emerge in the Middle Ages and the emergence of tragedy in the early modern period. Grady quotes Williams as saying: “The dissolution of the feudal world allows tragedy to reunite what the medieval era had separated, common human misfortune and the misfortune of the great.”

I just happen to be reading the quintessential work of literature in the Middle Ages: the very same Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. And, as if by some coincidence, the same day I was reading the passage from Williams, I read this passage from the Knight’s tale:

Thus man and woman also, foe and friend,

In either term, in youth or else in age,

Must die, the king as truly as the page;

One in his bed, and one in the deep sea,

One in their open field, their ends agree.

There is no help; we go the common way.

All things must die, it is but truth to say.

It cannot profit any soul alive

Against this everlasting law to strive.

Having read this passage in the Knight’s tale, I would like to ask Williams who his authority is that says in the Middle Ages that common human misfortune is in a different category than the suffering of the masters of the universe.

Author Blurb

Hugh Grady is Professor of English at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania. He is author of The Modernist Shakespeare: Critical Texts in a Material World (1991), Shakespeare’s Universal Wolf: Studies in Early Modern Reification (1996), and Shakespeare Machiavelli and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from “Richard II” to “Hamlet” (2002). He is editor of Shakespeare and Modernity: From Early Modern to Millennium (2000) and co-editor (with Terence Hawkes) of Presentist Shakespeares (2007). His newest book is Shakespeare and Impure Aesthetics (2009).

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

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