Tag Archives: Corneille

Tragic Epochs

Flowerings of Tragedy

Tragedy is one of those arts which comes and goes. This post takes a look at tragic epochs of the past–that is to say, periods in which the art form of tragedy flourished–to see if they share some sort of common denominator. Some art forms have an unbroken lineage. Take sculpture or painting. One would be hard pressed to find a period in which these activities were not going on. The practise of other art forms such as history, philosophy, and comedy appear to be relatively continuous as well. Take philosophy, for example. From its beginnings in the 6th century BC, you had Thales and Heraclitus. The 5th century saw Socrates and Plato. The 4th Aristotle. The 3rd Zeno and Epicurus. Carneades in the 2nd. Lucretius and Cicero in the 1st. Seneca on the other side of the 1st. And so on. Tragedy is completely different. Tragic epochs seem to flower into a lush bloom and then die out just as fast.

Tragic Epochs

The list starts with the big three in the 5th century BC: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Although tragedies continued after the 5th century, it’s not until the 1st century AD that they really come back with Seneca. Around the time of Seneca the emperor Augustus and the orator Maternus also worked on tragedies, though they do not survive. If that gap of almost 500 years seems long, the next of the tragic epochs doesn’t dawn until 16th century Elizabethan England. Here you had luminaries such as Kyd, Webster, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson. Again, probably a 50 or so year flowering. In the 17th century across the Channel France could boast Corneille and Racine, who provided a temporary home for the spirit of tragedy. The next of the tragic epochs is not until the late 18th century in Germany (who actually thought they were Greeks with Classicism in full swing): Goethe, Schiller, Holderlin, and others. From there, the torch goes north to the Scandinavian countries in the 19th century with Ibsen and Strindberg. And in the 20th, it’s been the American century with the likes of O’Neill and Miller.

That’s seven tragic epochs in the last 1500 or so years.

The End of Tragic Epochs

Goethe, in his conversations with Eckermann, once mused on the death of tragedy. It had occurred to him as well that tragedy flowers just as quickly as it dies. His thought was that the big three of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides had written so many that there was little left to say. Goethe was thinking more about 5th century Athens than the whole history of tragedy up to his day, though. I like this explanation. Although only thirty of so tragedies by the big three survive to this day, they had actually written hundred. At the City Dionysia each year, three dramatists would be expected to produce three plays each. Tragedy usually takes its stories from myth, so there’s only so many ways you can spin the stories. Think of Hollywood and how it ‘reboots’ movie franchises. Right now at the theatres they.re playing Terminator Genisys. There’s only so many ways you can spin the story of a time travelling robot who says, ‘I’ll be back’. But yes, I probably will rent this when the library gets it…

Goethe’s explanation works for 5th century Athens. But what about Elizabethan or Jacobean England?–there they were not limited to myth. They could use history (e.g. Macbeth) or legend (e.g. King Lear) as well. To answer that, let’s go and see how tragic epochs begin.

The Birth of Tragic Epochs

Now to find a common theme in the tragic epochs. Empire perhaps? 5th century century saw the rise and fall of the Athenian Empire. Seneca was writing in imperial Rome. Elizabethan England saw the arms race with Spain end with the destruction of the Spanish Armada. France was busy colonizing the New World during the time French Classical drama was being written. Germany during the time of Schiller and Goethe, while not a military powerhouse (too fragmented and Napoleon too powerful riding around in his red cape), was a cultural powerhouse boasting the likes of Kant, Hegel, Beethoven and others. The thesis does not work very well for Ibsen and Strindberg though. But it does for Miller and O’Neill, who were writing in the ‘American Century’.

So far, the argument seems to suggest that tragedy is involved with the study of power. Kings and queens have traditionally been the subject of tragedy. Common people are more generally found in comedy. Another thing about this period is that people were generally doing well. This suggests that tragedy flourishes when people are flourishing: the ability to stomach tragedy is a sort of luxury. When tragedy is too close, it is not welcome: Phrynicus staged the tragedy The Fall of Miletus shortly after the Persians sacked the allied city in 494 BC. He was fined for reminding the Athenians of their sorrows. More recently, films which had or were perceived to contain elements too close for comfort after the 9/11 attacks were either delayed or modified. You can write a tragedy about the Black Plague, but not during the Black Plague.

Because tragedy is about choice and paying the price (hence the title of my book will be Paying Melpomene’s Price), tragedy can also be an exploration of the consequences of action during times of upheaval. Sophocles’ Antigone can be interpreted as an exploration of the rights of the state versus the rights of the individual and the price the protagonists pay to make their point. When Anouilh produced his Antigone in occupied France during WWII, his treatment of choice and the horrible consequences of paying the price for choosing were such that both the Nazis and the Free French enthusiastically applauded the performance: the Nazis for Creon and the Free French for Antigone.

As a starting point then, perhaps this can be said of the tragic epochs. Tragedy requires a certain minimum standard of living to happen. Generally, things have to be going well (lots of exceptions such as Anouilh). Things have to be going so well that power can become concentrated somehow in such a way that the protagonist has to make a decision that involves some kind of sacrifice. It’s not the sort of decision that a serf can make, because a serf doesn’t have enough to sacrifice. The decision has to have some kind of contemporary significance. So, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House couldn’t be written in a patriarchy. It had to wait for a time of great social change. So here we have it: power, high standard of living, and societal sea change. These are the preconditions of tragic epochs. Agree or disagree?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I am always Doing Melpomene’s Work, even under the sweltering noonday sun when I would rather be doing siesta.

Cinna and the Complex Plot (Corneille)

Within the genre of tragedy there are three sub-genres, one of which is the tragedy in parallel motion. Full details on the other two sub-genres in a future blog, so keep tuning in, diligent readers! What gives away the tragedy in parallel motion is that, in this type of play, many tragedies are all happening simultaneously, or, happening in parallel motion, as it were. Hamlet is a tragedy in parallel motion. There.s the main tragedy, that of Hamlet. And then there.s the stories of Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Claudius, and Laertes which play out in parallel to the main event. King Lear is also of this type where the tragedy of Gloucester plays out alongside Lear.s downfall. Cinna, by Pierre Corneille, is an exceptionally fine example of tragedy in parallel motion because, unlike Lear and Hamlet, Corneille gives each of the four main characters (Augustus, Cinna, Emilia, and Maximus) equal weight. In this sense, they are like four planets of equal mass revolving in parallel motion around a common centre of gravity. In the other examples, the motions are more lopsided than parallel as Hamlet and Lear have much more mass than the shadow tragedies playing in the proximate background.

As usual, I.m reading from a mighty Penguin edition with a detail from The Knight and his Page translated by super duper John Cairncross:


Here.s the back blurb with shout line and author introduction:

‘You suffer by the death of such a man. Avenge it by another’s, blood for blood’

The three plays in this volume demonstrate the full range of Corneille’s dramatic genius, from tragi-comedy and political drama to exuberant fantasy. The Cid (1636), his masterpiece set in medieval Spain, depicts a young knight torn between his duty to avenge his wronged father and his love for the daughter of a sworn enemy. Portraying a Roman nobleman’s plot to kill the tyrannical Emperor Augustus, Cinna (1640) reflect events in seventeenth-century France as Cardinal Richelieu moved to establish Louis XIII as its absolute ruler. And in the highly unusual comedy, The Theatrical Illusion (1636), a magician reassures a despairing father that his long-lost son is still alive–and proceeds to conjure up the young man’s amorous adventures in an elaborate play within a play.

John Cairncross’s clear, vibrant translation is accompanied by an introduction discussing the ways in which Corneille explored concepts of free will and inner conflict in his works. This edition also includes a bibliography, notes and separate prefaces and summaries for each play.

If The Cid ‘bursts but once upon the world / And their first blow displays their mastery’, Cinna, produced four years after The Cid, makes up in form, structure, and polish what The Cid had in elemental force. Dismayed at the reaction of Cardinal Richelieu and the French Academy’s criticism of the structure of The Cid, Corneille composed Cinna in response. Cinna is more perfect in the same way as corporate rock bands in the 70s were ‘more perfect’ than the 60s experiments in sound. I.m thinking of bands like Boston and Journey: heavily produced, formulaic songs, and catchy tunes meant for the radio. Not that these are bad things. Between you and me, I think Journey is the best (who doesn.t sing along to Wheel in the Sky, Don.t Stop Believing or Faithfully?). Listening to them always reminds me of dimly lit bars with the smell of smoke and cheap perfume in the air. For the same reason Cinna is good in the way corporate rock can be good, Cinna can also be criticized for being lacking the same way corporate rock is lacking: ie that last iota of creativity.

What I want to share with you today, however, is just how professionally Cinna is put together. It.s creativity is hidden in its structure, in how it all meshes together. While the characters aren.t as memorable as the Cid, the structure is put together with the finest joinery. There are four main characters: Augustus, Cinna, Emilia, and Maximus. As if to demonstrate the futility of expectation, they are only allowed to misjudge one another’s motives. Accordingly, the play jumps from one unintended consequence to the next, ultimately demanding the most unintended of all consequences to bring the freight train of chance judgments to standstill. Augustus is mistaken about his adopted daughter. He thinks by heaping gifts on Emilia, she will forgive him for the loss of her father (whom he had proscribed). He is mistaken. She retains Cinna to avenge her father. He is mistaken about Livia. He believes his wife loves the crown and not the man. He is mistaken about his trusted lieutenants. By heaping honours upon them, he thinks to secure their loyalty. Far from gratitude, Cinna and Maximus plot treason. That he gives means to those who would bring about his fall and cannot listen to those who care for him are the unintended consequences of Augustus’ actions.

Next is Cinna. He trusts Maximus, his friend and fellow conspirator. He is mistaken. When Maximus discovers Cinna is romancing Emilia, he betrays the conspiracy in a jealous fit to do away with his rival. Regarding Emilia, Cinna is doubly mistaken, once before the conspiracy is exposed and again afterwards. Before the conspiracy is exposed, Augustus summons Cinna and asks him whether he should restore the republican government. Surprised that the question should come up at this time, Cinna advises him to hold onto empire, putting himself into an ethical quandary as he advocates the very thing that justifies the conspirators. His position baffles Maximus–why risk the assassination attempt when Augustus is ready to stand down? What Maximus does not know–not yet, at least–is that Emilia has bound Cinna by an oath to bring Augustus down; the conspiracy is merely a pretext for revenge. As the ethical quandary gives Cinna second thought about the attempt, he goes to Emilia seeking understanding. Instead of understanding, he finds her heart hardened against him. After the conspiracy is exposed, Emilia once again baffles expectations. Having discovered the plot, Augustus passes sentence on Cinna. Cinna is prepared to die. Though a capital crime, the tradition of restoring republican governments was honoured in the hearts of Roman patriots. He would die with honour. At the last second, however, Emilia storms in, revealing that he had done it all to win her hand. Her revelation takes away the argument that his actions were borne out of a moral duty to Rome. That he loses himself and all he holds dear in the pursuit of happiness is the unintended consequence of Cinna’s actions.

Then there is Maximus.  He trusts that Cinna has led them into a dangerous undertaking in the name of liberty.  He is mistaken.  The conspiracy was formed so that Emilia could avenge her father.  He is also mistaken when it comes to Emilia.  Having found out the underlying reason why Cinna wanted to assassinate Augustus, he comes up with a plan: by feigning his death and exposing the conspiracy to Augustus, he could do away with Cinna and whisk Emilia away in safety.  He could not foresee, however, that Emilia would prefer to die with honour than to live in shame.  That he reveals himself to be a jealous imbecile is the unintended consequence of Maximus’ actions.

Finally there is Emilia.  She is the spoiler, more erred against the erring.  But even she could not foresee the clemency of Augustus.  In revealing her role in fomenting treason, she had anticipated a capital sentence from her stepfather.  The failure to anticipate the clemency of Augustus is a miscalculation she shares with Cinna and Maximus.  But her miscalculation is the play’s keystone.  While Augustus was more than ready to sentence Cinna and Maximus according to expectation, his stepdaughter’s confession stops him in his tracks.  That Augustus restores Maximus, raises Cinna, and blesses Emilia and Cinna’s marriage is the unintended consequence of Emilia’s actions.  With the clemency of Augustus, there are no more unintended consequences as the enigmatic portrait of empire is complete. Empire is a form of state wherein absolute clemency buys absolute power. The beauty of Cinna is that each of the unintended consequences propels the play towards the most unintended of all consequences: that treason would be rewarded with clemency. The human face of empire.

There you have it diligent readers! And if you made it to the end of the blog you really are a diligent reader! One surprising thing about the wonderful Greater Victoria Public Library (GVPL) that I learned today. I was finishing parts of today.s blog there and needed to sneak a peak at Cinna. Easy, right?–I.m at the main branch. That.s true, I found a copy. But did you know that in the whole library there.s only one copy of a translation of Corneille? I would have thought there would have been multiple copies, you know, maybe not a copy at each of the regional branches but there would be more than one copy for all the, what, seven or eight branches of the GVPL! Perhaps a sign that not everyone these days is into Melpomene’s work. But hey, I am! And until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I will be Doing Melpomene’s Work.