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MODERN TRAGEDY

Raymond Williams
(1921-1988)

Raymond Williams was one of Britain’s


greatest post-war cultural historians,
theorists and polemicists. He was a
distinguished literary and social thinker
and was concerned to understand literature
and related cultural forms not as the
outcome of an isolated aesthetic adventure,
but as the manifestation of a deeply social
process that involved a series of complex
relationships between authorial ideology,
institutional process, and
generic/aesthetic form. He was the author
of many works; most notable among them is
“Modern Tragedy”.
Fredric Jameson

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LIFE AND WORKS OF RAYMOND WILLIAMS
Raymond Williams was born into a working-class family in Pandy, a village on 31
August 1921, in the parish of Llanfihangel, in Monmouthshire, Wales, and was educated
at Abergavenny Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge. He became a member
of the Communist Party in his first year as an undergraduate and collaborated with Eric
Hobsbawm—an undergraduate contemporary —in writing a pamphlet in defence of the
Russian invasion of Finland. Two undergraduate years at Cambridge were followed by
conscription into the British Army in 1941, active service as a tank officer during the
Allied invasion of Europe, and a further undergraduate year at Cambridge when the war
was over. After a short period spent editing small-circulation magazines in London, he
settled first in Sussex and later in Oxford as a salaried lecturer for the Oxford Extra-
Mural Delegacy (Oxford’s organization for adult education), expounding for the benefit
of (putatively) working-class audiences that trust in culture and mistrust of capitalism,
and that belief in D. H. Lawrence which some Marxists and ex-Marxists shared with the
followers of F. R. Leavis.
On joining the army, Williams seems to have lost touch with the Communist Party.
Later he became a supporter of the Labour Party, but appears for a long time to have
been interested less in the political than in the cultural objections to capitalism. After the
Labour victory at the general election of 1966, he resigned from the Labour Party in
protest against the elitist cynicism or ruling-class character of Mr. Harold Wilson’s
leadership. In spite of resuming support for Labour later, he then became one of the half
dozen or so freestanding Marxists who fostered the analytical outrage with which the
English New Left and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament have embarrassed the
Labour leaders, eased Mrs. Thatcher’s way electorally, and made the Labour Party as
unelectable as like-minded Democrats have made successive Democratic presidential
candidates in the United States.
From an early stage, Williams wanted to be a writer rather than a don and a
novelist as well as a critic and from his first period in Cambridge was a journalist and
public speaker. Public speaking and small-circulation journalism remained with him for
the rest of his life, along with an interest in film and television, while Border Country
(1960)—his first and only tolerable novel—gave confusing insights into what he was
trying to say morally and politically.
Border Country gave a low-keyed account of relations between a father and a son.
Though it dealt with politics, it was dominated not by politics but by gratitude, nostalgia,
and death, and by its account of the idyllic solidarity of a rural Welsh village. The novel
resisted the idea that the meritocratic son or the entrepreneurial trade unionist was better
than the dying railway man, and there was an anti-intellectual implication that a natural,
unreconstructed, conservative way of life was more real than the academic way of life,
which the son had adopted.
Border Country, though published later, was written at the same time as Kingsley
Amis’s Lucky Jim, which dealt with the academic problem from the academic end. But
Amis had no experience he was willing to disclose in order to match the experience that
Williams disclosed in Border Country, no yardstick except a satiric yardstick with which
to compare a farcical university with the University of Oxford, and no more interest in
explaining what he had learned from his mandarin education in Oxford than Williams
had, as a novelist, in explaining what he had learned from his mandarin education in
Cambridge.
In 1961 Williams returned to Cambridge for a third time, now as a lecturer (later a
professor) in the Faculty of English. At the same time he became a fellow of Jesus
College, to which he was brought by M. I. Finley, the American Marxist historian, who

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was a fellow of the college already. In a similar way, Williams himself was later to bring
Eagleton, who, in five works published in his twenties in the atmosphere of Vatican II,
expounded a liberationist Catholicism which, though it looked to “Marxist, Third-World,
Black-power and Hippie intensity” for help in converting “monopoly capitalism” into a
“just community,” stood in contradiction to Williams’s irreligion.
In a review of works by Eagleton and his collaborators in 1966, Williams gave a
mistrustful welcome to “radical Catholicism”’s attempt to “find Christ in the world.” But
nothing in the review or the rest of his writings suggests any interest in Christ or any
wish to relate Christianity to the “civilized paganism” with which he half-identified
himself then.
In Williams’s writings religion scarcely existed and it was a central principle that a
“common language” was more important than a “common faith.” At no point did he
consider religion in its own terms, certainly not in The Long Revolution (1961), where it
would have given backbone to boneless arguments, in The Country and the City (1973),
where the Church of England would have been of central significance, or in Culture and
Society, where many of the thinkers discussed were obsessed by Christianity.
Williams’s mind was historical and meditative rather than theoretical; such
standing as he had as a theorist derived from Marxism and Literature, in which he woke
up to the fact that Lukacs, Gramsci, Plekhanov, Goldmann, Althusser, Benjamin, Barthes,
Chomsky, Brechet, and Sartre (among others) had created a cultural Marxism, and that
the amalgamation of linguistics, semiology, and Freudian psychology into “cultural
materialism” had liberated Marxism from the “deformations” associated with Stalinist
practice.
Marxism and Literature denied that Marxism was reductive, or that Marx and
Engels had had a rigid belief in a base/superstructure model of culture. It underscored
their emphasis on “creation and self-creation,” questioned the idea that they had made a
simple equation of the “social” with the “collective,” and argued that Marxism could
overcome the “reified” or “abstracted … psychological” conception of determination”
which was said to have been forced on it by capitalist society.
What this meant was that thought and culture were to be understood not as
“distortion” or “disguise” but as a Gramscian “hegemony” which “saturated the whole
process of living” and came to exist “in the fibres of the self.” This was important,
however obscurely expressed, because it suggested that theory could develop a “general
consciousness within what was experienced as an isolated consciousness,” and that
“tradition,” which orthodox Marxism had normally dismissed as “super structural,”
could now be seen to have been “the most evident” or “shaping expression” of
“hegemonic pressures and limits.” In other words, that “theory” could be exonerated
from the charge of being ineffectual and could meet the perennial Marxist demand for
criticism that would “change the world.”
In the 1970s Williams was catching up—doing to Marxism what others had been
doing in the 1950s and 1960s and what Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, and many others had
been doing to Christianity between 1840 and 1880—ridding it of features that made it
unacceptable to the modern mind. But just as Carlyle, Arnold, and other fellow-labourers
had thrown out so much of dogmatic Christianity that nothing distinctively Christian
was left, so Marxism and Literature threw out so much of dogmatic Marxism that what
was left was either vacuous and banal or not distinctively Marxist.
In this connection, there is no need for conservative thought to be afraid of Marxism
or to fail to turn its insights to advantage. To take only one example, the idea of
hegemony—even of class hegemony as an element in culture—can be deeply
illuminating so long as it is understood that hegemony, though distressing for those who
wish to have hegemonic authority but are excluded from it, is necessary in the modern

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world not only in the interests of peace and stability but also, where historic liberties and
equalities have been established, in the interests of liberty and equality.
Williams was too limp a thinker to understand this as either a Marxist or a
conservative truth, and wobbled uneasily between wishing to protect intellectual
autonomy within a Marxist or socialist consciousness and accepting Mao Tse Tung’s
vision of writers being absorbed into “new kinds of popular … collaborative writing.” So
much so that the more closely one looks at Marxism and Literature, the more difficult it
is to see what was left of Marxism, beyond the name, once Williams’s “complexities …
tensions … shifts … uncertainties and confusions” had been applied to it as Carlyle and
Arnold had applied theirs to Christianity.
If Marxism and Literature lacked bite and edge, it also carried Williams out of his
depth. He had been much more in his depth in discussing the English situation that had
led up to Culture and Society twenty years earlier. In Culture and Society, English
society had been the victim of the cultural corruption of which Leavis had made himself
the enemy, industrial society had been the enemy of both culture and community, and
the English language—the only real guarantor of community—was being emasculated
by the class-oriented imposition of Standard English. Culture and Society took the form
of critical exposition of the social doctrine that Williams found in approximately fifty
British thinkers since Burke, and in making his critical dispositions he worked with three
conceptions. First, that English society before the eighteenth century had been “organic,”
however defective it had been in humanity; second, that the English thinkers with whom
it dealt had been reacting primarily to the upheaval created by industrialization and
democracy; and, finally, that “culture” had provided these thinkers with a “court of
appeal” and a “scale of integrity” for evaluating the “way of life” and “driven impulse”
of the new kind of society that had been “reaching for control.” Burke and Southey from
one side, and Owen and Cobbett from the other, were shown writing from their
experience of “the old England” in criticism of the new. “One kind of conservative
thinker” and “one kind of socialist thinker” were shown uniting subsequently to criticize
laissez-faire ideology by reference to the life of society as a whole, and “organic” was
declared to be a central term through which “Marxist thinking” and “conservative
thinking” could identify “liberalism” as the common enemy in the 1960s. It was hardly
surprising, in these circumstances, that William Morris was said to be “pivotal,” since he,
more than anyone else—according to Williams—had found a political role for art and
culture in contrasting with established forms of life the possibility of an alternative form
of life in the future.
In the closing pages of Culture and Society Williams made the first widely read
statement of his political opinions, defending a “democratic attitude” against “fear and
hatred” and inserting into the aging socialism of the 1950s a Luddite or Leavisite version
of the resentments of the 1930s. Williams did not have to invent for himself the working-
class persona which public-school Marxists like Auden and Spender (or an alienated
Etonian like Orwell) had had to invent for themselves twenty-five years earlier, and he
was thus in a better position to write sympathetically about the “ethic of service” and
“real personal selflessness” which had been inculcated by the public schools, the
professions, and the regular army. On the other hand, he attacked the scholarship
“ladder” which working-class boys like himself had been able to “climb,” denouncing it
not only because it “sweetened the poison of hierarchy” but also because it pretended
that the “hierarchy of birth and merit” was different from the “hierarchy of birth and
wealth,” when in fact both were hierarchies (or elites) that were diminishing
“community” and obstructing the “effort” that “every man” ought to make to value his
own skill and the “skill of others.”
In Culture and Society Williams did not advocate violent revolution, which it
would have been ridiculous to do in England in 1958. What he said instead was that

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democracy was “in danger,” that there was a “sullenness” and “withdrawal” which
would end in the “unofficial democracy” of the “armed revolt” if they were not dealt
with, and that the only way to deal with them was to deprive newspapers, television,
cinema, and radio of the “dominative character” that was enabling the “insincerity of a
minority” bent on protecting its own culture and power to persuade the masses to “act,
think and know as it wished them to.”
About equality Culture and Society was vague. “A common culture” was not “at
any level an equal culture,” there was no need for equality in “knowledge, skill and
effort,” since “a physicist would be glad to learn from a better physicist” and “a good
physicist” would not think himself “a better man than a good composer … chess player
… carpenter or runner.” Equality was nevertheless crucial, and societies from which it
was missing were said not only to “depersonalize … and degrade” but also— as though
Japan had never existed—to raise “structures of cruelty and exploitation” that “crippled
human energy.”
Williams was a class warrior as surely as Orwell had been. He had Orwell’s sense
of complexity, and also Orwell’s mistrust of panaceas. In the discouraging circumstances
of 1958, his virtuous but self-defeating conclusions were that freedom was
“unplannable,” that the “human crisis” was always a “crisis of understanding,” and that
culture was a “natural growth” which could only be achieved by comprehending the
“long revolution” that had been going on since the eighteenth century “at a level of meaning
which it was not easy to reach.”
Culture and Society supplied a historical and theoretical basis from which The
Long Revolution vacuously, Communications (1962) piously, and the May Day
Manifesto of 1967 politically, deduced policy conclusions about the ways in which public
ownership and control could make the media minister to a common culture. These did
not, however, expand the structure that Culture and Society had established. It was only
in Modern Tragedy that expansion was effected.
Like Culture and Society, Modern Tragedy discussed texts—the main tragic texts
and texts about tragic theory that had been written in Europe and the United States since
Ibsen—and extracted from them a political message about the inadequacy of
individuation and about the desirability of revolution.
Modern Tragedy was written in a dense, coded prose. Decoded, it manifests the
confusion between the cultural elite and the people which was a feature of Williams’s
doctrine throughout his work and which became particularly troublesome in this book,
where dramatic and fictional tragedy were presented as realizations of the “shape and set”
of modern “culture,” and the dramatists and novelists who had produced it were assumed
to represent “our” minds and experience.
This thesis was both elitist and anti-elitist, naïve about the prospect of bridging the
gap between the cultural elite and the people but emphasizing the affiliations that kept
Williams, as a member of the former, in conscious empathy with the latter. The effect was
nevertheless odd, implying that Strindberg, Brechet, and Arthur Miller, for example,
were not arcane, and amalgamating the “we” who went to their plays or listened to
Williams’s lectures in Cambridge with the “we” who had been described appreciatively
in Border Country. However deep Williams’s desire was to make “critical
discrimination” relevant to the people among whom he had grown up, moreover, it
neglected the consideration that critical discrimination was in fact a minority activity
which spoke meaningfully only to those who had already heard Leavis’s voice.
John Higgins opines about the personality of Raymond Williams. “Raymond
Williams died in January 1988. The immediate response was overwhelming: progressive
intellectuals throughout the world mourned the passing of one of the foremost socialist
thinkers, intellectuals and cultural activists of the postwar period. In the obituary

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columns of leading newspapers, at conferences and on television, and in the pages of
academic journals, we saw the public mourning of a figure who was, in Patrick
Parrinder's words, `father figure to thousands', who was, for Juliet Mitchell and many
more like her, `an intellectual and moral touchstone'. Who was this remarkable figure
and why should his work continue to hold our interest and attention? We can begin to
answer these questions by looking briefly at the background and career of Britain's most
distinguished socialist thinker on culture of the past forty years”.

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A CRITIQUE OF MODERN TRAGEDY
“Modern Tragedy” by Raymond Henry Williams is a compilation of eleven essays
written on various aspects of tragedy and a play “Koba”. These essays were published
from 1962 to 1964 in various magazines like Kenyon Review, New Left Review, Studies
on the Left, and Critical Quarterly. These essays were published in book form by the title
of “Modern Tragedy” in 1966. The book was thoroughly revised and again published in
1979.
"Modern Tragedy", is perhaps the most important twentieth-century inquiry into
the ideas and ideologies that have influenced the production and analysis of tragedy.
Williams sees tragedy both in terms of literary tradition and in relation to the tragedies of
modern society, of revolution and disorder, and of the experiences of all of us as
individuals.
Like Culture and Society, Modern Tragedy discussed texts—the main tragic texts
and texts about tragic theory that had been written in Europe and the United States since
Ibsen—and extracted from them a political message about the inadequacy of
individuation and about the desirability of revolution.
Modern Tragedy was written in a dense, coded prose. Decoded, it manifests the
confusion between the cultural elite and the people which was a feature of Williams’s
doctrine throughout his work and which became particularly troublesome in this book,
where dramatic and fictional tragedy were presented as realizations of the “shape and
set” of modern “culture,” and the dramatists and novelists who had produced it were
assumed to represent “our” minds and experience.
This thesis was both elitist and anti-elitist, naïve about the prospect of bridging the
gap between the cultural elite and the people but emphasizing the affiliations that kept
Williams, as a member of the former, in conscious empathy with the latter. The effect was
nevertheless odd, implying that Strindberg, Brechet, and Arthur Miller, for example,
were not arcane, and amalgamating the “we” who went to their plays or listened to
Williams’s lectures in Cambridge with the “we” who had been described appreciatively
in Border Country. However deep Williams’s desire was to make “critical
discrimination” relevant to the people among whom he had grown up, moreover, it
neglected the consideration that critical discrimination was in fact a minority activity
which spoke meaningfully only to those who had already heard Leavis’s voice.
“Modern Tragedy” owns three major parts. The first part is about the history and
criticism of ideas regarding tragedy, and follows in some respects, the work attempted in
his famous books Culture and “Society and The Long Revolution”. The second part
follows from “Drama from Ibsen to Eliot”, though the questions raised here are different.
Over four years, Williams gave a series of lectures on Modern Tragedy in the English
faculty at Cambridge, and this second part is a revised version of those lectures. The
third part consists of a play called “Koba” which the writer has been working on
intermittently to the other writings on Tragedy. The literature of ideas and of experience
is a single literature. Tragedy is the most important example of this complex and
necessary unity. So, the writer says, the book is about the connections, in modern
tragedy, between event and experience and idea, and its form is designed at once to
explore and to emphasise these radical connections. The contents of the book are as
follows;
PART ONE: TRAGIC IDEAS
1. Tragedy and Experience.
2. Tragedy and the Tradition.
3. Tragedy and Contemporary Ideas.
4. Tragedy and Revolution.
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5. Continuity (A brief summary of the previous four articles).
PART TWO: MODERN TRAGIC LITERATURE
1. From Hero to Victim: The making of Liberal Tragedy, to Ibsen and Miller.
2. Private Tragedy: Strindberg, O’Neill, Tennessee Williams.
3. Social and Personal Tragedy: Tolstoy and Lawrence.
4. Tragic Deadlock and Stalemate: Chekhov, Pirandello, Ionesco, Beckett.
5. Tragic Resignation and Sacrifice: Eliot and Pasternak.
6. Tragic Despair and Revolt: Camus, Sartre.
7. A Rejection of Tragedy: Brechet.
PART THREE: “KOBA”, A TWO-ACT PLAY
Raymond Williams has prearranged the summary of his book in a short note
entitled “Continuity”, in which he is of the view,
“I began from the gap between tragic theory and tragic experience, and went on
to inquire into the history of the idea of tragedy: and to criticise what I see as a
dominant contemporary ideology. I then argued the relationship between
tragedy and history, and in particular the contemporary relationship between
tragedy and revolution. In the rest of the book (part two) may emphasis will be
different. What I have written about tragedy and revolution is in a sense a
preface to my third part. What I have written more generally, on tragic ideas
and experiences, needs another kind of discussion, of modern tragic literature,
and this is the substance of my second part. The test of what I have argued will
come again there in a quite different form.”
The following three essays are included in the M.A. English Punjab University
Syllabus for Critical Study:
1. Tragedy and the Tradition (Essay No.2 of Part-I)
2. Tragedy and Contemporary Ideas (Essay No. 3 of Part-I)
3. A Rejection of Tragedy: Brechet (Essay No. 7 of Part-II)

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MOST EXPECTED QUESTIONS
Q: WHAT DOES RAYMOND WILLIAM REMARK ABOUT TRAGEDY IN
“MODERN TRAGEDY”?
Ans:
Raymond Williams was not only an important writer and-thinker about culture and
politics, literature and drama, television and communication; he was also a socialist
writer and activist. He came from a Welsh working class background, spent fifteen years
teaching for the Workers' Educational Association, was a participant in the Campaign for
Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the New Left from the late 1950s, coordinated an
important socialist manifesto in 1967 and 1968, welcomed the student/worker strikes of
1968, and in the 1970s and 1980s supported socialist, feminist, ecological, and peace
movements.
His political intentions are evident in all of his work, especially in his keen attention
to what is silenced by the dominant cultural and political discourses. Williams' writing in
the post-war period had a kind of existentialist motif of blocked individual liberation.
This co-existed with other themes: a very complex sense of the active making of
community, an emphasis on language, and on the history of cultural forms. Williams'
most important writing is organized about several tropes: the ways in which keywords
operate through their semantic instability; the complex development of subjunctive
discursive forms which Williams calls the ‘knowable community’ in the novel and
`complex seeing' in drama.
"Modern Tragedy", first published in 1966, is perhaps the most important
twentieth-century inquiry into the ideas and ideologies that have influenced the
production and analysis of tragedy. Williams sees tragedy both in terms of literary
tradition and in relation to the tragedies of modern society, of revolution and disorder,
and of the experiences of all of us as individuals.
Like Culture and Society, Modern Tragedy discussed texts—the main tragic texts
and texts about tragic theory that had been written in Europe and the United States since
Ibsen—and extracted from them a political message about the inadequacy of
individuation and about the desirability of revolution.
Modern Tragedy was written in a dense, coded prose. Decoded, it manifests the
confusion between the cultural elite and the people which was a feature of Williams’s
doctrine throughout his work and which became particularly troublesome in this book,
where dramatic and fictional tragedy were presented as realizations of the “shape and set”
of modern “culture,” and the dramatists and novelists who had produced it were assumed to
represent “our” minds and experience.
This thesis was both elitist and anti-elitist, naïve about the prospect of bridging the
gap between the cultural elite and the people but emphasizing the affiliations that kept
Williams, as a member of the former, in conscious empathy with the latter. The effect was
nevertheless odd, implying that Strindberg, Brechet, and Arthur Miller, for example,
were not arcane, and amalgamating the “we” who went to their plays or listened to
Williams’s lectures in Cambridge with the “we” who had been described appreciatively
in Border Country. However deep Williams’s desire was to make “critical
discrimination” relevant to the people among whom he had grown up, moreover, it
neglected the consideration that critical discrimination was in fact a minority activity
which spoke meaningfully only to those who had already heard Leavis’s voice.
Raymond Williams has encoded the ideas of his book in a short note entitled
“Continuity”, in which he is pf the view,

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“I began from the gap between tragic theory and tragic experience, and went on
to inquire into the history of the idea of tragedy: and to criticise what I see as a
dominant contemporary ideology. I then argued the relationship between
tragedy and history, and in particular the contemporary relationship between
tragedy and revolution. In the rest of the book (part two) may emphasis will be
different. What I have written about tragedy and revolution is in a sense a
preface to my third part. What I have written more generally, on tragic ideas
and experiences, needs another kind of discussion, of modern tragic literature,
and this is the substance of my second part. The test of what I have argued will
come again there in a quite different form.”
Q: WHAT IS THE MEANING OF TRADITION AND HOW IT IS CONNECTED
WITH THE CHANGE IN TRAGEDY? GIVE A SATISFACTORY DISCUSSION.
Q: WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE TRADITION AND THE
TRAGEDY AND WHAT KIND OF EXPERIENCES ARE THAT WE
MISTAKENLY CALL TRAGIC IN MODERN TIMES ACCORDING TO
WILLIAMS?
Ans:
“Tragedy and the Tradition” is the second essay of part one of Raymond Williams’
book “Modern Tragedy”. The essay is a discussion on the common and the traditional
interpretations of tragedy. Williams has used his power of perception and has come with
a strong thesis on the evolution of tragedy in the essay. In a previous essay, Raymond
tells the basics of tragedy in these words;
“We come to tragedy by many roads. It is an immediate experience, a body of
literature, conflict of theory, an academic problem.”
According to Williams, tragedy has not been the death of Princes; it has been at
once more personal and more general. He has compared his own sense of tragedy with
the conventions of the time. Tragedy is not simply death and suffering, and it is certainly
not accident. Nor is it simply any response to death and suffering it is, rather, a particular
kind of event, and kind of response which are genuinely tragic, and which the long
tradition embodies. In this article, he has tried to examine two questions:
(a) What is the meaning of tradition?
(b) What is the relation between the tradition to tragedy and the kinds of
experience that in modern times, we mistakenly call tragic?
The writer proposes to examine the tradition, with particular reference to its actual
historical development, Williams remarks,
“Tragedy comes to us, as a word, from a long tradition of European
Civilization, and its is easy to see this tradition as a continuity in one
important way: that so many of the later writers and thinkers have been
conscious of the earlier and have seen themselves as contributing to a common
idea or form.”
We usually try to make a contrast between the traditional and the modern, and try
to compress and unify the various thinking of the past into a single tradition. The
tradition, Williams explaining this point says:
“It is a question, rather, of realising that a tradition is not the past, but an
interpretation of the past: a selection and valuation of ancestors, rather than a
neutral record. And if this is so, the present, at any time, is a factor in the
selection and valuation. It is not the contrast but the relationship between
modern and traditional that concerns the cultural historian.”
Williams further remarks:

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“To examine the tragic tradition, that is to say, is not necessarily to expand a
single body of work and thinking, or to trace various within an assumed
totality. It is to look critically and historically, at works and ideas which have
certain evident links, and which are associated in our minds by a single and
powerful word. It is above all, to see these works and ideas in their immediate
contexts as well as in their historical continuity, and to examine their peace
and function in relation to other works and ideas, and to the variety of actual
experience.”
According to Williams, out of some three hundred Greek plays by Aeschylus,
Sophocles, Euripides and many others, thirty two plays have survived. Yet what survives
has an extraordinary power: some eight or ten plays are amongst the greatest dramas of
the world. This major achievement has affected the subsequent development of tragic
drama in all degrees from general awareness to conscious imitation. Yet there has been
no recreation or reproduction of Greek tragedy because its uniqueness is genuine, and in
important ways not transferable. Even in itself, Greek Tragedy is resistant to any kind of
systematisation: there are intractable differences between the three major tragedians. The
reason is that the three issues of tragedy i.e. Fate, Necessity and the nature of the Gods
were not systematised by the Greeks. The particular dramatic form is also least imitable.
This is not an isolable aesthetic and technical achievement: it is deeply rooted in a precise
structure of feeling. This is where the modern system most clearly misinterprets the
plays: it looks at the mainspring of the action as the isolation of the hero. In fact, what the
form embodies is not an isolable metaphysical stance, rooted in individual experience,
but a shared and indeed collective experience. The specific and varying relations
between chorus and actors are its true dramatic relations. When this unique Greek
culture changed, the chorus which was the crucial element of dramatic form was
discarded. With it, the unique meaning of tragedy was also lost. We can see this clearly
in the transition from the classical to the mediaeval world.
It is now generally agreed that there was little or no tragedy in mediaeval literature.
This agreement seems to rest on two grounds: first, that tragedy was then understood as
narrative, rather than as drama; second that the general structure of mediaeval belief had
little place for the genuinely tragic action. In this major historical period, the word
‘tragedy’ was used in a quiet specific sense. The most famous English mediaeval
definition of tragedy is in Chaucer’s Prologue to the Monk’s Tale: Story of a person
falling from height to low degree. The emphasis here is obviously on a change of worldly
condition, dramatised by the reference to ‘high degree’. In the Monk’s Tale, the element
of chance is also included in the meaning of tragedy. Williams concludes: “The story of
tragedy, then, is the change from prosperity to adversity, determined by the general and
external fact of mutability.” Medieval tragedies are usually collected examples of the
operation of a general law, and the keyword is fortune. Williams quotes many examples
to explain this point that the ground of tragic action was the operation of this arbitrary
and incomprehensible power. The medieval idea of tragedy was worldly as fortune was
taken to be worldly success. The falls of heroes were examined in the light of the doctrine
of fortune. Behind the particular sins was a more general sin: that of trusting to fortune in
the sense of seeking worldly success. The pride of the world involved all other vices, and
the remedy was to put no trust in the world but to seek God. These developments
brought about the exclusion of conflict from the tragedy, and tragedy came to be
considered as a story, an account, but not an action.
A main source of Renaissance tragedy was the emphasis on the falls of famous
man. But, with the dissolution of the feudal world, the practice of tragedy made view
connections. Williams quotes Sidney to explain that the theme of mutability is still
dominant, and its exemplary character. But the political distinction between King and
Tyrant has replaced the simple exposure of eminence, and the emphasis of ‘affects’

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provides as link to a new interest. Within the exemplary tradition, and the continuing
emphasis on the affairs of Kings, there is a new interest in the actual workings of tragedy.
Two different traditions- the medieval emphasis on the fall of princes and the new
Renaissances interest in tragic methods and effects – gave birth to a new tradition. It was
Sidney who gave more attention to the methods of writing tragedy than to any moral or
physical idea. The idea of tragedy ceased to be metaphysical and became critical, through
this development was not complete until the neo-classical critics of the seventeenth
century: Over the next two centuries, until the radical Hegelian revision, the idea of
tragedy comprises mainly methods and effects.
In this period, the new significance of exalted rank in tragedy appears a continuity
from the past. Socially, this is an aristocratic rather than a feudal conception. Rank in
tragedy became important because of its accompanying style. The increasing
secularisation of tragedy is related to the new understanding of dignity. Dryden argued
that
“exalted rank was necessary to show that no condition was exempt from the
turns of fortune.”
But now a change was visible. The moving force of tragedy was now quite clearly a
matter of behaviour, rather than either a metaphysical condition or a metaphysical fault.
Error was related to the action, which was in itself a general mutability. Now the
emphasis is on an increasingly isolated interpretation of the character of the hero: the
error is moral, a weakness in an otherwise good man, who can still be pitied. The noble
way to handle suffering appears in the widespread discussion of tragic effect. Within
such an idea of tragedy, both hero and spectator are conscious consumers of feeling, and
their actions are limited to occasions for displaying their modes of consumption.
Lessing (1729-81) was a noted German Critic and dramatic poet. His major
contribution to the idea of tragedy is (a) a theoretical rejection of neo-classicism, (b) a
defence of Shakespeare, (c) and an advocacy and writing of bourgeois (middle class of
society) tragedy. In Lessing, the whole previous tradition was reinterpreted in terms of a
pressing contemporary interest and valuation Neo-classicism was false classicism, the
real inheritor of the Greeks was Shakespeare; the real inheritor of Shakespeare was the
new national bourgeois tragedy. Raymond Williams does not agree with Lessing and
holds that Shakespeare was not the inheritor of the Greeks; he was a major instance of a
new kind of tragedy. The character of Elizabethan tragedy is determined by a very
complicated relationship between elements of an inherited order and elements of a new
humanism.
If the historical development of the idea of tragedy is to be fully understood, we
must consider the complicated process of secularisation. In one sense, all drama after the
Renaissance is secular, and the only fully religious tragedy we have is the Greek,
Elizabethan drama is thoroughly secular in its immediate practice, but undoubtedly
retains a Christian consciousness. The increasing emphasis on a rational morality
affected the tragic action in one important way: that it insisted on relating suffering to
moral error, and so required the tragic action to demonstrate a moral scheme. Tragedy in
this view shows suffering as a consequence of error, and happiness as a consequence of
virtue. Any tragedy which fails to do this must be reformed or re-written, to meet the
demands of what is called ‘poetic justice’. The spectators will be moved to live well by
the demonstration of the consequences of good and evil. Within the action itself, the
characters themselves will be capable of the same recognition and change. In this
tradition, the response to suffering is inevitably redemption, and the response to evil is
repentance and goodness. But this scheme called ‘poetic justice’ might be demonstrated
in a fiction, but could not negotiate much actual experience. Unexplained and irrational
suffering in the real world eventually over-threw not only this version of consequence
but of its whole moral emphasis.

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Hegel (1770-1831), a famous German philosopher, did not reject the moral scheme
that had been called poetic justice, but he described it as the triumph of ordinary
morality, and the work that embodied it as social drama rather than tragedy. This new
emphasis marks the major emergence of modern tragic ideas. What is important in
tragedy, for Hegel, is not suffering as such – ‘mere suffering’ – but its causes. Mere pity
and fear are not tragic. Tragedy recognises suffering as ‘suspended over active characters
entirely as the consequence of their own act’. It does not take into consideration the
external contingency or the circumstance beyond the control of the individual, such as
illness, loss of property, death and the like. For a genuine tragic action, there should be
present the principle of individual freedom and independence. This conscious
individuality is the only condition of tragedy. Through it, the essential tragic action can
occur an action of necessary conflict and resolution.
In Hegel’s version of the tragic action, valid but partial claims come into inevitable
conflicts; in the tragic resolution, they are reconciled; even at the cost of the characters
that stand of them. Williams points out two differences between the ancient and modern
tragedies. First, in the ancient tragedy, the characters clearly represent the substantive
ethical ends; in modern tragedy, the ends are wholly personal. Secondly, in ancient
tragedy, there is not only the downfall of conflicting persons and ends in the
achievement of eternal justice. An individual may surrender his partial and under a
higher command; in modern tragedy, the whole question of resolution is more difficult
because the character is more personal. Justice itself is more abstract and colder.
Reconciliation, when it comes, will often be within the character and will be more
complicated. Hegel’s interpretation of tragedy is part of a general philosophy rather than
a historical criticism.
Williams concludes the discussion on Hegel’s idea of tragedy in these words:
“Thus Greek tragedy has been seen as the concrete embodiment of the conflict
between primitive social forms and a new social order. Renaissance tragedy
has been seen as the embodiment of the conflict between a dying feudalism and
the new individualism. It is not eternal justice, in Hegel’s sense, that is
affirmed in the tragic issue, but rather the general movement of history, in a
series of decisive transformations of society. Not all conflicts of this kind lead
to tragedy. There is only tragedy when each side finds it necessary to act, and
refuses to give way”.
Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and Nietzsche (1844-1900) are German philosophers.
Their views also contributed to the development of the idea of tragedy. Before
Schopenhauer, tragedy was associated with (a) ethical crisis (b) human growth and (c)
history. The German philosopher secularised the idea of fate when he said, “The true
sense of tragedy is the deeper insight, that it is not his own individual sins that the hero
atones for, but original sin, i.e. the crime of existence itself.” What Schopenhauer offers is
the quite different sense of a general human fate which is above and beyond particular
cases. In this respect, he is the forerunner of an idea of tragedy which seems now to be
dominant: that it is an action and a suffering rooted in the nature of man, to which
historical and ethical consideration are irrelevant. So the meaning of tragedy is this
recognition of the nature of life, and the significance and the tragic hero is his
resignation, the surrender not merely of life but of the will to live. The heroes of tragedy
are purified by suffering in the sense that the will to live, which was formally in them,
becomes dead.
Within this negation, Nietzsche found a new kind of tragic affirmation. Tragedy, in
his view, dramatises a tension which it resolves in a higher unity. There hero, the highest
manifestation of the will, is destroyed, but the eternal life of the will remains unaffected.
The metaphysical delight in tragedy is this active and communicated process. According
to him, the action of tragedy is not moral, not purgative, but aesthetic. Nietzsche’s
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powerful linking of tragedy with myth, the rejection of science and political reaction has
been of major importance. As a consequence of this, in tragic theory, the emphasis is on
myth as the source of tragic knowledge, and on ritual as a description of communicated
action.
The central thesis of Nietzsche’s book Birth of Tragedy is: the ritual origin of Greek
tragedy as well as the interdependence of myth and ritual in all primitive cultures. Later
on anthropologists also emphasized the importance of myth and ritual in different
cultures. Then this came to be known as the latest mode of an idea of tragedy. We should
examine this idea in its historical and ideological context as it has played a crucial
interpretative role. The terms ‘myth’ and ritual seem capable of infinite extension. What
we need to clarify is the difference between ‘myth’ as heroic legend and ‘myth’ in the
Nietzsche and sense of a supra-rational source of spiritual wisdom. There is a plenty of
evidence connecting tragedy of all periods with the former. The heroic legend, in the
Greeks and others, is neither rational nor irrational, in the modern sense, because it was
primarily taken as history. The ways dramatising it have been various. Similarly ritual in
the sense of a form of worship of a particular god cannot be glibly identified with the
many forms of dramatic action, in which there is no properly ritual action at all. The fact
is that ‘myth’ and ‘ritual’ are being used, in this modern idea of tragedy, as metaphors.
The meaning of the tragic action, in this version, is a cyclic death and rebirth, linked to
the seasons and centring on a sacrificial death which through lament and discovery
becomes a rebirth: the death of the old is the triumph of the new. Now the essential
movement described here is indeed a common tragic meaning. But we cannot identify
this interpretation as “the tragic vision” as established by facts of tragic origins, which
have somehow persisted through so many historical periods.
What this idea of tragedy seems essentially to teach is that suffering is a vital and
energising part of the natural order. To participate in this version of the life-process is
seen as the ‘tragic’ response, as opposed to the ‘moral’ or ‘optimistic’ or a ‘rational’
response Williams concludes:
“At the centre of this “ritual” action, after all, is the tragic hero, whose inner
conflict is the whole tragic action, and whose crisis and destruction can be seen
as the ritual tearing-to-pieces and sacrifice for life. Thus, not only do we find
the use of myth in a specifically modern sense to rationalise a post Christian
metaphysics, but the conversion of the ritual figure to a form of the modern
hero the hero who in liberal tragedy is also the victim, who is destroyed by his
society but who is capable of saving it.”
Q: GIVE A CRITICAL APPRECIATION OF WILLIAMS ESSAY “TRAGEDY AND
CONTEMPORARY IDEAS”.
Q: HOW TRAGEDY IS AFFECTED BY ITS CONTEMPORARY ERA?
Q: TRAGEDY MUST BE AFFECTED BY THE AGE IN WHICH IT IS PRODUCED,
DO YOU AGREE WITH WILLIAMS?
Ans:
“Tragedy and Contemporary Ideas” is the third essay of part one of Raymond
Williams’s book “Modern Tragedy”. As the name suggests, this essay is a discussion of
tragedy in relation to contemporary idea. Williams has tried to reinterpret the varieties of
tragic experience by reference to the changing conventions and institutions. Tragic
experience, because of its central importance, commonly attracts the fundamental beliefs
and tensions of a period. Through tragic theory, the shape and set of a particular culture
is often deeply realised. The major contributions to tragic theory were made in the 19th
century before the creative period of modern tragedy. Modern age is a major period of
tragic writing directly comparable in importance with the periods of the past. The writer
has discussed the major points of the tragic theory; which are: Order and accident; the

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destruction of the hero; the irreparable action and its connections with death; and the
emphasis of evil.
It is generally said that there is no significant tragic meaning in “everyday
tragedies” because the event itself is not tragedy, but only becomes so through shaped
response. Williams does not agree with this view. He cannot see how it is possible to
distinguish between an event and response to an event, in any absolute way. In the case
of ordinary death and suffering, when we see mourning and lament, when we see men
and women breaking under their actual loss, we are in the presence of tragedy. Other
responses are also possible: indifference, justification, even relief or rejoicing. But where
the suffering is felt, where it is taken into the person of another, we are clearly within the
possible dimensions of tragedy. But it is also possible for some people to hear of a mining
disaster, a burned out family, a broken career, or a smash on the road without feeling
these events tragic in the full sense. Such events are called accidents and are not
connected with any general meaning in them. Williams mentions Yeast’s and Hegel’s
exclusion from tragedy of certain kinds of suffering as “mere suffering”. This modern
separation of tragedy from “mere suffering” is the separation of ethical control and
human agency from our understanding of social and political life.
What we encounter again and again in the modern distinction between tragedy and
accident and in the related distinction between tragedy and suffering is a particular view
of the world which gains much of its strength from being unconscious and habitual. The
events not seen as tragic are deep in the pattern of our own culture: War, famine, work,
traffic, and politics. To see no tragic meaning in them is a sort of our bankruptcy. We can
only distinguish between tragedy and accident if we have some conception of a law or an
order to which certain events are accidental and in which certain other events are
significant. In the definition of tragedy as dependent on the history of a man of rank,
some deaths mattered more than others, and rank was the actual dividing line, the death
of a slave was no more than incidental and was certainly not tragic. Ironically, our own
middle class culture began by appearing to reject this view: the tragedy of a citizen could
be as real as the tragedy of a prince. The extension from the prince to the citizen became
in practice an extension to all human begins. The emerging bourgeois society rejected the
emphasis on rank in tragedy: the individual was neither the state nor an element of the
state, but an entity in him. In this view, there was both gain and loss: gain-the suffering
of a man of no rank came to be regarded as important; loss-in the stress on the fate of an
individual, the general and public character of tragedy was lost. Eventually new
definitions of general and public interest were embodied in new kinds of tragedy. But the
idea of a tragic order had to exist with the loss of any such actual order. What happened,
at the level of theory, was then the abstraction of order and its mystification. What had
been a whole lived order, connecting man and state and world became, finally, a purely
abstract order.
Order, in tragedy; is the result of the action. In any living belief, this is always the
relation between experience and conviction. Specifically in tragedy the creation of order
is directly related to the fact of disorder, through which the action moves. There is an
evident variation in the nature of tragic disorder. It can be the pride of man set against
the nature of things, or it can be a more general disorder which in aspiration man seeks
to overcome. In different cultures, disorder and order both vary, for they are parts of
varying general interpretations of life. We should see this variation as an indication of
the major cultural importance of tragedy as a form of art.
It is often argued that tragedy was dependent, in the past, on ages of faith, and is
impossible now, because we have no faith. This relation between tragedy and stability of
belief seems to be almost the opposite of the truth. The ages of comparatively stable
belief, and of comparatively close correspondence between beliefs and actual experience,
do not seem to produce tragedy of any intensity. On the contrary, tragedy depends more

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on an extreme tension between belief and experience than on an extreme
correspondence. Williams concludes this discussion with these words:
“Important tragedy seems to occur neither in period of real stability, nor in
periods of open and decisive conflict. Its most common historical setting is the
period preceding the substantial breakdown and transformation of an
important culture. Its condition is the real tension between old and new:
between received beliefs, embodied in institutions and responses, and newly
and vividly experienced contradictions and possibilities”
The most common interpretation of tragedy is that it is an action in which the hero
is destroyed. This fact is seen as irreparable. At a simple level this is so obviously true
that the formula usually gets little further examination. But it is, of course, still an
interpretation, and a partial one. If attention is concentrated on the hero alone, such an
interpretation naturally follows. Not many works that we call tragedies in fact end with
the destruction of the hero. Certainly in almost all tragedies the hero is destroyed, but
that is not normally the end of the action. Some new distribution of forces, physical or
spiritual, normally succeeds the death. In Greek tragedy this is a religious affirmation in
the words or presence of the chorus. In Elizabethan tragedy, it is ordinarily a change of
power in the state. To our consciousness, the important action has ended and affirmation,
settlement, restoration or new arrival is comparatively minor. This kind of reparations is
not credible; it looks much too like a solution, which 20th century critics agree is a vulgar
and intrusive element in any art. It is not the business of the artist to provide answers or
solutions, but simply to describe experience and raise questions.
When we say that in tragic experience, the action is followed right through until the
hero is dead; we are taking a part for the whole, a hero for an action. We think of tragedy
as what happens to the hero, but the ordinary tragic action is what happens through the
hero. When we confine our attention to the hero, we are unconsciously confining
ourselves to the individual. The tragic action lies in the fact that life does not come back,
that its meanings are reaffirmed and restored after so much suffering and after so
important a death. Death gives meaning and importance to life.
Human death is often the form of the deepest meanings of a culture. When we see
death, it is natural we should draw together – in grief, in memory, in the social duties of
burial-our sense of the values of living, as individuals and as a society. Death is absolute,
and all our living simply relative. Death is necessary, and all other human ends are
contingent. Within this emphasis, suffering and disorder of any kind are interpreted by
reference to what is seen as the controlling reality. Such an interpretation is now
commonly described as a tragic sense of life.
To read back life from the fact of death is a cultural and sometimes a personal
choice. A choice is always variable. To tie any meaning to death is to give it a powerful
emotional charge which can at times obliterate all other experience in its range. Death is
universal, and the mean in tied to it quickly claims universality. Other readings of life,
other interpretations of suffering and disorder, can be assimilated to it with great
apparent conviction.
The connection between tragedy and death is of course quite evident, but in reality
the connection is variable, as the response to death is variable. What is generalised is the
loneliness of man, facing a blind fate, and this is the fundamental isolation of the tragic
hero. To say that man dies alone is not to state a fact but to offer an interpretation. For
indeed, men die in so many ways: in the arms and presence of family and neighbours: in
the blindness of pain or the blackness of sedation; in the violent disintegration of
machines and in the calm of sleep. To insist on a single meaning is not reasonable. When
men die, the experience is not only the physical dissolution and ending; it is also a
change in the lives and relationships of others. Our most common received
interpretations of life put the highest value and significance on the individual and his
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development, but it is indeed inescapable that the individual dies. What is most valuable
(life) and what is most irreparable (death) are, then, set in an inevitable relation and
tension. The tragic action is about death, but it needs not end in death unless this is
enforced by a particular structure of feeling. Death, once again, is a necessary action.
Evil is a traditional name but it has been appropriated by a particular ideology,
which offers itself as the whole tragic tradition. What tragedy shows us, it is argued, is
the fact of evil as inescapable and irreparable. Mere optimists and humanists deny the
fact of transcendent evil, and so are incapable of tragic experience. Tragedy is then a
salutary reminder, indeed a theory, against the illusions of humanism. The true nature of
man is now dramatically revealed against all the former illusions of civilisation and
progress. The current emphasis of Evil is not the Christian emphasis. Within that
structure, evil was certainly generalised, but so also was good. The struggle of good and
evil in our souls and in the world could be seen as a real action. Culturally evil is a name
for many kinds of disorder, which corrode or destroy actual life. As such, it is common in
tragedy, through in many particular and variable forms; vengeance, ambition, pride,
coldness, lust, jealousy, disobedience, rebellion. In every case, it is only fully
comprehensible within the valuations of a particular culture or tradition. Tragedy
commonly dramatises evil, in many particular forms. A particular evil, in a tragic action,
can be at once experienced and lived through. In the process of living through, we come
not so much to the recognition of evil as transcendent but to its recognition as actual and
indeed negotiable. Good and evil are not absolute. We are good or evil in particular ways
and in particular situations, defined by pressures we at once receive and can alter and
can create again.
Tragedy, as such, teaches nothing about evil, because it teaches many things about
many kinds of action. Yet it can at least be said, against the modern emphasis on
transcendent evil, that most of the great tragedies of the world end not with evil
absolute, but with evil both experienced and lived through.
Williams concludes this essay in these words:
“If we find a particular idea of tragedy, in our own time, we find also a way of
interpreting a very wide area of our experience; relevant certainly to literary
criticism but relevant also to very much else. And then the negative analysis is
only part of our need. We must try also, positively, to understand and describe
not only the tragic theory but also the tragic experience of our own time.”
Q: WHAT ARE THE REASONS OF REJECTION OF TRAGEDY IN MODERN
AGE? HOW DOES WILLIAMS MAKE A FORCEFUL DISCUSSION? GIVE AN
OVERVIEW.
Q: GIVE A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF RAYMOND WILLIAMS’ ESSAY “A
REJECTION OF TRAGEDY”.
Q: WHAT IS THE OBSERVATION OF WILLIAMS ABOUT THE CAUSES OF
REJECTUION OF TRAGEDY BY BRECHET?
Ans:
“A Rejection of Tragedy” is the 7th essay of Part Two of Raymond Williams’s book
“Modern Tragedy”. This essay is a study of the rejection of tragedy in the modern age
with special reference to Bertolt Brechet (1898-1959), the German dramatist and poet
whose cynical and satirical works are characteristic of the period between the two World
Wars. He left Germany in 1933 for Russia, went to the United States in 1941, and
returned to East Germany after the War. In 1928, his play “The Three Penny Opera”
made him famous. From 1930 onward, his work became explicitly communistic, marked
by the rejection of the individual in favour of a social ideal. The most permanent features
of his mature drama are the Epic form and alienation effect, both developed in reaction
to the traditional form which he dubbed “Aristotelian”. According to him, drama should

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not be ritual but debate. The spectator should be a detached observer calmly
investigating the view of the world that confronts him, rationally considering argument,
and stimulated to decisive social action. So he developed his epic or narrative play,
loosely constructed with a sequence of individual scenes, functioning as independent
dramatic illustrations or quotations to the narrative. He has used a variety of techniques
to establish the narrative tone: actual story teller on the stage; explanatory verses relayed
before the scene; banner headlines which foretell the events to be portrayed. Bertolt
Brechet’s contribution to the modern world drama is enormous.
Unavoidable suffering and inevitable defeat or death had been the controlling
principles of tragedy and with the passage of time; they became the tradition of tragic
idea. Bertolt Brechet rejected this conventional view of tragedy by reference to these two
points. He is of the view that we have to see not only that suffering is avoidable, but that
it is not avoided. And not only has that suffering broken us, but that it needs not to break
us. Brechet’s own words are the precise expression of this new sense of tragedy:
“The sufferings of this man appeal me because they are unnecessary.”
Williams quotes from one of his poems “An Die Nachgeborenen” to show Brechet’s
response to suffering. Here he has presented two modes: first, the main cause of
suffering in the world is the political system; second, there is a hope in the fight against
it. But it is not always so. In his early work, Brechet expressed one of the main alternative
reactions: a cynical disillusion about the co-existence of public virtue and public murder,
public morality and public poverty. In his work of the 1920s we find the characteristic
sickness of a mind calloused by so established a coexistence. If the substance of suffering
enters, with its natural weight, the spectator will be broken, for he will become a
participant. Yet as a participant, he can only comprehend or condemn the suffering by
some active principle, and this he cannot find. Principle, it seems is part of the world he
rejects. An evil system is protected by a false morality. Human beings can “make
themselves heartless at will”; sometimes pity and sympathy can deceive and exploit us.
So in a tragedy, instead of sympathy, there must be direct shock such a shock is
necessary to shake up the established false consciousness. It is always something
unpredictable that gives birth to a shock. According to Brechet, the function of the
theatre is to practise “Complex seeing”; Thinking above the flow of the play is more
important than thinking from within the flow of the play”. Brechet formed his theory of
tragedy in the idea of “complex seeing”, but its practice was not there, in the actual play.
He had considered that his “epic style” would enforce “thinking above”, whereas the
“narrative style” of “Aristotelian drama” enforced “thinking from within”. He had used
distancing effects to push the spectator into “the attitude of one who smokes at ease and
watches”. The play, in fact, fitted easily into “what the spectator wishes to see”: crime
and coldness not structural in the society, but lived out in a romantic and theatrical
district.
In this section of the article, Williams has discussed six plays of Brechet to explain
his point of view, and to illustrate his sense of a new tragedy:
(a) The Three Penny Opera: In this play, Brechet shows people buying and selling each
other with cold hearts but with colour and wit. That is what life is: the playwright
seems to convey the moral that we can all pretend to be livelier and brighter than we
are. In ways like this, the writer who “shocks by his rejection of conventional
morality”, becomes rich and admired and this is no paradox: he has done the state
some service even when he is disposed to deny it. Brechet thought he was detaching
himself from this by calling it bourgeois morality, but in this play this is so eternal so
really casual, that it is in effect an indulgence. In the idea of “complex seeing”,
Brechet has his new star. He set himself to oppose false society by the idea of a true
society. In his first conscious acceptance of this principled opposition, he simplified
both his feeling and his plays.

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(b) Saint Joan of the Stockyard: In this play, the clarity of Joan Dark in the labour
struggles of Chicago is not only shown as a false morality, covering crime and
exploitation, but as a feeling to be consciously rejected and replaced by a new
hardness. Brechet remarks, “Only force helps where force rules”. For saying this,
Joan is of course, first suppressed, and then canonised, in her former charitable
innocence.
(c) Die Massnahme: In this play, Brechet offers what he takes to be a revolutionary
morality: that the party worker who shows too much human sympathy endangers
the revolutionary effort and must be killed. Here murder is guilt but it is necessary.
This is not any dialectical transformation of goodness into its opposite; it is a willing
rejection of goodness. The weight of the choice of killing , in experience is tragic. The
revolutionary who talks of necessary killing is like the honest criminal or the
generous whore. This connection between the decadence and a positive response to it
has been widely and dangerously overlooked. The extraordinary thing about Brechet
is that he was able to grow through this position. He learned to look into the genuine
complexity: the connections and contradictions between individual goodness and
social action.
(d) The Good Woman of Sezuan: In this play, Brechet invites us to look at what
happens to a good person in a bad society: not by assertion, but by a dramatic
demonstration. Shen Te is a conventional kind hearted prostitute. Through her,
Brechet seeks to show how goodness is exploited by gods and men. Where goodness
cannot extend, but is merely used and abused, there is a split in consciousness. The
only consistent way out is through sacrifice: an acceptance of sacrifice which can
become redeeming, as in Chris. Brechet rejected such acceptance, as he similarly
rejected the idea that suffering can ennoble us. He had the courage to reject sacrifice
as a dramatic emotion. He asks: Is it not a sin against life to allow oneself to be
destroyed by cruelty and indifference and greed? In this drama, goodness under
pressure turns into its opposite and then back again, and then both co-exist. The play
becomes, in its essential movement, a moral action.
(e) Mother Courage and Her Children: It is a dramatisation of conflicting instincts,
conflicting illusions and commanding insights that are not lived through. Its crisis is
reached in the frantic drumming of the dumb girl: a desperate articulation of the
blood, to protect the city. The final paradox is genuinely tragic: the dumb girl,
speaking for life, and being killed; the living going on with a living that kills. The
writer’s central question is: what else can we do, here, where blind power is loose,
but submits, chisel, try to play safe? And by doing these things a family is destroyed.
The question is no longer “are they good people?” nor is it, really “what should they
have done?” it is brilliantly both “what are they doing?” and “what is this doing to
them?” All Brechet’s dramatic skill is deployed to lead us to these essential questions.
The action is continually open, through the fact of contradictions in characters. It is
not the inevitability of tragedy, as in the traditional tragic acceptance or the modern
tragic resignation.
(f) The Life of Galileo: In this play, the consciousness is the action. In abstraction, the
choice presented to Galileo is: accept our terms or be destroyed. Because he is
conscious, he can not only foresee consequence and calculate it. He stands also for
more than himself. In his own person, he is reason and liberation. The question is not:
should we admire or despise Galileo? Brechet is not asking this. He is asking what
happens to consciousness when he is caught in the deadlock between individual and
social morality. Galileo’s submission can be rationalised and justified, at the
individual lever, as a way of gaining time to go on with his work. But the point this
misses is what the work is for. If the purpose of science is that all men can learn to
understand their world, Galileo’s betrayal is fundamental. To detach the work from

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its human purpose is, Brechet sees, to betray others and so betray life. It is not, in the
end, what we think of Galileo as a man, but we think of this result. The play brings
this issue to consciousness, not as a problem, but as a living action. Galileo,
committed to a universal and humanist view of science, has been trapped by another
view: the imperatives of a different loyalty, to the ruling group that maintains him, to
produce for the market and war. It is not that as an individual he is a hypocrite. It is
that under real pressures, he embodies both a true consciousness and a false
consciousness; the fact of their coexistence is what Brechet invites us to see. The
movement of the play is from the ironic acceptance of false consciousness to the point
where false consciousness becomes false action and is not irony but tragedy.
Tragedy in some of its older senses is certainly rejected by Brechet. There is nothing
inevitable or ennobling about failure in tragedy. It is a matter of human choice, and the
choice is not once for all; it is a matter of continuing history. The major achievement of
Brechet’s mature work is his recovery of history as a dimension for tragedy. The sense of
history becomes active through the discovery of methods of dramatic movement. He
struggled towards this transformation and in part achieved it.

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