Saturday, September 12, 2009

Tragedy and the Common Man by Arthur Miller

In this age few tragedies are written. It has often 
been held that the lack is due to a paucity of 
heroes among us, or else that modern man has 
had the blood drawn out of his organs of belief by 
the skepticism of science, and the heroic attack on 
life cannot feed on an attitude of reserve and 
circumspection. For one reason or another, we are 
often held to be below tragedy-or tragedy above 
us. The inevitable conclusion is, of course, that the 
tragic mode is archaic, fit only for the very highly 
placed, the kings or the kingly, and where this 
admission is not made in so many words it is most 
often implied. 
I believe that the common man is as apt a subject 
for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were. On 
the face of it this ought to be obvious in the light 
of modern psychiatry, which bases its analysis 
upon classic formulations, such as the Oedipus and 
Orestes complexes, for instance, which were
enacted by royal beings, but which apply to 
everyone in similar emotional situations. 
More simply, when the question of tragedy in art in 
not at issue, we never hesitate to attribute to the 
well-placed and the exalted the very same mental 
processes as the lowly. And finally, if the exaltation 
of tragic action were truly a property of the high- 
bred character alone, it is inconceivable that the 
mass Of mankind should cherish tragedy above all 
other forms, let alone be capable of understanding 
As a general rule, to which there may be 
exceptions unknown to me, I think the tragic 
feeling is evoked in us when we are in the 
presence of a character who is ready to lay down 
his life, if need be, to secure one thing--his sense 
of personal dignity. From Orestes to Hamlet, 
Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggles that of 
the individual attempting to gain his "rightful" 
position in his society. 
Sometimes he is one who has been displaced from 
it, sometimes one who seeks to attain it for the 
first time, but the fateful wound from which the 
inevitable events spiral is the wound of indignity, 
and its dominant force is indignation. Tragedy,
then, is the consequence of a man's total 
compulsion to evaluate himself justly. 
In the sense of having been initiated by the hero 
himself, the tale always reveals what has been 
called his tragic flaw," a failing that is not peculiar 
to grand or elevated characters. Nor is it 
necessarily a weakness. The flaw, or crack in the 
character, is really nothing--and need be nothing, 
but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in 
the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to 
his dignity,his image of his rightful status. Only 
the passive, only those who accept their lot 
without active retaliation, are "flawless." Most of us 
are in that category. But there are among us 
today, as there always have been, those who act 
against the scheme of things that degrades them, 
and in the process of action everything we have 
accepted out of fear or insensitivity or ignorance is 
shaken before us and examined, and from this 
total onslaught by an individual against the 
seemingly stable cosmos surrounding us--from this 
total examination of the "unchangeable" 
environment--comes the terror and the fear that is 
classically associated with tragedy. 
More important, from this total questioning of what 
has previously been unquestioned, we learn. And 
such a process is not beyond the common man. In
revolutions around the world, these past thirty 
years, he has demonstrated again and again this 
inner dynamic of all tragedy. 
Insistence upon the rank of the tragic hero, or the 
so-called nobility of his character, is really but a 
clinging to the outward forms of tragedy. If rank or 
nobility of character was indispensable, then it 
would follow that the problems of those with rank 
were the particular problems of tragedy. But surely 
the right of one monarch to capture the domain 
from another no longer raises our passions, nor 
are our concepts of justice what they were to the 
mind of an Elizabethan king. 
The quality in such plays that does shake us, 
however, derives from the underlying fear of being 
displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away 
from our chosen image of what or who we are in 
this world. Among us today this fear is as strong, 
and perhaps stronger, than it ever was. In fact, it 
is the common man who knows this fear best. 
Now, if it is true that tragedy is the consequence of 
a man's total compulsion to evaluate himself 
justly, his destruction in the attempt posits a 
wrong or an evil in his environment. And this is 
precisely the morality of tragedy and its lesson. 
The discovery of the moral law, which is what the
enlightenment of tragedy consists of, is not the 
discovery of some abstract or metaphysical 
The tragic right is a condition of life, a condition in 
which the human personality is able to flower and 
realize itself. The wrong is the condition which 
suppresses man, perverts the flowing out of his 
love and creative instinct. Tragedy enlightens and 
it must, in that it points the heroic finger at the 
enemy of man's freedom. The thrust for freedom is 
the quality in tragedy which exalts. The 
revolutionary questioning of the stable 
environment is what terrifies. In no way is the 
common man debarred from such thoughts or such 
Seen in this light, our lack of tragedy may be 
partially accounted for by the turn which modern 
literature has taken toward the purely psychiatric 
view of life, or the purely sociological. If all our 
miseries, our indignities, are born and bred within 
our minds, then all action, let alone the heroic 
action, is obviously impossible. 
And if society alone is responsible for the cramping 
of our lives, then the protagonist must needs be so 
pure and faultless as to force us to deny his 
validity as a character. From neither of these views
can tragedy derive, simply because neither 
represents a balanced concept of life. Above all 
else, tragedy requires the finest appreciation by 
the writer of cause and effect. 
No tragedy can therefore come about when its 
author fears to question absolutely everything, 
when he regards any institution, habit or custom 
as being either everlasting, immutable or 
inevitable.In the tragic view the need of man to 
wholly realize himself is the only fixed star, and 
whatever it is that hedges his nature and lowers it 
is ripe for attack and examination. Which is not to 
say that tragedy must preach revolution. 
The Greeks could probe the very heavenly origin of 
their ways and return to confirm the rightness of 
laws. And Job could face God in anger, demanding 
his right and end in submission. But for a moment 
everything is in suspension, nothing is accepted, 
and in this stretching and tearing apart of the 
cosmos, in the very action of so doing, the 
character gains "size," the tragic stature which is 
spuriously attached to the royal or the high born in 
our minds. The commonest of men may take on 
that stature to the extent of his willingness to 
throw all he has into the contest, the battle to 
secure his rightful place in his world.
There is a misconception of tragedy with which I 
have been struck in review after review, and in 
many conversations with writers and readers alike. 
It is the idea that tragedy is of necessity allied to 
pessimism. Even the dictionary says nothing more 
about the word than that it means a story with a 
sad or unhappy ending. This impression is so firmly 
fixed that I almost hesitate to claim that in truth 
tragedy implies more optimism in its author than 
does comedy, and that its final result ought to be 
the reinforcement of the onlooker's brightest 
opinions of the human animal. [see Joseph 
Campbell on comedy].JB 
For, if it is true to say that in essence the tragic 
hero is intent upon claiming his whole due as a 
personality, and if this struggle must be total and 
without reservation, then it automatically 
demonstrates the indestructible will of man to 
achieve his humanity. The possibility of victory 
must be there in tragedy. Where pathos rules, 
where pathos is finally derived, a character has 
fought a battle he could not possibly have won. 
The pathetic is achieved when the protagonist is, 
by virtue of his witlessness, his insensitivity or the 
very air he gives off, incapable of grappling with a 
much superior force. Pathos truly is the mode for 
the pessimist. But tragedy requires a nicer balance 
between what is possible and what is impossible.
And it is curious, although edifying, that the plays 
we revere, century after century, are the 
tragedies. In them, and in them alone, lies the 
belief--optimistic, if you will, in the perfectibility of 
man. It is time, I think, that we who are without 
kings, took up this bright thread of our history and 
followed it to the only place it can possible lead in 
our time--the heart and spirit of the average man. 
* Arthur Miller, "Tragedy and the Common Man," 
from The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller (Viking 
Press, 1978) pp. 3-7. Copyright 1949, Copyright 0 
renewed 1977 by Arthur Miller. Reprint(by 
permission of Viking Penguin, Inc. All rights 
from Robert W. Corrigan. Tragedy: Vision and 
Form. 2nd ed. New York: Harper, 1981.

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