A Theory of the Tragic

After Dionysus: A Theory of the Tragic

Wise, Jennifer

AFTER DIONYSUS: A THEORY OF THE TRAGIC. By William Storm. Ithaca: Cornell Univeristy Press, 1998. 186p.

In introducing his contribution to Nothing to Do With Dionysus?, a groundbreaking collection of essays on Athenian drama edited by himself and Froma Zeitlin (Princeton, 1990), John J. Winkler gloomily and, as it turned out, modestly wondered about the possibility of saying anything new about a subject as endlessly chewed over as the question of the origin of tragedy. Gloomily, because of all the puzzles left us by antiquity, tragedy remains one of the most stubborn and least likely ever to be solved. And modestly, because despite the odds, Winkler did go on to enrich our understanding of tragedy immeasurably. He did this by bringing light to bear on the realities of tragic performance in its proper social and historical context: the identity of the tragic choristers, their place in the political and military life of the Athenian city-state, and public expectations regarding their participation in the city’s annual festival. Like that of the other contributors to this book, Winkler’s method is to place tragedy-as far as is possible today-within the milieu that produced it and to try to understand-again, as far as is possible today-what it meant to the performers, composers, and audiences of the day.

For better or for worse, this sort of context-sensitive approach has come to dominate the field. Although this may not always have been the case, I think most scholars today share Winkler’s concern to treat tragedy as more than just a “Rorschach fantasy” for their own modern sensibilities and as a result tend to keep very much before their eyes the warning of Walter Kaufmann, who insisted that despite what we may be tempted to say about its “universality,” tragedy must in the first place be recognized as a historical phenomenon-that is, as a specific type of literature, created by Aeschylus’s immediate predecessors, in sixth-century Athens.

William Storm now offers a new theory of tragedy that deliberately aims to buck this historicist trend. In AfterDionysus: A Theory of the Tragic Storm argues that tragic art emerges out of a timeless human experience. Less interested in historical particulars than in phenomenological essences, Storm focuses on what he sees as the generative impulse for all tragic art, not only “at the site of its Greek origins, but continually” (p. 81). Storm’s aim is to show that, despite its admitted first appearance in Greece, tragedy is based not in any specific social context, but in a transcendent, universal human condition that Storm calls “the tragic” (p. 85).

For Storm the tragic is an immutable existential imperative that always and everywhere insists that selfhood will be pulled apart. And in Euripides’ depiction of the sparagmos, or dismemberment, of Pentheus in The Bacchae, Storm finds a perfect image or metaphor for this tragic annihilation. Although arguably an anomalous play by Greek standards, being the sole surviving example of a tragedy written about Dionysus, The Bacchae functions for Storm-as it has for many ritually minded theorists before him-as an archetype of the genre, as an especially pure expression of the tragic condition. When shaped into drama, this condition manifests itself in a tension between selfhood and cosmos that will always end in the destruction of the former. Thus Storm views Pentheus’s grisly rending on the mountain as identical-in its tragic impulse, structure, and inevitability-to Lear’s stormy disjuncture on the heath. In Pentheus’s case, of course, the Dionysian sparagmos is a literal one, since he is physically ripped to pieces. When recapitulated in later tragedy, however, this tragic dismemberment becomes an internal, psychic phenomenon; for Storm it is the self, and not necessarily the body, that is ineluctably dismantled under pressure from a force-field of conflicting demands. While profoundly Dionysian in its essence, tragic art is thus not fundamentally Greek in spirit as far as Storm is concerned, but manifests itself throughout history with equally characteristic force whenever an image of integral selfhood, asserted by a character on stage, is subjected to rending and dismantlement. (Why this supposedly ontological condition of “the tragic” never expressed itself before the Greeks invented “tragedy” is a question Storm doesn’t address.)

Storm’s “tragic” is therefore an “antihistoric” category, but it is meant to serve as an antigeneric category as well. After setting out his own theoretical position in the first five chapters, through a comparative analysis of existing theories of tragedy (pp. 8-117), Storm devotes the remaining 62 pages of the book to three literary case studies. To illustrate his ideas about the a priori nature of the tragic and to demonstrate its unchanging permanence through time, regardless of the particular “face” that individual dramatists have put on it, Storm chooses characters from three radically distinct cultural and historical contexts: Agamemnon, Lear, and Constantine Treplev. The fact that this last character appears in a play that its creator expressly identified as a comedy does not disturb Storm at all; on the contrary, he uses it purposefully to argue that tragic characterization, which for him is the perennial source of tragedy across the millennia, transcends tragedy as a literary genre, is distinct from it, and even expresses itself in comedies like The Seagull. Overall, Storm’s phenomenological method is to distil tragic writing down to a purified essence and then to track this essence through time, showing that it is suprageneric, suprahistorical, and supracontextual. Storm’s focus on patterns in character portrayal, to the near-total exclusion of such dramatic constituents as plot, genre, and performance practices, is what enables him to do this.

In discussing an art-form as complex, practically embedded, and socially engaged as theater, however, reductionism of this kind is a hazardous business. Storm writes about the characters themselves with intense sympathy and does succeed in capturing an essential quality of their futile struggle against the Dionysian force-field. But what Storm says about his tragic heroes’ projected image of selfhood can also be said about Storm’s own theory of the tragic: that it is doomed to be pulled apart by the “interactive ground” against which it asserts its autonomy. To take just one example of Storm’s “tragic” tendency to project abstract, inviolable categories even while getting entangled, like Agamemnon, in earthier home truths, I don’t think I will be the only reader of this book who is struck by a certain subtext of which the author seems unaware. For one of the main things, surely, that Pentheus, Agamemnon, Lear and Constantine have in common -each of them either a son, husband, father, or all three at once-is that the tragic field that unstrings each one of them is made up largely of hostile females, either mythically homicidal maenads or merely angry wives, mothers, and daughters. Having chosen not to test his theory of the tragic on any female dramatic characters-and this despite the fact that the inventors of tragedy seem to have preferred them-Storm pursues a “universal” theory of tragic selfhood that ends up reading more like an unconscious description of a specifically male dismemberment anxiety. And like a symptom heralding the return of the repressed, this subtext just so happens to call attention to one of the many historical truths about tragic art that phenomenological methods must overlook: the fact that all of the (actual) tragedies Storm discusses were intended for, and were indeed performed by all-male casts.

But even leaving the gender issue aside, Storm’s main thesis, very interesting in itself, cannot help but be ill served by a transcendental approach, for in the art of the theater the merely “contingent” conditions of performance do carry essential meaning-generating weight. For example, a play like the Agamemnon, which Storm discusses on its own, was not, in its time, a complete work at all, comparable with King Lear or The Seagull, but served as merely the first third of a larger work, the Oresteia, which ends not with Dionysian sparagmos, but with the establishment of the law courts at Athens, the acquittal of Orestes, and the constructive integration of chthonic powers into the life of the city-statein short, with Apollonian optimism. Had Storm risked bringing his ideas into contact with the material ground of actual tragic performance through history, I think his book, and his Dionysian theory of the tragic, would have been all the stronger for it.


University of Victoria

Copyright Comparative Literature Summer 2000

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