George Steiner: The Death of Tragedy

DeathofTragedyFor Steiner, tragic drama is a uniquely western achievement. In Judaism, sin causes disaster; to the Greek disaster lies beyond reason or justice.

Elizabethan tragedy coincided with the loss of early Renaissance optimism. Yet after Racine, tragedy was in decline with the rise of the bourgeoise and its love of happy endings.

The Romantics blamed man’s misery not on Fate but on archaic social structures. Their optimistic redemptive mythology was inimical to tragedy.

Rationalism marks the death of tragedy, breaking man’s sense of continuity with a divine realm. Novels present the new ideology to a private middle class audience.

Key Quotations

To the Jew there is a marvellous continuity between knowledge and action; to the Greek an ironic abyss. The legend of Oedipus, in which the Greek sense of tragic unreason is so grimly rendered, served that great Jewish poet Freud as an emblem of rational insight and redemption through healing. (p. 7)

Having repudiated classic notions of evil in man, Victor Hugo and his contemporaries replaced the tragic by the contingent. (p. 164)

The classic leads to a dead past. The metaphysics of Christianity and Marxism are anti-tragic. That, in essence, is the dilemma of modern tragedy. (p. 324)

George Steiner (b. 1929)