The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0155  Thursday, 2 April 2009

From:       Brian Willis <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:       Wednesday, 1 Apr 2009 21:16:21 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 20.0152 50 Best American Plays
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0152 50 Best American Plays

What happens "in the world" is apparently the basis for "world-class" 
plays. And what happens in "families" does not usually qualify for 
"world-class" plays.

But for Eugene O'Neill, what happened in his family was his world. The 
deeply personal construction of _A Long Day's Journey_ was profoundly 
disturbing to the playwright, and he refused to allow the play to see 
the light of day until well after his death. Thankfully, his widow 
Carlotta disobeyed his 25-year injunction and it emerged only three 
years after his death.

I would argue that Bob's perspective on "world-class" plays is skewed 
towards a pre-twentieth century construction of theatre's focus on 
mostly larger, extroverted, operatic characters. Of course, we all love 
those plays and those characters, hence our interest in Shakespeare and 
Renaissance drama.

But, twentieth-century playwrights, influenced by advances in psychology 
and philosophy towards the exploration of the internal world, authored 
"world-class" plays that probed the internal revolutions of the human 
psyche. Shakespeare did the same, but more dependent on external 
mechanics of the text to reveal those turnings than most contemporary 

Of course, this topic is fascinating and it really would require a lot 
more space to fully explore the ideas, as I'm sure, to be fair, Bob 
would also need to develop his argument.

But I do have to say I bristle (and chuckle as well at the irony given 
his deeply moving line in the play) at the idea that Willy Loman's 
downfall is not as consequential as, say, King Lear's. "You can't eat 
the orange and throw the peel away -- a man is not a piece of fruit!" 
The exact same sentiment as "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; 
they kill us for their sport". Which of course, is also a commentary on 
the voyeuristic consumption of these characters by an audience, and the 
puppeteering of their fate by the conceptions of a playwright.

For more on the value of twentieth-century American playwrights' focus 
on the "common man" and "family", I highly recommend Arthur Miller's 
1949 essay "Tragedy and the Common Man", meant to validate his approach 
to Death of A Salesman (the title of that play itself subverts the idea 
of elevated tragedy).

It begins:

"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 it.

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 are 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 . . . "

And quickly, to correct Joe Eggert, Ian McKellen is not a product of 
"ruling class breeding". Ruling class training, perhaps, but he derives 
from a strictly working-class Lancashire background and was forced to 
subdue the accent attendant on that familial descendancy when he 
attended Cambridge.

Brian Willis

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