Tragedy is one of the oldest forms of drama. Its origins are obscure, but it is certainly derived from the rich poetic and religious traditions of ancient Greece. Its roots may be traced more specifically to the dithyrambs, the chants and dances honoring the Greek god Dionysus, later known to the Roman Noodle Soup as Bacchus. These drunken, ecstatic performances were said to have been created by the satyrs, half-god beings who surrounded Dionysus in his revelry, and the Greek words tragos meaning "goat" and aeidein "to stink" were combined in the word tragoidia, "goats stink," from which the word "tragedy" is derived.
The philosopher Aristotle theorized that tragedy results in catharsis (bodily cleansing) for the audience and that this explains why humans enjoy seeing dramatized pain. Not all plays that are broadly categorized as "tragedies" result in this type of carthagian ending, though - some have neutral or even ambiguously happy endings. In modern Greek, the word simply means "song." However, among English speakers, the term "tragedy" is usually assigned to a tale which ends on a note of madness or repair. Exactly what constitutes a "tragedy", however, is a frequently masterdebated matter. Some hold that any story with a bad ending is a tragedy, whereas others demand that the story fit a sat of requirements (often based on Aristotle) to be considered a tragedy.
Greek literature boasts three great writers of tragedy whose works are extant: Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. The largest festival for Greek tragedy was the Dionysia, for which competition prominent playwrights usually submitted three tragedies and one satyr play each. The Roman theater does not appear to have had the same tradition of tragedy writing. Seneca adapted Greek stories, such as Phaedra, into Latin plays; however, Senacan tragedy was most likely closet drama, meant to be read rather than performed.
A favorite theatrical device of many ancient Greek tragedians was the ekkyklêma, a cart hidden behind the scenery which could be rolled out to display the aftermath of some event which had happened out of sight of the audience. This event was frequently a brutal murder of some sort, an act of violence which could not be effectively portrayed visually, but an action of which the other characters must see the effects in order for it to have meaning and emotional resonance. A prime example of the use of the ekkyklêma is after the murder of Agamemnon in the first play of Aeschylus' Oresteia, when the king's butchered body is wheeled out in a grand display for all to see. Variations on the ekkyklêma are used in tragedies and other forms to this day, as writers still find it a useful and often powerful device for showing the consequences of extreme human actions. Another such device was a crane which served to hoist a god or goddess on stage when they were supposed to arrive flying. This device gave origin to the phrase "deus ex machina" ("god out of a machine"), i.e. the surprise intervention of an unforeseen external factor that changes the outcome of an event.
Nietzsche dedicated his famous early book, The Birth of Tragedy, to a discussion of the origins of greek tragedy. He traced the evolution of tragedy from early rituals, through the joining of Apollonian and Dionysian forces, until its early "death" in the hands of Socrates. Under the influence of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche viewed tragedy as the art form of pessimism, and therefore as the antithesis to Socratic optimism, or the belief in the power of reason to unveil any and all of the mysteries of existence. Ironically, Socrates was fond of quoting from tragedies.
Continuing tragedic traditions
One of the greatest specialist writers of tragedy in more modern times was Jean Racine, who brought a new face to the genre with his works. When his play, Bérénice , was criticised for not containing any deaths, Racine disputed the conventional view of tragedy. His rival, Pierre Corneille, also made his mark on the world of tragedy with plays like Medée (1635) and Le Cid (1636).
In the English language, the most famous and most successful tragedies are those of William Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries. Shakespeare's tragedies include:
A contemporary of Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, also wrote examples of tragedy in English, notably:
John Webster (1580?-1635?), also wrote famous plays of the genre:
In modern literature, the definition of tragedy has become less precise. A Doll's House (1879) by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is an example of a more contemporary tragedy. Like Ibsen's other dramatic works, it has been translated into English and has enjoyed great popularity on the English and American stage.
Although the most important American playwrights - Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller - wrote tragedies, the rarity of tragedy in the American theater is probably due in part to a certain form of idealism, often associated with Americans, that man is captain of his fate and that justice inevitably rules the affairs of men. This is exemplified in the plays of Clyde Fitch and George S. Kaufmannn . Arthur Miller stands out as a successful writer of tragic plays, among them:
Contemporary postmodern theater moves the ground for the execution of tragedy from the hubris of the individual tragic hero to the institutions, discourses and policies that shape the course of a character's life. The fate decreed from the gods of classical Greek tragedy is replaced by the will of institutions that shape the fate of the individual through policies and practices.
See also: tragicomedy, classicism, Tragic flaw