The intention of tragedy, as a genre of drama, is to invoke a catharsis. It is the process of experiencing of a deep pain that awakens the potential and capacity for even greater pleasures. The origins of the genre lay in ancient Greece where authors and playwrights began experimenting with emotions such as: mourning, speculation and grief. Tragedy’s opposite is Comedy.
In the stories that we hear of entrepreneurs, we often hear their tragic beginnings–how the odds were stacked against them. As time goes on, however, the wheel of fortune turns and the odds are no longer stacked against them. They find their lucky break and the golden ticket–and everything changes; usually for the better. And from that point on, they are no longer the bearers of great tragedy; but rather, great fortune.
It seems, then, that the two go hand in hand. Pain cannot exist without pleasure. Are they twins peering into each other or are they opposites?
In Greek mythology, the Muse associated with celebration, song and dance undergoes a metamorphosis and becomes The Muse of Tragedy. Why does this happen? We do not know. The Muse of Singing and Dancing is called Melpomene: the Mother of Several Sirens of the Sea. Melpomene wears a wreath of vines and grapes, a symbol that also alludes to Dionysus: the god of the theatre. Grapes are associated with wine and with the lowering of our inhibitions. Through the experience of tragedy, our inhibitions are lowered. We, humble little grapes, perhaps finally feel free to become the great wine that awaits at the end of it all.
Aristotle argued that the genre of tragedy should concern only the greats. He believed it was the catastrophic downfall of individuals with great minds, souls (and even empires); that would resonate more powerfully with the audience. On the other hand, comedy should depict middle-class or ordinary people. At its crux, tragedies are melancholic stories that force us to feel deep sadness; which is resolved through the experience of pleasure afterward.
In life, however, the process is not always one directional. It is cyclical. Pleasure sometimes does morph into pain; but does pain eventually metamorphosize into pleasure? For those seeking delayed gratification, the answer is perhaps yes. The experience of discomfort and difficulties early in life can lead to greater pleasures later on. That is how so many success stories are manufactured. We are taught and told that you must go through the difficulties for greater pleasure later on. If you skip the pain, you can’t have the pleasure.
It is like the journey of the grape into wine. It requires maturity to become wine.
In a way, then, the genre of tragedy intentionally creates suffering in the audience; for greater pleasure to be experienced later on. The themes the genre incorporated over time include: wrongful convictions and executions, poverty, starvation, addiction, alcoholism, debt, abuse, crime, domestic violence, social shunning, depression and loneliness.
We still use these themes to create a tragic story. We still use these themes to paint a picture of a life that evokes in the audience the emotions of fear and pity.
This reversal of the protagonist’s fortune must be caused by the tragic hero’s character flaw which leads him to make the mistakes that he makes. There is something about himself that he is not seeing. This in turn leads to a downfall or a fall from grace. On the other hand, the reversal of the protagonist’s misfortune into fortune is usually derived from a benefactor who sweeps in and saves the day.
Do we, as an audience, prefer the story of a great rise or a great downfall?
I’d like to think it’s the great rise.