DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M042-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 12, 2024, from

6. The twentieth century

Henrik Ibsen gave his 1879 play A Doll’s House the subtitle ‘A Modern Tragedy’, though the heroine Nora embodies a (Hegelian) conflict of respect for authority and being true to one’s own feelings. But the play is modern in its middle class, domestic, contemporary setting, its use of prose and its recognition of the rights of women. That women could be tragic figures, representing humankind and the conflicts that plague us all, was an extraordinary advance.

A.C. Bradley defended a fundamentally Hegelian analysis of tragedy in ‘Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy’ (1909). He agreed with Hegel’s emphasis on conflict rather than suffering, but argued that some conflicts depend not only on the character of the agents but on fate, and result from warring between good and evil, rather than just conflicts between different goods.

Miguel de Unamuno (1913) proposed that tragedy was a way of looking at life, and many writings of the twentieth century emphasize a ‘tragic vision’ or ‘tragic sense’ rather than its essential properties as a literary genre. For example, Joseph Wood Krutch’s impassioned essay ‘The Tragic Fallacy’ (1929) held it a fallacy to attribute nobility to actions themselves, as an objective property of certain actions. Rather, tragedy represents human actions as noble. Tragedy satisfies the ‘universally human desire to find in the world some justice, some meaning, or, at the very least, some recognizable order’. He claims that Ibsen presented life as trivial and meaningless, and hence that his work lacked the tragic spirit that expressed the value of human life, rather than despair.

Several forces emerged in the twentieth century to question the viability and relevance of tragedy as a genre. Ibsen’s ‘democratization’ of tragedy (with its own precursors in German ‘bourgeois tragedy’) rejected rigid class structures and gender roles. Marxist and feminist theories undermine the concept of a tragic hero as an independent agent responsible for the course of the ‘tragic action’. Bertolt Brecht, himself a Marxist, encouraged a stylized form of acting which produces an intellectualized rather than emotional response. This is reminiscent of early French neoclassic tragic acting, but to an opposite end: whereas the French reaffirmed the power of an individual’s rationality to guide their fate, Brecht saw the individual as alienated from the social forces that determine the course of history. The Absurdists (Ionesco, Genet, Beckett, Pinter) depicted the world as meaningless and refused to represent human actions, in Krutch’s words, as noble. In general, the side of tragedy consisting of a positive affirmation of human life, of value, of the power and nobility of the individual, has been subdued. But forces working in the late twentieth century for the empowerment of and respect for difference among traditionally marginalized and disempowered peoples – women, people of colour, and cultural minorities of all types – create an environment in which a new set of values could provide a foundation for the affirmation of human worth which tragedy entails.

Citing this article:
Feagin, Susan L.. The twentieth century. Tragedy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M042-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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