The contours of tragedy

Where does tragedy happen?  This is a major question that has been driving interest in the tragic phenomenon over the last few decades.  While scholarship and performance were still defining the norms of literary genre and moral conduct, the question “What is tragedy?” was of paramount importance.  But after attention turned from forms to practices, tragedy emerged as a general phenomenon of ethico-political significance.  Instead of offering more definitions, recent books have been exploring the contours of tragedy, taking for granted that it may be identified in a wide variety of contexts and circumstances, including several arts, sciences, regimes, and experiences.  Here are a few representative examples.

Contributors to Visions of Tragedy in Modern American Drama (2018), edited by David Palmer, investigate distinctly American visions by discussing productions and plays by seventeen major playwrights, from Eugene O’Neill to Suzan-Lori Parks.

Contributors to The Transformations of Tragedy (2019), edited by O’Neill Tonning, Tonning and Mitchell, explore Christian influences on early modern and modern Western tragedy, theology, and history, with special attention to upheavals in the church.

Jennifer Wallace’s Tragedy since 9/11 (2020) argues that the first twenty years of this century are “especially an age of tragedy” and offers a cultural analysis of war, revolution, trauma, climate change, and refuge crisis in terms of ancient and modern dramas.

Ato Quayson’s Tragedy and Postcolonial Literature (2021) uses ancient and modern tragedy and tragic thought to explore major ethical choices in postcolonial writing and propose an innovative understanding of world literature, including new concepts.

It seems that the notion of tragedy has rarely been so malleable or productive.

19 April 2021

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