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The Enlightenment of Tragedy - Dramatic Art Primer

Before the novel, there was drama...

Ancient dramatists understood the requirements of a good tale, one in which willful human beings engaged in major conflict, the goal being to possess or achieve something of value. A designated character, by virtue of position and personality, became the antagonist, naturally defying the efforts of the protagonist, or hero, to overcome. This basic conflict scenario resurfaces again and again in a myriad of forms, not only in life, but in novels, short stories, and of course, film and television. What makes true dramatic conflict so universally effective is not only its ability to create tension, suspense, and powerful characters, but its unique method for portraying the need for value in human existence.

Below we've created a drama primer with quotes ("European Theories of the Drama") from three important dramatists to illustrate the nature of the drama and it's overwhelming relevancy to novel writing discussion here at WE. It's all pretty simple and brief, actually, but the major points are invaluable to the novel writing mindset.

KEY CONCEPTS: calamity, value in human life, universal human desire, dramatic art, essential character of drama, the "discovery," the wound, social conflict, the enlightenment of tragedy, tragic flaw, fear and pity.


J. W. Krutch

    ― Its action [drama] is usually, if not always, calamitous, because it is only in calamity that the human spirit has the opportunity to reveal itself triumphant over the outward universe which fails to conquer it.

    Tragedy reveals value in human life … The death of a loved character, for example, reveals a value, something worth cherishing about life or humanity.

    ― Art should, at least in part, satisfy the universal human desire to find in the world some justice, some meaning, or at the very least, some recognizable order.

    The highest dramatic art is not achieved by pitting the most gigantic will against the most absolute necessity. The agonized struggle of a weak will, seeking to adjust itself to an inhospitable environment, may contain elements of poignant drama.

    ― The essential character of drama is social conflict in which the conscious will, exerted for the accomplishment of specific and understandable aims, is sufficiently strong to bring the conflict to a point of crisis.

    Drama should lead up to and away from a central crisis, and this crisis should consist in a discovery by the protagonist which has an indelible effect on his or her thought and emotion and completely alters his or her course of action.

Arthur Miller

For Arthur Miller, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his or her "rightful" position in society. "Sometimes he is the one who has been displaced from it, sometimes one who seeks to attain it for the first time, but the wound from which the inevitable events spiral is the wound of indignity."

It is this "tragic flaw," this unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what she or he conceives to be a challenge to personal dignity, that causes the protagonist to initiate the action of the tale, i.e., the rising drama. If the struggle of the protagonist is just, if she or he contests for a fair evaluation, then those conditions which deny this reveal a wrong, or an evil in the world. Thus, the "enlightenment of tragedy."

Pathos is achieved in struggling for a goal that cannot possibly be won, however possible it seemed in the beginning.

John Dryden

Insofar as the protagonist is concerned, the primary emotional reactions on the part of the reader are fear and pity. Fear during the course of the drama that the protagonist will meet a tragic fate, and pity for the protagonist at such time this occurs. Pity, or sympathy, cannot occur unless the character is respected. Thus, it is true concern for the protagonist that produces the highest emotion. 

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