Some weeks ago I had a very nice conversation with an extremely intelligent and well-read person who happens to be my advisor (and who is not a reader of this blog). During our talk I got carried away and was distracted for a minute… it was then when I made a terrible mistake. We were discussing a passage of a poem I’m working on at the moment and I claimed, somehow casually, that the situation described was “tragic”. If you study literature you know you cannot say things things like “tragic” lightly in front of a faculty member. The same runs true for words such as “comic”, “objective”, or “real”. I mean you can say whatever you want, but you have to be ready to bear the consequences, like leaving his/her office with a very long reading list. In my case the list included The Death of Tragedy of George Steiner.
Now, I was lucky because the book is very well written and the question it addresses is an important one. Simply stated: Why can’t we write tragedy today? (today was 1961 for him, but I believe we are in the same situation). In other words, Steiner tries to understand what has happened to us, moderns or post-moderns or whatever, that we cannot write tragedies any more. I think it is a very good question. If you stop for a minute and think about a recent text or a movie that can be properly (“properly” is another word that you should avoid with your advisor) called tragic, you will see it is not easy… I can only come with Dancer in the Dark of Lars von Trier. I don’t think it is a coincidence that von Trier was able to write that script and the fact that he has some mental problems.
We crave for happy endings and we still believe, despite all the horrors of the 20th century, that people are basically good and that God—if He is up there at all—must be like a cute old grandpa that does not really understand what’s going on downstairs. We seem to be extremely optimistic and in order to protect that optimism we chose to evade nasty reality. This neither Modern nor Postmodern: it is part of the heavy remoras we carry from the times of Romanticism. As Steiner says “in a large measure, we are all romantics still. The evasion of tragedy is a constant practice in our own contemporary theatre and films”. If somebody does not give us a happy ending he must be a sadist (and I still believe von Trier should see both a doctor and a priest ASAP)
However, I did not want to talk about films but about heroes, and here is where Mary Queen of Scots fits in. I arrived to her because one of the works that Steiner praises the most is “Mary Stuart” of Friedrich Schiller, and rightly so because it is a glorious tragedy. I read it with the same joy that you can experience reading an Electra or an Antigone. It seems a contradictory remark, but I truly think a real tragedy is always a joyous event: it is a celebration of the greatness of the human spirit. The calamities that surround the tragic hero are marginal to a certain extent. They create the right circumstances for the exaltation of the hero. It is thanks to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes” that we see the hero rising above the herd common men.
Tragic heroes are battered by misfortune, yet they are always fully aware of the misfortunes they are living; they might not be able to stand against the great powers that crush them, but they can identify them, rise proudly and rebel against them: they have no chance succeeding against them but that does take away from them their heroic character. Quite the opposite, precisely because we know they are doomed and they know they are doomed we admire their actions.
Mary Stuart is a prisoner but she is not a prisoner like any other. She is a queen who is fully aware of her dignity. She proudly reject the authority of her judges because they are beneath her, they are just a bunch of nobles while “kings only are my peers”:
The laws of England are no rule for me.
I am not England’s subject; I have ne’er
Consented to its laws, and will not bow
Before their cruel and despotic sway.
“Tragedy springs from outrage” says Steiner and Mary is full of it. Yet Schiller’s control of outrage and fury is impressive. At first we meet Mary as prisoner who still has some hope to be freed, but as hope disappears during a conversation with Elizabeth she unleashes her fury. When she is insulted by the English queen then she cannot take it anymore, it is when her pride has been injured when she starts her tragic rise:
Moderation! I’ve supported
What human nature can support: farewell,
Lamb-hearted resignation, passive patience,
Fly to thy native heaven; burst at length
Thy bonds, come forward from thy dreary cave,
In all thy fury, long suppressed rancor!
And thou, who to the angered basilisk
Impart’st the murderous glance, oh, arm my tongue
With poisoned darts!
Her rhetoric is impressive and her fury will be too much for Elizabeth: she will not be able to find words to answer Mary’s command,
Before me lie, for I’m your rightful monarch!
As I read the scene I imagined a growing Mary acquiring the height of giant. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is left speechless. She cannot find words to answer the overwhelming power of Mary’s words. She shrinks and ends up leaving the stage like a harmless child.
From that moment on Mary is a hundred percent heroine: doomed but fearless, brave and generous, she is bigger than life… and we have lost her in the process. She is not one of us any more because in our world there is no room for heroes.
If we think about it, our heroes are never like us. If they live in our cities then they we dress them in spandex clothes, capes, and fitting Marvel apparel. I believe we were able to write tragedies when we believed that meeting someone like an Antigone was a real possibility or when a queen could be expected to behave as proudly as Schiller’s Mary Stuart. In Modernity such behaviour seems completely alien to us. We know too well that kings and queens are just as weak and despicable as the rest of humanity. Therefore, heroic characters must be relegated to a world of “fantasy”. The more flexible conventions that define that genre still allow admirable kings and princesses. The laws of verisimilitude that rule the world of realism have have sent all our heroes into exile. As Joseph Krutch says in The Modern Temper ,”we can no longer tell tales of the fall of noble men because we no longer believe that noble men exist”. Well, that is really tragic.