Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Death of Drama

John C. Wright has written several posts lately beginning with this one in which he, among other things, claims that post-modernist drama is an oxymoron, that drama can not be an art form for a post-modernist: no dehumanizing thinker can create dramatic art.

He's right, of course, because drama is all about the consequential. Drama is about how certain actions to lead to certain things (and not to others), and about examining what this innate mystery in all action tells us about reality, humanity, and God. But in the post-modern world where nothing leads to anything, where all meaning is contrived and imposed, drama itself ceases to have meaning - its entire reason for being is undone. You can not produce in an art form that exists to explore the consequences of action, nor can you explore the relationship between human character and action, when we no longer believe in either - character or action. The current philosophy denies that acts by their very nature lead to results and sees every aspect of human character (including gender) as being arbitrary and hence meaningless.

I spoke about this at the American Chesterton Society conference in 2009 in Seattle, in my talk Chesterton and Drama, a talk which I hope to rework this week for a more in depth blog post, particularly in reply to some of Wright's musings.

But before I get around to that, in the tradition of being dramatic, here's a teaser. At one point in my presentation I talked about Chesterton's views on good drama vs. bad drama ...


Chesterton contrasts good drama with conventional drama, or what we would call "melodrama". “Though vice is punished in conventional drama,” he says, “the punishment is not really impressive, because it is not inevitable or even probable. It does not arise out of the evil act.”

In making this point, Chesterton refers to a play by Harley Granville-Barker called Waste. It was a play in which a woman dies from what Chesterton euphemistically calls an “illegal operation”, in other words an abortion. George Bernard Shaw praised the play, saying that an “illegal operation” and the deaths that ensued from it arose more truly from acts of unchastity than the more outlandish consequences that arise from unchastity in melodramas – pistol shots or poison. In other words, Shaw was saying that a drama is better, and more faithful to its purpose as an art form, when it depicts a consequence of an action that comes forth by the very nature of that action. Chesterton agreed with this. Adultery and fornication are more likely to produce things less lurid and more tragic (or sometimes more comic) than pistol shots or poison - though in the case of the “illegal operation” Chesterton thought it too difficult a subject for the audience to bear, and the repulsion it caused not fit for civilized literature.

We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?

Thus Chesterton thought Macbeth to be the perfect tragedy, for in Macbeth the nature of sin and the consequences that spring from it are presented with a clarity and swiftness that are unmatched.


More on this later.

Wright's posts are intriguing, though his definitions of comedy, tragedy and melodrama are rather glib (compare, for instance, Chesterton's insight into the limitations of melodrama just quoted), but Wright is approaching the subject not so much as a literary critic but as a critic of the modern malaise - something he's good at. And he has given us some food for thought on what drama is and why the current age is seeing - in the midst of all the movies and TV shows and video clips on youtube - the Death of Drama.

As they say on television ... to be continued.

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