Prometheus unbound, subversively imitative, and theologically alive

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (Dylan Thomas)


In his recent memoir, Leaving Alexandria, former bishop Richard Holloway observes in an Aristotelian moment that life’s losses marking the process of aging are rehearsals, real enough, of a terminal, permanent severing from life. ‘The blight man was born for is not just time and the way it conducts us to the big exit at the end of the road, but the way it makes us rehearse that departure over and over again through other partings, other losses.’ Nevertheless, he adds to his wry commentary that ‘[i]t is possible to be an accomplished leaver, yet for something in us to cry out at the violence of separation’ (p. 81). Aristotle—who in defining ‘tragedy’ may well have been the first to coin the aphorism that ‘Life’s a *****, and then you die’—would have agreed.

In his Poetics, Aristotle is centrally concerned with art and the poetry of the stage as ‘imitations of life’. In describing the nature of the staged tragedy, Aristotle asserts that the theatre rehearses the ‘pity and fear’ shadowing our common realisation that life lies ultimately beyond our control. The ‘repetition’ of life’s ultimate unwieldiness registers in the aesthetic arena something of (what Dylan Thomas described as) ‘the dying of the light’. The poet’s raging pen notwithstanding, the tragedy rehearses on the stage the shape and feel of life’s irreversible endings. This obtains some measure of understanding, however temporal it might be, but most importantly a katharsis or ‘purging’ of delusions about resisting the thrust of such indomitable forces.

So, for Aristotle (at least on my liberal translation of 1449b.1: 24-25, 28), tragedy is ‘an imitation of an action of serious and terminal consequences in the form of an action portraying the shape and feel of such suffering’. In the controlled scope of the performance, tragic theatre rehearses both the protest against life’s finality and our powerlessness against it.

This contested definition rests on the conventional principle that theatre is the imitation of life, so that what is particular to the live performance is the embodied re-presentation of human action. ‘[T]he enacted play’, therefore, ‘is the one art form, excepting the dance, that imitates human action in the medium, one might say, of human action. The actor is that unique creature who passes through a whole life in a few hours and in so doing carries the spectator vicariously with him’ (B. States, 1985:49). The acting stage, in other words, is an instrument through which we respond to and experientially reflect on the fact that life is essentially tragic.

For the early Christians, this posed a problem of theological proportions. They therefore opposed the theatre on the principle that divine truth embodied, and to that extent, ‘performed’, in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, could not accept challenge from the dramatic simulacrum of the stage. The Christian story, along with the doctrines and practices of the Church, provided believers with a multi-faceted scope through which to consider critically the totality of (not only piety exercised within the ekklesia but also) a faith exposed to public perception. The fact that this positioned existing arguments about the theatre directly within theo-logical and ecclesial (and eventually, liturgical and ecclesiastical) space begins to explain why Christians came to see the theatre as a creaturely appropriation, and therefore subversion, of the God-given shape of reality.

Evidently, under the weight of the doctrines of Creation and Incarnation, Plato’s original argument against the idea of the theatre (The Republic, X.599)—that an inherently Promethean impulse made dramatic performance an intrinsically ungodly business—found new form in Christian opposition to the stage. Any serious attempt to deal with the historic friction between Christianity and the theatre will therefore need to in some way confront the question of theatrical mimesis, which sits uncomfortably, not least, next to notions of sacrament and symbolic representation in worship, and indeed given the radical New Testament insistence that, as Christians, ‘you have become mimes… after the Lord’ (1 Thes. 1.6). The question could be posed simply as ‘can the instrument of the tragic become a mimetic vehicle of hope?’

At issue is whether there can be such thing as ‘Christian theatre’, which both anticipates the tragic and enacts signs of the hopeful? The subversive totality of the tragedy makes the dramatic stage a casualty of its own portrayals. So could it seriously bear the reversal of death central to the Christian narrative? Can the serious theatre, in other words, rehearse transpositions of life made new in Christ?


Dr. Ivan P Khovacs is a Senior Lecturer in the Theology & Religious Studies department at Canterbury Christ Church University. After a university degree in Dramatic Arts (UC Santa Barbara), a short career in theatre production led him to formal theological study (Vancouver & St Andrews), with an interest in probing dramatising structures central to human understanding of God and his self-revealing in Christ. He is a cycling enthusiast, which means he is happier talking about it than actually doing it, and especially when combined with a reluctant, though nevertheless growing interest in overly-hopped Kentish ales.

All this material, which may be freely cited with due reference, is part of ongoing academic research towards publication, and therefore remains the intellectual property of © I.P Khovacs.


  • Steve S. says:

    Two responses, not directly related:

    1. I haven’t heard quite that perspective on Aristotle’s “catharsis” before. I recall that Aristotle states that tragic drama achieves a “catharsis” but doesn’t say what specifically the audience is cleansed of. I like your interpretation that the audience is supposedly cleansed of their own hubris, their delusions that they are secure in whatever fortunate positions they find themselves. I’d like to hear more from you on this.

    2. Drama was reborn within the Medieval liturgy, though it never quite fit into the comic/tragic dichotomy that Aristotle assumes. I’m thinking of the Wakefield and York cycles, for example. Slapstick comedy exists side-by-side with the high seriousness of sin and redemption. Jumping forward to Shakespeare’s time, it seems that tragedy proper is modified in the hands of Christianity. For a Christian, the greatest tragedy is damnation–the loss of one’s soul, rather than the loss of one’s kingdom or even one’s life–so we see plays in which a character succumbs to temptation that leads to both temporal and spiritual ruin, Macbeth and Othello, for example. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and later works like Don Giovanni are other examples.

    To answer your question: yes, tragedy can be written well by and for Christians. It HAS been so written. But Christianity changes the terms of the genre. A tragedy by a Christian emphasizes the tragic hero’s moral and spiritual ruin, not just his or her fall from material success or a high social position. Moreover, Christianity ennobles comedy–laughter, joy, love, marriage, redemption–and gives it a seriousness equal to that of tragedy. Our approach to tragedy will depend much on our eschatological vision. If we believe that the end of humanity is both tragic and comic, that some are lost and some our saved, then yes, we ought to be able to write works that fuse the tragic and the comic modes, works in which some are redeemed and others refuse the offer of redemption.

  • I.P Khovacs says:

    Steve, thanks for your thoughtful comments. A reflection on your first point (will have to return to the second point). Of course you are right that not only does Aristotle not bother to say what he means by ‘catharsis’, but by deploying the term in a single instance in the Poetics (and again elsewhere in not an overly helpful context), he leaves us none the wiser. Our problem, though, is that Freud took up Aristotle’s word, and drove coach and horses towards his notion of ‘purgation’ of emotion—i.e., the idea that venting your spleen in a controlled setting would relieve excess of emotion, in the way that the energy pent up in a subterranean hydrothermal current is ‘exhausted’ in a geyser’s spectacular jet of steam.
    That leaves us with the task of rendering katharsis in relation to the tragedy, but also of defining the contexts in which it has any meaning at all. We can do this somewhat instrumentally by asking, what is catharsis for? What difference does all that spent energy make; what does it change? In my view, Aristotle asserts as a first critical principle of the tragedy that catharsis in the theatre (so, far away form the Freudian couch) does not merely displace the heat of emotion, but does so in order to enable an audience to face, if with laconic brevity before the stage, that which is otherwise unfathomable, namely, the tragic orientation of human existence e.g., we allow ourselves the ‘feel’ of the tragic (pity) that we might more clearly cogitate (i.e., fear) the shape of such pressing conditions. Aristotle has a theory of why this is so, but let me first establish that problems in translating and functionally interpreting his text merit the sort of conversation we are having.
    In my translation of the Aristotle’s contentious verse (part of current research), I am trying to establish that, however authoritative (e.g., Butcher, Fyfe, Else), most translations are misdirected by psychological principles on this point. Aristotle of course does not assume the subconscious in such terms; his understanding of ‘psyche’ is invulnerable to the show of naked emotions—i.e., the soul remains unmoved by either tears of laughter. So, emotional discharge in the theatre is no more ‘useful’ than emotion spent in any other arena in life (so holds Aristotle). He does, however, crudely assert that emotion clouds rational faculties. And reason relates constructively to the psyche (mind/soul). In Aristotle’s analysis, both emotion and cognition work together, and uniquely so in the context of the serious theatre (and he is not being ironic when suggesting that comedy cannot be taken seriously). In fact, the genius of Aristotle’s analysis of the dramatic stage is precisely in recognising the performative context in which audiences engage emotion with cognition, feeling with thought.
    You will by now realise that so much of what we understand of Aristotle’s sense of the tragic rides on what we make of ‘pity and fear’. For some, Aristotle was never so wrong as he was in suggesting that pity is central to the tragic, presumably, because pity implies pathetic (hence, naïve and helpless) identification with the suffering portrayed and its victims. And what about fear? Are we to suppose that a good fright at a performance of, say, Medea’s tragedy would put the fear of the gods in an audience so that they would think twice before killing their children in a vengeful fit against a cheating spouse? No; not at all. That might well be a moral and (to the extent that the Greek tragedy is set within a religious context) theological outcome befitting the tragic mode of representation, but it is not its highest end.
    The reason Aristotle remains an authoritative starting point in theatrical analysis is that he is the first to recognise the performative dimension of the tragedy, so that his taxonomy of the tragedy (and let’s not forget that Aristotle is a biologist by training) uncovers a triangular relationship between dramatic poet, actor/audience and the portrayal of the tragic condition. That means, consequently, that he is aware of time and the way it shapes the theatrical experience. So much of his systematic exposition of the poetic is to do with the ‘unities’ of action and place in time. In this light, Aristotle has clear sense that, functionally, the stage tragedy works as a kind of laboratory model for apprehending the tragic scope of human existence. An audience spends a few hours in the theatre, ever aware that within that scope of time, the tragedy set before them will achieve some resolution. This is what makes the tragedy a source of pleasure of the audience, meaning, ‘entertaining’. George Steiner notes with self-conscious irony that ‘tragedies end badly’. But he fails to note that they begin badly, too; and that some tragedies actually come to a good ending. The point is that from the aesthetic perspective (hence, from the audience’s stalls) the tragedy has its appointed end. This is an achievement in itself, because it allows the audience some sense that life’s suffering can be confronted, even if in the experimental scope of the dramatic stage. In short, Aristotle argues that the tragedy, rather than desensitising an audience from the reality of suffering, can bring them to face suffering, vicariously through the action of the stage. So, the tragedy helps us to face life’s ebbing with some measure of virtue; we stare death, as it were, in the face, and, in the dramatic laboratory which is the satge, willingly walk into its cold embrace. Surrender to cowardly comforts to the contrary are not an option for such virtuoso religion.
    Let me illustrate how the stage ‘modelling’ of tragedy marshals emotion in the service of rational response. Six million lives snuffed out in the Shoah (Holocaust) is incomprehensible to my mind; as a tragic figure, the information struggles to register in a consciousness calloused by such indeterminacy of scope. But the duckling I ran over with my bicycle on my commute to work brings home the terminal nature of such suffering in the way that a more universal event does not. Nevertheless, the latter can help to sensitise me to the apprehend something of the former. The stage tragedy, then, allows the audience member the ‘experimentally’ enter into the nature of human suffering (pity), while retaining a distance within which to rationally consider the situation, and recognise its lethal force (fear). But this is hardly an end it itself. The point is that having apprehended the scope of the tragic within a controlled space, we neither helplessly give in to the negative pull effected by ‘the dying of the light’, nor pathetically strive to constrain it by force of some naïve optimism. Aristotle is a scientist, and wants to empirically demonstrate (against Plato, though without every saying so) that the theatre in its tragic mode can serve a good and truthful function. So the tragic drama does not purge an audience of emotion as a healthy restoration of balance in the humours, nor does it promote the escape from reality which Plato presumes. For Aristotle, the experience of ‘pity’ in the tragedy serves (what he assumes are) the higher ends of seeing life in its truthful light. Or, as Walter Kerr would have it ‘Tragedy is the form that promises us a happy ending. It is also the form that is realistic about the matter.’

  • Steve S. says:

    Thank you very much for your detailed response. I’ve always wondered what Aristotle might have had to say about “tragedies” that end relatively happily, such as Oedipus at Colonus or The Eumenides. Now I have some idea.

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