Tragedy And The Common Man


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In Arthur Miller’s 1949 essay, "Tragedy and the Common Man," Miller began by saying, "In this age few tragedies are written." This particular essay was published in the New York Times, was also the preface that was prepared for "Death of a Salesman" in 1949. Before Miller’s "Death of a Salesman," there was only one type of tragedy—that which fit Aristotle’s definition. For Aristotle, plays of tragedy had to revolve around kings, gods, or people of high class. In these classic tragedies, the diction must be elevated and fitting of the characters.Arthur Miller challenged just about every belief and convention that had previously been accepted about tragic plays, as in Shakespeare’s "Hamlet"—which could be considered the paragon of tragedies. In claiming, "The tragic mode is archaic," Miller explains "that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were." This very notion that regular people are just as fit to be main characters in a tragedy as royalty was also applied to the audience’s understanding of a tragic play. If the play was supposed to be about upper-class people, and was spoken in a vernacular that was only known to the high-bred, how were the common people who saw these plays supposed to comprehend their meaning?

The only way for this problem to be solved, according to Miller, was to present a character to whom the audience will readily relate. Miller did this by presenting Willy Loman, the main character of "Death of a Salesman," who was a common workingman with a wife and two kids.The reason that there is such an absence of tragedies in this day and age, is that "the turn which modern literature has taken toward the purely psychiatric view of life, or the purely sociological," has been one that creates skepticism. With so much thinking involved, and analyzing, no one can really enjoy a play for what it is—pure entertainment. By constantly trying to figure out a reason for why something happened, the audience can no longer accept tragic action, let alone heroic action. This, along with the societal belief that in order for a protagonist to be recognized as a character he must be faultless, has made tragedy nearly impossible.

Every person has his/her faults, even the great Hamlet had his downfall; his ambivalence and indecisiveness brought him down. Just as Willy Loman’s lack of self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy are what destroyed him.

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Miller’s ideal tragic hero is one who "is intent upon claiming his whole due as a personality," and when approached with a struggle, "demonstrates the indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity." A tragic hero who is willing to take on challenges and who will fight a battle which "he could not possibly have won," is what makes the audience accept him as a hero who by his own virtue is worthy of their attention and perhaps even respect. Hamlet, for example, stood up for his father’s memory, by fighting his uncle, King Claudius. Miller’s common man, Willy fought the battle of life, by trying to make the best of what he was given in life and continues to support his family…even at the age of sixty.Without creating a bridge for the gap between the two parties involved (in this case, the audience and the play’s characters), there is no play. With a character that is equal to, or very near the average audience, the audience will pay more attention. In one sense, Arthur Miller is correct in saying that there are no tragedies out there.

That is, only if one defines tragedy by Aristotle’s description. As of today, there have been many movies, television shows, as well as plays and novels that portray a tragic hero—but not necessarily in the Aristotelian sense. Take for example, "Good Will Hunting," a movie about an almost regular guy who defies the pre-set mold of what a poor person with no formal education should become. Even though this guy was poor and did not come from an aristocratic family, the audience watched.

Many who saw the movie, recommended it to their friends and even paid to see it again! Why? It was interesting and held their attention; following Will Hunting as he dealt with his problems was an escape from their own, or perhaps a look back at their own.What was once thought of as tragedy is now only thought of as a type of tragedy. No longer does a person see tragedy as the horrible, pessimistic story.

According to Arthur Miller, "tragedy implies more optimism . . . the possibility of victory must be there," especially since "a character has fought a battle he could not possibly have won." Miller is quite true in saying that "it is time . . . that we who are without kings, took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possibly lead in our time – the heart and spirit of the average man." After looking for so long at those who are of higher class and of a supposed higher-breed or importance, the only natural thing to do is to look at the common man. By looking at the ordinary person, it is as if one is looking at himself, but with a more objective position.


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