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Addressing Tragedy in the Classroom

Edited by Steven Mintz, University of Houston

  1. Introduction
  2. Historical Background
  3. Teaching Tragedy
  4. The Concept of Tragedy
  5. Religion
  6. Literature and Terror
  7. Alternatives to Violence
  8. Lesson Plans
  9. Chronologies
  10. Glossary
  11. Web Resources
  12. Essential Readings

4. The Concept of Tragedy

"Just Like a Movie": Teaching Tragedy in an Aftermath

Jonathan Morse
Department of English
University of Hawaii at Manoa
Honolulu, HI 96822-2315

The fourth and last act of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya takes place in the room where Uncle Vanya manages his family's estate for the benefit of his brother-in-law. It is a humble little space, part office and part bedroom, but Uncle Vanya has tried to make its decor a conversation piece. There is a starling in a cage, and one wall is decorated with a map of Africa - "obviously of no use to anybody," says the stage direction in the anonymous Dover Thrift Edition translation. We might think of the caged bird and the useless map as symbols: objective correlatives of Vanya the man. Reading the stage direction that way will help us establish Uncle Vanya's genealogy, at the least. If Uncle Vanya's useless junk is a thematic context, Uncle Vanya can serve us as one more example of that ubiquitous character from Russian literature, the superfluous man.

But Chekhov's adverb "obviously" turns out to be ironic, for the map does find a use at the end of the play. Uncle Vanya and Dr. Astrov turn to it just after Elena has left forever, taking with her the only possibility of love that has ever existed for either man. Dr. Astrov is about to leave too, and we know that neither he nor Uncle Vanya will ever again have a friend. But now the conversation piece earns its keep. "I suppose it is roasting hot in Africa now," says Dr. Astrov, looking at the map so he will not have to look at Uncle Vanya. "Yes, I suppose it is," Uncle Vanya replies. And with that exchange, Chekhov translates a celebrated tragic line, "The rest is silence," down into the mundane demotic of his language and ours.

In tragedies written on a more classical model, the decor demands our attention with a simpler appeal. The histories of Clytemnestra's purple cloth and Desdemona's handkerchief come to us teaching only dramatic irony, the "little does he know" effect. The last effects of the ordinary dead - the cliché language of the epitaph, the yellowing newspaper clipping with its date gone, the tarnishing jewelry and moldering clothes - have the power to fill us with pathos, but the furnishings of classical tragedy approach us signifying stern and beautiful inevitability.

I usually have a pedagogical idea like that in mind when I show my sophomore poetry-and-drama classes this overhead transparency. It leads us into a discussion of Aristotle's theory of tragedy.


A Quiz about Tragedy

On April 27, 1865, eighteen days after General Lee’s surrender to General Grant effectively ended the Civil War, the Mississippi River steamer Sultana exploded near Memphis. The boat was carrying Union soldiers: living skeletons just freed from the Confederacy’s infamous prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia. Approximately 1,700 of them died in the explosion.

On December 6, 1917, the French freighter Mont Blanc collided with the Belgian freighter Imo in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. The Mont Blanc was loaded with munitions bound for the battlefields of World War I. The resulting explosion almost blew Halifax off the map and killed 1,654 people.

On January 30, 1945, as World War II neared its end, the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed off Germany’s Baltic coast by the Russian submarine S-13. The Wilhelm Gustloff was a passenger ship. It was crammed with civilian refugees: ethnic Germans from Poland, fleeing the advancing Red Army. When the Wilhelm Gustloff went down in the icy waters of the Baltic Sea, she took with her somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 people. In terms of loss of life, this is the worst maritime disaster in history.

But you probably haven’t heard of it — or of the Sultana, or the Mont Blanc, or the Philippine interisland ferry Doña Paz. That ship sank in the Tablas Strait after colliding with the tanker Victor. Lives lost: 4,341. Date: December 20, 1987. That wasn’t so long ago. At the time, the media called it "tragic." But it’s forgotten now.

But you do remember

(April 15, 1912; 1,503 casualties)



                                                                                 Copyright © Jonathan Morse

The discussion usually proceeds along classical lines. As of April 15, 1912, the Titanic was the most luxuriously furnished ship ever built, but (how ironic) it wasn't furnished with enough lifeboats. It was a ship that the powerful and fashionable vied to sail on, but little did they know. And of course there was the matter of an article in an engineering journal which called the Titanic "unsinkable." Aristotle had a word for that: hubris. The other sea stories don't have the credential of this philosophical cachet. It's true that (for example) the tones of the Wilhelm Gustloff's whistle come echoing from the harbor throughout Günter Grass's Danzig trilogy (The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, and Dog Years), but somehow that sound never becomes more than an evocation of local color. Off in the distance, it isn't the same as the frantic intimate ticks and buzzes of the Titanic's radiotelegraph SOS, transmitted so fast that the bridge officer on the nearby Californian couldn't understand it. Irony doesn't help the Wilhelm Gustloff's case, either. Shall we add a dash of bitters to Grass's sentimental allusion by mentioning that the Wilhelm Gustloff was a cruise ship operated by a Nazi recreation agency named Strength Through Joy? That sardonic datum may help, but it probably doesn't help enough. It is not linked directly, by cause and effect, to the catastrophe. Only the Titanic looks so perfectly like Aristotle's model ship. As The Onion headlined one of its parody newspapers, "World's Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg."

We say these things in class, but sometimes an event rushes into the educational hobby shop and interrupts business. On September 11, 2001, we had to remember that the Titanic and the Wilhelm Gustloff were not examples of rival aesthetic models. They were real ships, and real men and women died because they had walked up a gangplank and boarded them. While we were relearning that lesson, men and women all over the United States were watching their television screens and saying, "It's just like a movie." Those words may have meant that a movie is only a movie after all. If our only way of knowing is the aesthetic, we probably haven't known enough so far.

The future may bring us other ways of knowing. But our classes are run on a timetable, and, as Michiko Kakutani observed in The New York Times on October 9, 2001, "Many of the forecasts [of a new national sense of tragedy] mistook shock and grief for long-term cultural change and have already been proven wrong." In the first week after the destruction of the World Trade Center, said Ms. Kakutani, video rentals went up 30 percent, with heavy demand for action flicks. It appears that some students may be ready to think of the World Trade Center as tragedy, but most aren't yet.

For that matter, they may never be. The long-term bad news is that more people died on the Wilhelm Gustloff than in the World Trade Center, and nobody remembers them. If we are ever to teach the World Trade Center, we may yet have to ask Aristotle for help. It probably matters for the tragedy that the Titanic was an exceptionally beautiful ship. Likewise, it probably matters that the sky over New York was a beautiful fall blue on September 11, 2001, as the second 767 was videotaped arcing gracefully into the high silver prism. And then if an artist comes along who can make a connection between that shape and the sad wonderful little human beings who once lived in it, the way Chekhov was able to make Uncle Vanya's map a map of Uncle Vanya, we may be able to teach it at last.

Work Cited

Kakutani, Michiko. "The Age of Irony Isn't Over After All." New York Times 9 October 2001. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/09/books/09NOTE.html

Page 5: Religion

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