Entropy and the "Death" of Tragedy: Notes for a Theory of Drama


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Recent commentators agree that tragedy as an art form has undergone an irrevocable transformation. Some critics date this change at around the first decade of our century, while others would have it begin as far back as the era of Racine. In any case, within a year or two of each other, during ·the early 1960's, George Steiner wrote eloquently of the "Death of Tragedy," Martin Esslin tellingly coined the term "Theatre of the Absurd," and Lionel Abel contrasted older tragedy to "Metatheatre."1 Later in the same decade, Walter Kaufmann took issue with portions of Steiner's argument and terminology, but nevertheless conceded the decline of tragedy, linking this decline to ,the sense of despair occasioned by the horrors of modem history.2 Similarly, and in the same year, Geoffrey Brereton agreed that "all critics have experienced the same real difficulty in deciding what happened to dramatic ,tragedy in ,the present century. Merely to say that it died is unsatisfactory. No doubt it did die [however] as a single body .... "3 To sum up the views of the critics cited above (,together with ·the opinion of many other observers), it would be just to say that while there existed a coherent notion of tragedy among ,the dramatic stages of fifth-century Athens, Elizabethan England, and seventeenth-century France, the contributions to tragedy by Goethe, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekov and other writers since Racine are either problematic or transitional, and during the last seventy years it has been at best questionable and at worst mere nominalism to apply the epithet "tragic" to modern dramatic literature. The purpose of this essay is ,to suggest that the apparent disappearance of or disjunction in the notion of tragedy can be parsimoniously accounted for in terms of a concept well known to the physical sciences and to mathematics, but seldom thought of in connection with the drama - namely that of entropy.

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