Vol. 31 No. 2

Introduction: Reflections on the Tragic in Contemporary American Drama and Theatre

by Johanna Hartmann and Julia Rössler
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 2 (Winter 2019)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2019 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center


In Tony Kushner’s provocative play Homebody/Kabul (2002), Milton reassures his daughter Priscilla during their trip to Afghanistan where they investigate the disappearance of Pricilla’s mother and Milton’s wife, “we shall respond to this tragedy by growing, growing close. . . .” Priscilla blankly replies, “people don’t grow close from tragedy. They wither is all, Dad, that’s all.”[1] While Milton interprets their situation as a tragic story from catastrophe to future hope, growth, and communality, Priscilla’s view is focused on the concrete suffering, defeat, and regress that will not contribute to some higher purpose. At the heart of this brief exchange between Milton and Priscilla lies a profound paradox which speaks of Kushner’s shrewd placement of tragedy between the human subjects’ transcendence and his or her irrevocable defeat. Similarly, in her play Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief (1994), Paula Vogel, deeply disturbed by the fact that when seeing Shakespeare’s Othello she would rather empathize with Othello than with Desdemona, poses the question if Desdemona deserved death, had she indeed been unfaithful to Othello. In Vogel’s rewrite of this classic tragedy, she reflects on how our individual response to what we see, our pity and empathy, depend on the formal and structural properties of a play but also on our sense of the social legitimacy for these feelings.[2] She shifts the focus from Othello to Desdemona and from Othello’s “flaw” of rogue jealousy to the systemic suppression of women in a patriarchal society.

Tony Kushner and Paula Vogel are two representative writers of contemporary American drama and theatre who exhibit a strong interest in tragedy from aesthetic and ethical perspectives. As the articles in this issue reveal, it is in particular the notion of the tragic that, as a mode of thought, presents the social, historical, and cultural predicaments of contemporary human existence. As the plays reconsider and renegotiate our understanding of human suffering, deadly defeat, irreversible conditions of existence, and the loss of hope, they are highly reminiscent of various core tenets of Greek tragedy.[3]

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