Two types of tragedy


“I used to be partial to tragedy in my youth, until experience taught me life was tragic enough without my having to write about it.” – Amon, Clash of the Titans.

I have included the above quotation not because I necessarily agree with it (although I do share the sentiment to a degree), but because I think it amusingly hints at the two kinds of tragedy we invariably encounter in stories.

The first is what I call Greek tragedy or Shakespearean tragedy. This is the kind of tragedy that we are mercifully unlikely to experience. I’m talking about the likes of Oedipus Rex or Hamlet or The Godfather. Most of us aren’t going to discover we’ve been unknowingly sleeping with our mothers and gouge our eyes out. Nor are we likely to have our uncle murder our father, plan vengeance, commit murder and end up inadvertently responsible for the deaths of our entire family (whilst our other half goes insane and commits suicide for good measure). Nor are we likely to become heads of a mafia organisation, committing – amongst many other sins – fratricide in the process.

The above kind of tragedy, when done really well, makes for a gripping, dramatic story that we can all enjoy from a safe distance, knowing it is extremely unlikely we will find ourselves in similar situations. However the second kind of tragedy is what I call private tragedy. This is the kind of tragedy we are likely to or inevitably will experience; the tragedy of small, mundane and seemingly insignificant events that only spell despair for the person directly involved. Susan Hill’s collection of short stories entitled A Bit of Singing and Dancing contains many tales that illustrate private tragedy. The Remains of the Day is another good example, as is the animated film The Illusionist.

To expound briefly on the latter two examples, The Remains of the Day is about the personal tragedy of wasted lives and being blinded to what is in front of your eyes. The butler Stevens misses his opportunity for happiness with housekeeper Miss Kenton out of a sense of misguided loyalty. Such tragedies are entirely believable not only from that era, but in the present too.

The Illusionist is an interesting one because it taps into a tragedy we will all inevitably experience: wistful nostalgia at the passing of an era. The music hall magician finds himself increasingly upstaged by the rise of rock bands in the late 1950s. He is, like the other music hall acts, gradually becoming obsolete. The highest compliment I can pay The Illusionist – one of my very favourite films of recent years – is that it made me nostalgic for an era I never knew. It is downbeat, deliberately paced and emphatically not for those whose measure of a good film is how many vehicles are destroyed. However, it is nevertheless an achingly sad but lovely, lovely film.

I’ve actually only written one book that is out-and-out tragic. I won’t say which, as I haven’t released it yet, but I tend to think it belongs to the former rather than the latter category. Whilst part of me would like to write a “private” tragedy as brilliant as The Remains of the Day, I’m not sure I have it in me for the reason Amon gives in Clash of the Titans. But I’m not saying it will never happen either.

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