Menu Bar


Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VI, No. 1
Spring, 1982



1. Normand Berlin, The Secret Cause: A Discussion of Tragedy. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981. 208 pp. $17.50.

Professor Berlin's "discussion" is the latest in a venerable line of works, beginning with Aristotle, that study the greatest of dramatic genres. And it is one of the best because it eschews easy answers, provides fresh and insightful looks at a number of major plays, and emphasizes that the essential mystery, the question mark, at the core of every great tragedy--indeed, of the genre as a whole--can never be replaced with an answer. For it is uncertainty--"a radical uncertainty" (p. 21), "a baffling uncertainty" (p. 119)--that is at the heart of tragedy, as it is at the heart of human life:

man has always been bewildered by the buffets of the world outside him, man has always been crying out against his precarious state in a world he did not make, man has always questioned the gods and injustice and the causes of his suffering. That he has dared to question, whether in a shout or a painful cry, is tragic man's dignity.... He questions and he receives no answer; there is no direct answer for mankind. The questions remain; the ambiguities remain; life's contradictions and injustices remain. (p. 171)

And the catharsis we experience--the tragic pleasure we feel--when confronting an authentic tragedy derives from our intuitive realization of its truth, both to our own situations and to the human situation as a whole:

the recognition that life is indeed based on mystery, on the question mark--that we will never know what shape our lives will take or how our lives are directed, if at all--is itself a catharsis. (p. 9) The art that affirms what we know, affords pleasure, even if it affirms a dreadful fact. Seizing terror by the hand, facing the unknown as unknown, provides its own special satisfaction. (p. 176)

In short, the catharsis that tragedy provides is "the kind ... that all men experience when they know that their true condition is controlled by a mysterious necessity" (p. 162).

The author does not aim at providing any capsule definition of dramatic tragedy, since "the value of a work of art ... is always limited by definition," and besides, "after 2,500 years of discussing tragedy no one definition or description has emerged as the way to approach this complex genre" (p. ix). Nor does he set out to refute the definitions and theories of the 57 predecessors to whom, in his preface, he acknowledges indebtedness (p. xi), though he does challenge the Hegelian view of tragedy as "a clash between two rights" (p. 14) and points out that view's inappropriateness to the very play that inspired it, Sophocles' Antigone. What he offers in place of a definition are a general discussion of the "essence," the "enduring substance" of tragedy--especially the eternal, insoluble mystery at its core--and an intensive and detailed study of seventeen plays, thirteen of which qualify, in terms of the above discussion, as tragedy,1 and four others which, for various reasons, do not.2

The third chapter, "Passion: Hippolytus, Phaedra, Desire Under the Elms" (pp. 33-63), considers Euripides', Racine's and O'Neill's treatments of the Hippolytus myth and, like the other seven major chapters, is brilliant both in its study of individual works and in its revealing comparison of related plays. In all three Hippolytus dramas, "tragedy prevails," Berlin concludes (p. 53), because each playwright, however different his shadings and emphases, deals with the same basic theme--one directly involved in the mystery that is the "secret cause": "the precarious nature of man in relation to the power of terrifying forces not only beyond his control but beyond his understanding" (p. 37). Though O'Neill's use of the mythic source is more modern, "Dionysian passions are still seething, and the sources of passion and love remain mysterious" (p. 53). In O'Neill, however, it is not the gods but "the past"--and more specifically "the Mother"--that is the dominating, deterministic force. And that force is most evident in the "sinister maternity" of the "two enormous elms" that are "as visible [and as symbolically italicized] as the statues of Aphrodite and Artemis that frame the action of Euripides' Hippolytus" (p. 55):

whatever is happening in the play, stemming from many kinds of desire, is happening under the elms, physically under them as they hover over the house and symbolically under them as they represent clearly and forcefully the dominance of Mother: Mother as female principle, Mother as the demands of the past, Mother as avenging spirit, Mother as lover. (p. 55)

Professor Berlin notes O'Neill's divergences from his mythic source in smaller ways as well: Eben is less chaste than Hippolytus; Abbie is more successful in her advances to her stepson than Phaedra had been, and suffers none of Phaedra's remorse of conscience over the desire; and it is not Ephraim, the play's Theseus, but Eben, who voices the fatal paternal curse. And he points out the abundance of elements that could have turned the play into melodrama--"greed, on-stage violence, sex, incest, adultery, infanticide"--but that do not undermine its tragic aims "because each of these elements is controlled by a larger frame of reference--the past determining the present and future" (p. 56). Ephraim is shown to be "the most complex and interesting character in the play" (p. 56), although it is Eben and Abbie, rising from greed, desire and vengefulness to love and going off together to a shared death at the end, who embody what the author elsewhere calls "the paradox of tragedy"--the fact that "victory and defeat come together" (p. 132). In short, Desire Under the Elms, embodying the playwright's "abiding vision of man fighting against an inescapable determinism [what O'Neill called the "Force behind"] and inevitably losing" (p. 63), is shown to be as grand, and as tragic, as Hippolytus and Phaedra.

We seem to have come a long way from Theseus with a bull in a labyrinth to Ephraim Cabot with a cow on a New England farm but the passions and needs of man remain dark and the causes remain deep and secret. (p. 61)

Professor Berlin says, in his preface (p. x), "I like to think that what is here presented emerges gracefully and genuinely from the specific plays under discussion." I can assure him that it does. The grace is inadequately reflected in the truncated quotations of a review, but the style in situ is consistently felicitous. As for the genuineness, I can attest that I have already found much, both in his general discussion and in individual analyses--particularly of Sophocles' Antigone and Synge's Riders--that has enhanced my teaching of the plays he covers, and I know that I will return to the volume regularly with pleasure and profit. I recommend it to all teachers and readers who are interested in tragedy as a genre, in any of the seventeen plays chosen for discussion, and in the human condition.

--Frederick Wilkins

1 In the order discussed, the thirteen are Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Antigone, Euripides' Hippolytus, Racine's Phaedra, O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms, Shakespeare's Hamlet and King Lear, Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Chekhov's Three Sisters, Ibsen's Master Builder, Durrerimatt's The Visit, the film Easy Rider and Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound.

2 The four are Anouilh's Antigone, Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Synge's Riders to the Sea, and Miller's Death of a Salesman.



Copyright 1999-2007