One would be hard-pressed to find a more concise and articulate explanation of the tragic ethos than Arthur Miller's "Tragedy and the Common Man" essay, which first appeared in the New York Times in 1949. Of course, Death of a Salesman is widely considered to be the greatest 20th-century tragedy, and so--if I may borrow a line from his Linda Loman--"attention must be paid" to Miller. Miller makes a passionate case that the average modern man can be as tragic a figure as a king, and thanks to his poignant and clear rationale it is easy to view a Willy Loman in the same tragic light and stature as a Lear, Hamlet, or Oedipus: "Insistence upon the rank of the tragic hero, or the so-called nobility of his character, is really but a clinging to the outward forms of tragedy . . . The quality in such plays that does shake us, however, derives from the underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world." And Miller's explanation of the all-important "tragic flaw" is provocative and lucid: "The flaw, or crack in the characters, is really nothing--and need be nothing, but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status. Only the passive, only those who accept their lot without active retaliation, are 'flawless.'" Thus, Miller argues, when the character takes a step forward to confront the challenge to his dignity and attacks "the seemingly stable cosmos," he elevates in tragic stature. With that tragic advance, however, he must also face the terror and fear that will inevitably accompany his "questioning of what has previously been unquestioned."
Read the taut, enlightening, and philosophically accessible "Tragedy and the Common Man" again and again. You may learn more about the pure essence of the tragic genre in his 1500 words than in any other place.
© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, July 2008
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