Wednesday 13 April 2011

Terror, Pity and Soup

Inexplicably, I have been reading a book from 1765 called Tour to London. It's by a Frenchman called Pierre-Jean Grosley who wanted to explain to his countrymen exactly what's wrong with the English. There's the obvious stuff about English cooking (we are, apparently, "strangers to soup"), but there's some interesting stuff about the theatre. It's in the section on why the English are so melancholy.

Bascially, Grosley thinks it's all Shakespeare's fault. His analysis is fascinating because it's essentially a brief account of English dramatic theory in the mid-eighteenth century, with all sorts of funny details about staging.

The theatrical exhibitions of the English equally contribute to feed, or rather increase the national melancholy. The tragedies, which the people are most fond of, consist of a number of bloody scenes, shocking to humanity…

Scenes of battery and carnage are generally preceded by laying a large thick carpet upon the stage, to represent the field of battle, and which is afterwards carried off with the dead bodies, to leave the trap doors at liberty for the ghosts…

[The ghosts torment their murderers and...]

It is easy to guess what effect this must have upon the imaginations of the English. They are very ready to carry their children to the playhouse; alleging the same reasons for this practice that are elsewhere given for sending young persons to public executions. The impression they make upon the young people is so lively and durable, that, notwithstanding they have none of those prejudices, which are kept up in Roman Catholic countries by the belief of purgatory, and several stories relative to that article, there are few nations, which, without believing in apparitions in theory, are really more afraid of them in practice.

What struck me about this last bit was that in 1765 the English still saw the point of tragedy as essentially moral. Plays had a purpose, and that purpose was to teach you not to be bad by showing rotters getting their comeuppance. It's exactly the same idea that Sidney had put down a couple of centuries before:

The high and excellent tragedy, that openeth the greatest wounds, and showeth forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue; that maketh kings fear to be tyrants, and tyrants to manifest their tyrannical humours

Though Oscar Wilde put it more succinctly:

The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.

These days, when presented with the choice between pity and terror, we usually choose the former. A tragedy is about a blameless chap who gets cancer, or a little kitten that strays too close to the kebab van.

We still like our criminals, but Tony Soprano doesn't get killed. So there is no terror, and the old idea of tragedy is only half there. Tragedy is now as much a stranger to crime as the English are to soup.

Means nothing to me