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Against the Dramaturgy of Punishment

From the Greeks to The Normal Heart

Essay by

I don't write cute plays. My characters are often deeply flawed people: racist, sexist, homophobic, and angry. When I write characters like this, I try to present both them and the people they hurt as fully human. In my plays, bigotry rips apart families, alienates friends, and breaks apart communities. It does this in my plays because it does this in real life. However, I don't go out of my way to make these characters miserable. They don't often realize how destructive their behavior is. Their blithe confidence is often only slightly tarnished by the end of the play. I don't punish them, and they don't learn anything. This has gotten me into a fair bit of trouble. Friends, colleagues, and audience members have often assumed that I was “taking the side” of these characters, that by refusing to bring these characters into my own ideological position I was betraying my good, progressive politics. These people present their reactions in the most innocent terms, but they are insistent in their demands: they want punishment. They want their moral and political ideas to be confirmed by the plot of the play. If the wicked are not always punished in life, these people want them at least to be punished in art.

This response is, I think, indicative of a broader paradigm that dictates much of our reaction to theater and other cultural products: the dramaturgy of punishment. The dramaturgy of punishment is a general theory of tragedy put forth in Aristotle's Poetics that holds that theater is purgative. It discourages anti-social or immoral behavior through showing a character doing something wicked and being punished. When we see the punishment, we understand that we should act differently. Voilà. Theater for social cohesion. While the dramaturgy of punishment can be used to write plays, its primary purpose is to allow us to understand the intended message of plays we see and read.

This is a crude formulation of the dramaturgy of punishment, and there are a few important subtleties. For Aristotle, a tragic hero should be someone who is almost perfect, but with one tragic error. This way, we can tell why they were punished. If they are total wretches we aren’t sure which of their manifold sins caused their downfall, and if they’re perfect we don’t learn anything. Aristotle wants his characters to be what we might call “relatable.”

A female and male actor on stage
Raquel Duffy (the Angel) and Damien Atkins (Prior) in Soulpepper Theatre's production of Angels in America. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I think we often ignore how central the dramaturgy of punishment is to how we think about plays today. But think of the last production of The Threepenny Opera you saw. Doesn’t Mack’s acquittal suck the air out of the room? It bothers us that such a terrible character gets “let off the hook.” Or Angels in America. Doesn’t Roy’s death excite us? (The last time I saw it, people clapped. They clapped!) In the first case an “unearned” acquittal bothers us, and in the second case an “earned” death feels right. Both Brecht and Kushner actively play with these reactions: Brecht works to foist the discomfort we feel at Mac’s acquittal onto our reading of capitalist society, and the scene in which Luis recites the Kaddish over Roy’s dead body is maybe the play’s most tender moment. But the reactions are there. We want blood.

The problem with the dramaturgy of punishment is that it doesn’t accurately describe how tragedy works. True tragedies, the kind written by Sophocles and Euripides but also by Lorca, Williams, O’Neill, Fornés, Moraga, and Camus, don’t present a straightforward moral vision. They aren’t cautionary tales. Tragedy arises not because of one character’s flaw, but because of the irresolvable clash of mutually exclusive value systems: family loyalty clashes with patriotism, sexual gratification clashes with social order, or friendship clashes with the realities of war. There isn’t room in this town for the both of them. There never will be. The power of the great Greek tragedies, and the great tragedies of our age, is to be found in their unwillingness to dogmatically assert one value system over another. In a world of easy answers, tragedy dares to ask profound questions. That’s what they did in ancient Greece, and that’s what we need them to do today.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Greek Tragedy
The bizarre thing about the ascendance of the dramaturgy of punishment in the wake of the great Greek tragedies is that it isn’t even particularly good at describing its immediate artistic environment. It would be one thing if Aristotle’s ideas worked really well at one point, then lost their utility as the form developed, but even the plays written before the Poetics resist its too-easy taxonomies.

Take, for example, Antigone. In this play, the title character’s refusal to give up her loyalty to her dead brother in the face of the demands of the state leads to her untimely death. Under the dramaturgy of punishment, this would lead us to search for the flaw in her character that led to her destruction. Are we to find it in her loyalty? If anything does her in, it’s her unflinching commitment to burying her brother despite the law saying that traitors are not to be buried. But is that a flaw? Early in the play, Antigone tells Creon, “I knew that I must die; how could I not? Even without your warning…But if I left that corpse, my mother’s son, dead and unburied I’d have cause to grieve as now I grieve not.” It is difficult to call this a mistake, a spot on her otherwise spotless character. Her loyalty is her core value, it’s practically all we know about her. On top of that, it’s unclear how something could be a “mistake” when it is done with full knowledge of the likely consequences.

a group of actors on stage
The cast of Antigone at Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Photo by Robert Day.

And yet it would be equally difficult to argue that Sophocles stands unequivocally with Antigone against the state order. Creon explains his hard line against Antigone by saying, “A man who deals in fairness with his own, he can make manifest justice in the state. But he who crosses law, or forces it, or hopes to bring the rulers under him, shall never have a word of praise from me.” In the wake of a long and bloody civil war, Creon knows that arbitrary rule can never provide a secure foundation for governance. He will not allow Antigone to challenge his authority because he sees her, not himself, as the tyrant. She is the one who assumes the rules everyone else has to follow do not apply to her. Whether or not Sophocles agreed with Creon in his personal life is beyond the issue, but he certainly presents his side fairly in the play.

Every easy lesson we pluck from the jungle of this play quickly withers when removed from its natural habitat, the flux and uncertainty of great drama.

What we are left with is neither a call for rebellion nor a call for order. It’s a play. It presents one of the essential fissures in human life in all its complexity and power, and refuses to give the audience an easy answer. That’s why we remember Sophocles while the propaganda pieces of even ten years ago seem stale (Rock Against Bush, anyone?). His plays are never really over.

The same is true, I would say, of almost all Greek tragedies. In The Bacchae Agave’s unbridled hedonism causes her to decapitate her son Pentheus, who is a strict partisan of order and restraint. In this double tragedy, do we conclude that hedonism is Euripides’ target, or that restraint is? Perhaps we could argue that Euripides has written a protest play calling for a culture that didn’t set up a conflict between sex and order. But that sort of society is exactly what Dionysus creates by placing himself as the absolute ruler of a society built on lust. Every easy lesson we pluck from the jungle of this play quickly withers when removed from its natural habitat, the flux and uncertainty of great drama.

Take Philoctetes. Is the lesson that we shouldn’t get bitten by snakes? Oedipus. That we shouldn’t unknowingly have kids with our mother? Hippolytus. That we should neither give in to nor resist our sexual desires? If there is any moral to be drawn from these plays, it is that each of us is subject to multiple obligations at any one time, and that we should avoid easy simplifications of life’s profound moral mysteries. I for one find this message to be incredibly unsettling, and incredibly profound. It is hard to swallow, like life.

Three actors on stage
Lee Pace, Jim Parsons, and Joe Mantello in The Normal Heart on Broadway.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Normal Heart: A Contemporary Tragedy
Even if we no longer think of our theater in the tragic/comic dichotomy of the Greeks, we still cling to the dramaturgy of punishment far too often. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately as the theater world turns once again to Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, a play, about the AIDS crisis in New York City in the early eighties, that is tragic in every sense of the word. As a new film version brings this wonderful play to a new audience and a new generation, the possibility arises that it will once again be misinterpreted as a simple call to stop fucking. If Larry Kramer had wanted to tell people to stop fucking, he would have. In fact, he did, on television, in print, and on the street. But he also wrote a play, and however autobiographical his play might be, it’s still doing something he couldn’t do through activism. It’s highlighting the complexity and ambiguity of the heady days when AIDS was as mysterious as the Black Death had been to Chaucer. In his foreword to the play, Joseph Papp says that Kramer stands in the tradition of Sophocles and Euripides, and he’s exactly right. Like Sophocles, Kramer is sensitive to the ways in which our personal and political loyalties can directly oppose one another, generating unspeakable suffering; the relationship between Ned and his attorney brother Ben is a particularly painful example. Ned seeks Ben’s legal expertise to help support the AIDS service organization Ned founds, leading to a break between the siblings. Like Euripides, Kramer recognizes the link between sex and death even as he knows trying to stop people from having sex is like trying to hold back the tide. Ned’s frustration with that conflict drives the play.

When Ned lists dozens of names of gay men from throughout history who deserve to be known by more than their sexual orientation, we believe him. One of the names listed is Alan Turing. Turing was a brilliant and eccentric mathematician best known for figuring out how to break the encoded messages sent between high-ranking Nazis. Turing’s work contributed to the Allies staying one step ahead of the Nazis and being able to plan troop movements accordingly. Perhaps more than anyone else, Alan Turing won the second World War. He was also gay. Chemically castrated after the war, Turing became depressed and eventually took his own life. He was not pardoned until December of last year. For Ned, to create a gay culture centered around sexuality would be to deny the full humanity of gay men. Such a culture would do to its members what the British government did to Turing: see them as gay first, citizens second. Ned wants to define himself, like Turing, by his struggle, not his sex. He wants to be remembered “As one of the men who fought the war” against AIDS saying, “Being defined by our cocks is literally killing us.” It’s a bracing moment, one that forcefully makes Ned’s point even as it risks alienating a large section of the audience. It’s hard not to see his point, but it’s also hard to fully accept it.

But this is not the only side that Kramer allows to speak (he doesn’t really give any airtime to the indifferent Reaganite conservatives who allowed thousands to die without batting an eyelash, but that’s fine with me, they’ve had enough). When Mickey, an activist who has been particularly unapologetic about his sexual history, becomes fed up with Ned’s accusations, he explodes. He asks if, when all government and health organizations have ignored the dead and dying, “You think I am killing people? I’ve spent fifteen years of my life fighting for our right to be free and make love whenever, wherever…And you’re telling me that all those years of what being gay stood for is wrong…and I’m a murderer? ... Can’t you see how important it is for us to love openly, without hiding and without guilt?” For Mickey, Ned is shaming gay people back into the closet, when they need more than ever to be celebrating their culture, a culture built in large part on sex (as all cultures are).

Both plays, and all great tragedies, do not give the audience a way out. The dramaturgy of punishment does.

In the end, this conflict is impossible to resolve. The play ends with Ned leaning over his dead lover Felix’s hospital bed. He tells his brother Ben that he forgot to tell Felix about his recent trip to his alma mater Yale, during which he saw a Gay Week dance at which six hundred “smart, exceptional young men and women” celebrated their right to love. If this can be called a resolution of the conflict between sex and safety, it is telling that it happens after it’s too late to save Felix. The play doesn’t give us easy moral lessons. Felix, who is in a committed, monogamous relationship, doing exactly what Ned recommends, dies. Millions of others die with him. To look for lessons in all this death is grotesque and pointless. It doesn’t make sense. The Normal Heart suggests that even if you do everything right, you still might die.

This, finally, is what connects Kramer to Euripides and Sophocles. This is what accounts for the power of The Normal Heart thirty years after it premiered, or Antigone twenty-four hundred years after it was written. Both plays, and all great tragedies, do not give the audience a way out. The dramaturgy of punishment does. It replaces ambiguity with false certainty, and art with propaganda. When we abandon its easy answers, we allow ourselves to truly appreciate the profound questions raised by great art.

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I also love work that moves towards better questions and agree that ambiguity can be great for theatre. Like Neal, I have also seen shows where this kind of good ambiguity is used as cover for sloppy thinking and wishy washy dramaturgy.

But my main thought is to speak up for the agit-prop, the local and the transient. Those performances don't last into history, aren't moved into the palace or the canon, but can be incredibly important and create meaning, delight and change in their time and place.

It's important to remember that theatre can also be direct and good and have a role to play in political discourse of the time, even if that means risking not being performed 30-2,000 years after death, since, like the promise of a heavenly after-life for the well behaved or CIA sponsored Expressionism, this logic can be used to oppress and discourage political change.

While I found this article to be very well-written (which I appreciate), I disagree with much of it.

First, the idea that plays should be "not about providing answers but asking questions" is something we (or at least I) hear all the time (to the point, to be honest, that I am sick of it), yet this essay acts as if this is an original concept.

Second, I disagree with the analysis that the classic greek tragedies have a devil-may-care, "what ya gonna do" attitude about life. While certainly they weren't about punishing the main character, who arguably was forced into a no-win situation, I think the point was to inspire audiences to change the unjust society...

...such as those that exist in "Mack the Knife" (those in charge are arguably even more corrupt than the violent Macheath, as illustrated [in addition to many other ways] by their letting him go) and "The Normal Heart" (the government and society don't care about minority groups in the population to eradicate diseases that [initially at least] don't seem to affect the majority).

Bottom line: I find the statement "In a world of easy answers, tragedy dares to ask profound questions" ludicrous, in both clauses. For the world does not provide easy answers (though certainly many people give easy opinions), nor does tragedy ask questions that are "profound" (that is, that are so insightful that virtually nobody in the audience has previously thought to ask them).

And I wonder if the reason I keep hearing this attitude expressed is to make it more acceptable for writers with limited skills to write "shaggy dog" plays that doesn't have to bother with coming up with a compelling (and believable) character change or profound insights into the human condition; all the writer has to do is remind us of how bad things are (as if most of us could ever forget)... making one's skill as a writer (or knowledge of the human condition) less important, and elevating the importance of one's credentials.

Andy, what an insightful and well-considered exploration. I'm teaching a course on classical drama this term, and over and over the students struggle with the paradoxes of transgression and consequence in the ancient Greek plays. If you don't mind, I'd like to use your essay to enlarge upon these issues.

Thank you thank you! I find it very boring in talk-backs and new play discussions when the conversation seems to get inevitably wrenched onto the track of what the characters learned or how they changed--simple moral formulas and cliche psychology, usually. We are all in this life and we are all faced every day with conflicting values and choices that force us to make imperfect decisions. Then we come to the theater and pretend that there's one right and easy answer? Thank you for laying this out so well. I need to re-read the Greeks, clearly.

Thank you Andy. Thank you. I do not claim to fully grasp all that you are pointing too but this essay moved me, stirred my sensibilities and vision as an artistic director a producer of new work. Write on. Please.

Yes. It's worth taking a look at Suzan-Lori Parks' Father Comes Home From The War 1,2&3 which asks a profound question about freedom vs slavery, loyalty vs survival and is framed with The Odyssey as a backdrop of a Civil War drama.
The Greeks were also posing the question of What If with regard to fate. What if Jocasta had killed her son, knowing of the prophecy? What if Aegisthus had not sacrificed Iphegenia for wind? This question of what if you do what you think is for your own good or the greater good and disaster follows? The tragic flaw in Greek Drama was often to ignore one's fate/destiny. I don't know that we see a lot of contemporary drama that addresses the fate of one or the fate of a community but it is--to my mind--a great thing when a play forces an audience to examine their own moral compasses and ask--would I not do the same in this circumstance? What would I do? The complexity of nuance--of no one being entirely good or evil or blameless or entirely at fault is the space where as viewers we can go beyond easy answers and dwell in the motivations and mysteries of the human condition. Here's to nuance and curiosity!

A brilliant analysis. Absolutely wonderful. Thank you for this! And, gosh, how icky to be at a performance of ANGELS and have the audience cheer at Roy Cohn's death. That seems to indicate something awry in that particular production, wouldn't you agree? Oy.
Anyway, so glad to have read this illuminating piece and happy to pass it on.
- Roland

Thanks, Rolando! The production of Angels was actually beautiful, so I don't know how to account for that. If I remember correctly the specific moment was when Ethel appends "You sonofabitch" to the end of the kaddish, which this actress did with relish.

As I mentioned to you on Facebook, I think that this conception of tragedy as irreconcilable conflicts of one obligation against another obligation or one good against another good is fruitful and reminds me very much of G.W.F. Hegel's views on the subject (which I always preferred over Aristotle's.) Hegel's most systemic treatment of tragedy comes in his posthumously published Lectures on Aesthetics (1835) which were compiled from his notes and those of his students -- and I think you'll find a certain confluence between your interpretation of Antigone and his.

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