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'Tragedy' makes fun of news media's tragic lack of perspective 

Wednesday, Apr 2 2008

You only have to look at news headlines to see that there are few words more abused in the English language than "tragedy." A cursory search on Google News last week revealed more than 30,000 uses of the term. Hits ranged from reports about the tragic death of a 6-year-old boy who was pushed off a hotel balcony by his suicidal father ("Mother Tells Balcony Inquest of Row on Day of Tragedy," The Guardian, March 26) to op-ed commentary concerning the tragic invasion of politics into preparations for the Beijing Olympic Games ("Tragedy for the Olympics to Become a Political Tool," China Daily, March 27).

Aristotle did his best to codify the term in Poetics. But the philosopher's nebulous definition of tragedy, roughly translated as "an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions," has left many people scratching their heads ever since. Less a word than a weed, the expression is equally applicable to Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and an accident involving a skier, a bottle of vodka, and a tree. Aristotle might have known what he was talking about when he penned his description of tragedy. But, as the Google News search abundantly proves, it's all Greek to the media.

It is this dislocation between the words used to describe dark events and the events themselves that New York playwright Will Eno explores with characteristic delicacy and depth in his heady 2001 play, TRAGEDY: a tragedy. On the surface, the 75-minute drama appears to be a guffaw-inducing satire on media ineptitude, as a network news anchor and three reporters struggle to spin headlines out of little more than a change in the quality of light and an amorphous sense of malaise. But as Les Waters' stylish American-premiere production for Berkeley Repertory Theatre reveals, a news report about an event as seemingly un-newsworthy as the day turning to night is symptomatic of something much more disturbing: humanity's inability to express itself through words, let alone come to terms with, its self-destructive streak.

In keeping with the play's über-tautological title, TRAGEDY: a tragedy gleefully sends up the banality of mediaspeak and TV networks' predilection for creating drama out of the dreariest of happenings. In between asking obtuse questions of a witness, such as "Were you struck by anything striking?," reporter John, posted somewhere "in the field" in an anorak, resorts to commenting on the activities of domestic animals. "You can perhaps see in my background the dogs going back and forth," he says. "They have been barking at the dark and generally doing those things they can usually be counted on to do, and these include licking hands, yawning, circling before lying down, and making their tags and collars jingle." Fellow reporters Constance, standing in front of an empty suburban home, and Michael, a political correspondent armed with the task of relaying politicians' appeals for calm, are equally at a loss for words. Meanwhile, anchor Frank, back in the studio, tries his best to coordinate and extract some meaning from the story, even as technical difficulties and platitudinous utterances wreak havoc on his professional intentions.

Waters and his brilliant cast make the most of the journalists' laughable antics. Playing the reporters, Max Gordon Moore, Thomas Jay Ryan, and Marguerite Stimpson adopt TV news journalism's pseudoserious singsong tone with aplomb. The gravitas of their speaking style lends an extra-absurd quality to Eno's already-surreal lines describing such headline-grabbing phenomena as a sprinkler covering a lawn "in long, even sprinklings of water" and a "paragraph of words" uttered by an elusive governor. David Cromwell compounds the comedy in his role as Frank by liberally dotting his commentary with emphatic pauses and authoritarian-yet-approachable facial expressions directed at an invisible camera.

As much as we find the ham-fisted reportage hilarious, it's not long before we realize that we aren't laughing at the journalists. They're just a bunch of people trying to do their jobs. We pity them as we catch them in the play's few "off-camera" moments applying lipstick, staring blankly into space, shuffling papers, or shaking a sachet of sweetener into a cup of tea. It's the circumstances that the reporters find themselves in that are comical, and, if not tragic in the Aristotelian sense of the word (whatever that means), profoundly perturbing.

TRAGEDY: a tragedy depicts what might happen in a world where the term "tragedy" has become so overused as to render it almost meaningless. A sticky climate of foreboding coupled with a post-Beckettian sense of inertia, rather than any nameable or quantifiable source of distress or evil, hangs over the play. Rooted mostly to one spot in Waters' fittingly minimalist mise-en-scène — Constance before the empty house, toward the back of the stage to our right; John a few paces in front of her; Michael to the left on the steps of an austere granite government building; and Frank lording it behind a doughnut-shaped newsdesk at stage center — the characters in Waters' production, like latter-day Vladimirs and Estragons, can hardly move. Lacking powerful events of magnitude to propel them forward, they are stuck in place with shadowy fears, the outlines of which can barely find form through ineffectual words. They flap their tongues up and down, sometimes inaudibly, owing to a sudden burst of interference or static. But what they're saying, though it's sometimes hauntingly beautiful, hardly matters. All we know is that it's late and all of them are very afraid of the dark.

While Beckett's existential characters are largely paralyzed as a result of feeling helpless in the face of an inexplicable universe, the prevailing darkness in Eno's play turns out to be the product of people's own self-destructive tendencies. Just when the linguistic ping-pong between the reporters starts to become monotonous, he pushes the spent hacks into the background and hands the play's closing sentiment to an ordinary Joe who has been sitting mostly silent for the best part of an hour. Better able to make sense of the gathering dusk than the professional opinionmakers around him, this character (named the Witness and embodied with amiable directness by Danny Wolohan) concludes that people are responsible for making the world gloomy, but that there's comfort in the self-perpetuating climate of fear.

It's tragic that it's taken the better part of a decade for TRAGEDY: a tragedy to receive an American production (the play premiered in London in 2001). Its message would have carried special significance in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the advent of the War on Terror. This far out, however, Eno's conclusion doesn't feel like much of a revelation. What's needed now is a concerted effort to separate the tragic from the merely unfortunate. We may never arrive at a true definition of tragedy, but until we start to use the term more carefully, we cannot hope to move beyond our fears.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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