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Huh? Theatre? The Basics! (Part 1)

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Intro ( MOV )   ::   Performing   ::   Theatre?   ::   Genres   ::   Tragedy!   ::   Activities


NOTE: Before doing this unit, please read Oedipus the King in the readings section of this course.

Please note the capital 'T' and the exclamation point. A Tragedy (with a capital 'T') is not merely a sad play or a play that has a sad ending. A Tragedy is special.

Here's the deal: A Tragedy should make an audience feel great and a Comedy should make an audience feel bad. "No way," you say? Just wait!

  1. A Tragedy is a play that contains a character of great nobility. Take Oedipus the King. Pretty noble guy: he's a king, a swell guy, and his character is pretty noble, too. He really wants to help people. If we take a play such as Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare, we see something similar. They are both good kids, and they are, in essence, nobility in their town.
  2. A Tragedy is a play in which this noble character has no choice but to go down the road that fate has laid out for him/her. Oedipus, for example, has no choice, and he never did. He was supposed to kill his own father and marry his mother, and though he tries to avoid it, it happens anyway. He is also supposed to find the murderer of his father—himself—and punish him. He can't resist doing so and he does it. It seems that fate plays with Romeo and Juliet, too. Everything is against them. They have no luck. Fate is not on their side.
  3. As the noble character struts his stuff in a Tragedy, he is shown to have a hamartia (pronounced: ha-mar-tee-uh). This Greek word is usually interpreted to mean a "weakness," "tragic flaw," or just a "mistake" that the protagonist (main character) makes. Do you have a clue as to what Oedipus' hamartia is? Many feel that his hamartia is that he is a bit over-confident. They use another Greek word to describe this: hybris (pronounced "hubris"), or pride. As for Romeo and Juliet, their hamartia may simply be their youthful love and innocence. They forget all and lose themselves in love.
  4. Because of the Tragic protagonist's hamartia, he (or she or they) experiences a reversal of fortune. Sure, Oedipus was a great king, a well liked guy and all, but his fortune reverses, and he becomes an outcast, banished from the city he once ruled. Bummer. Romeo and Juliet are in love and happy, but they both become dead. Bummer. I hate when that happens.
  5. So we're watching this protagonist, and we just can't help but feel for the guy (or gal, or group of characters). We are moved to pity them. This pity may also stimulate fear that we may have the same or similar fate, or perhaps we just fear what will happen to this character. In any case, Tragedy, as it moves an audience to pity and fear, is said to cleanse our emotions. The Greeks called this Katharsis. The actual Greek word katharsis means to cleanse or wash with water. In psychology, this term is used to indicate when a patient finally lets it all loose and cries or weeps to purge themselves. When we cry during a Tragedy, this purging is also supposed to take place.
  6. Despite fate and despite his (or her) hamartia, and despite the reversal he experiences, the protagonist accomplishes a monumental task. The Tragic protagonist has got everything against him, but he still succeeds in causing positive change for the world. Sure Oedipus finds himself guilty and gouges his eyes out, but he solved the problem that Thebes was having! Do Romeo and Juliet solve a problem? Of course they do! At the end of the play, the two feuding families, the Capulets (Juliet's family) and the Montagues (Romeo's family), are at peace. This was a monumental task!

So now can you see why Tragedy makes us feel great? No? Rats. Well, let me try to explain just a bit further. Despite fate and despite the odds, the Tragic protagonist shows us that human can achieve great things in the face of impossible odds. They show us that despite faults, that despite the gods, humans have the capacity to still get the job done! Humans are indeed a match for the cosmos! Hooray for humans! Tragedy shows us this.


Imagine yourself as the protagonist of a Tragedy. In what ways are you noble? What is your hamartia (your character flaw or mistake) that causes your reversal (and subsequent tragic action)? What monumental task do you accomplish despite the odds or despite fate? Using whatever art media you desire, use a page in your workbook (8 1/2 X 11 in. only, please) to make a poster for your Tragic Play. Give it a title, and indicate with pithy buzz-words how you are noble, your hamartia, and suggest the monumental task your character will perform in the play. Also indicate a hypothetical place, time, ticket prices for the performance. Your poster should begin to stimulate a sense of katharsis in us.

Please include a short synopsis of your play on the back of the poster.
Here is an example from a previous student's poster (synopsis not included):
"Mom, the Queen!"
"As a single mom and queen of the house with a raging temper, can she still manage to help her kids succeed?"
"Tickets $100. Runs daily from Jan. 2003 — June, 2018. House Theatre."

This would, of course, be accompanied by cool pictures, snapshots, painted pictures, crayon art, or images and text cut from magazines arranged in a very dramatic way with cool lettering. Have fun!

Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource . admin. (2005, October 06). Huh? Theatre? The Basics! (Part 1). Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License