Friday, 24 October 2014

Working-Class & other Tragic Heroes Again

"I can fall from Higher Estate than you!"
What a week for 'heroes' and ‘heroism’! Sophocles couldn’t have surpassed the plot enacting the tragic death of Reeva Steenkampf, caused by just being in the ambit of an extraordinarily high-achieving man with a temper and a firearm. And was I the only one to feel uncomfortable at the extended applause in the Canadian parliament marking the untimely deaths of two young men?

South African athletes or Canadian security guards: who is really the hero, tragic or otherwise? Nearly a year ago I used this blog to crowd-source suggestions for a tragic hero who, unlike Aristotle’s definition of the proper tragic hero in his Poetics, was not ‘the sort of man who has great fame and prosperity, such as Oedipus and Thyestes and the distinguished men who come from that kind of family line’.

The suggestions that rolled in made my winter. Thanks, everyone! My DVD player introduced me to Greek tragic heroes transferred to Bolivian villages and Senecan psychopaths in East End pubs. But my life was changed by Shane Meadows’ utterly devastating movie This is England (2008). I say with all confidence that Sophocles would have been proud of this one.

Directed by Herzog
In the end I discovered that the first truly working-class tragedy in the world dramatic repertoire was Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck of 1837. Franz Woyzeck is a soldier of the lowest rank, oppressed almost beyond endurance by his Captain. Woyzeck achieves some kind of affirmation of his human autonomy only by savagely murdering Marie, the unfaithful mother of his little son. She has betrayed Woyzeck with a soldier of Officer rank. Büchner shows how the tragic suffering of Woyzeck and Marie, and their small child, left orphaned at the conclusion, is inseparable from their poverty and low social status.

The real-life Woyzeck, theatrically executed
Büchner based his play, loosely, on the real-life tragedy of Johann Christian Woyzeck, a poor Leipzig wigmaker. In 1821 he murdered the widow with whom he had been living. He was convicted and publicly executed. Some of Büchner’s scenes are Sophoclean; others are informed by Shakespeare’s archetypal tragedy of sexual jealousy in Othello. If anyone wants a copy of the article I managed to write with everyone’s help, then there is a 'pre-print' online or for an offprint email me with a postal address It is otherwise hidden behind an expensive pay wall which Oedipus (as wealthy Tyrant of Thebes) could have paid his way through, but J.C. Woyzeck, Wigmaker of Leipzig, certainly could not.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, once again! :) To the list of unassuming, low-class tragic heroes in modern literature Ι would definitely add Bucky, the protagonist of Philip Roth's "Nemesis".