Notes Towards a Definition of Tragedy

Edward Albee’s The Goat; or, Who is Sylvia? has been written with explicit literary and dramatic intention, seen through the published subtitle. The aim of Albee’s play is to define modern tragedy as a contemporary adaptation of the genre from the fifth-century. Albee’s revival of theatric principles from the dramatic theory in Aristotle’s Poetics, as well as the characteristic and plot parallels between The Goat and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, consummates his definition. This drama, therefore, extends Greek tragedy into the modern world.

Fifth-century Greek tragedy revolved heavily around religion and mythology, as such faith predominated the lives of Greek peoples (Morris and Powell 119). Religion, however, in contemporary Western culture, does not remain, to the same degree, as such a powerful authority. Therefore, the context of a neo-classical play, such as Albee’s, should reflect the cultural influences of the period. For example, instead of taking place in Thebes in Ancient Greece, such as Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (Sophocles 143), it takes place merely in “the present” (Albee 1567). In this way, Albee is able to utilize and comment upon the fundamentals of Greek tragedy, while theatricalizing contemporary socio-political issues.

The Goat is immediately connected to Greek tragedy merely through the title. Tragedy, from the Greek tragōidia, translates as “goat song”, as goats were often sacrificially slaughtered as a gift to the gods (Morris and Powell 318). In this way, Albee has symbolically brought tragedy to the stage by the conclusive killing of the goat at the end of the play.  For this reason, it is clear that Albee’s idea of modern tragedy lies within ancient tragedy, rather than another historical theory.

Albee has mimicked many other elements of an Aristotelian tragedy, as outlined in Poetics. Catharsis, the release of tension (Morris and Powell 328), is one of the more commonly occurring concepts of Aristotle’s dramatic theory, and it occurs in The Goat upon the presenting of the goat carcass to Martin, and the rest of the audience. In addition, Albee has seamlessly followed Aristotle’s beliefs of the trajectory of a tragic plot. After the anagnorisis, “recognition” (Morris and Powell 329), in this case of Martin’s relationship with Sylvia, the audience is informed of Martin’s hamartia, “fatal flaw” (Morris and Powell 329), ultimately leading to the katastrophê, “the reversal of fortune” (Morris and Powell 329). It can be seen through the imitation of Aristotle’s ideal tragedy that Albee believes it to be the best model. It is also Aristotle’s view that the protagonist is not deserving of their misfortune, which is paralleled in The Goat, as Albee has attempted to recreate this, seen through Martin’s generally positive parenting and pleasant marriage. In following this system, Albee is further glorifying Aristotle’s concepts, and therefore, all the Greek tragedies that thereafter followed his model.

Although it is subjective to the audience, both fear and pity can be aroused from “spectacular” (Aristotle 36) means, such as the destruction of Martin’s home and the murder of his lover, Sylvia, or “inner” (Aristotle 36) means, such as the deterioration of Martin’s family, the loss of his best friend, and the changing relationship with his son. Aristotle believed Sophocles’ Oedipus the King to be a perfect example of a play that causes the audience to feel both fear and pity (Aristotle 36). Albee has based his entire theatrical work on Aristotle’s dramatic theory, which was the basis of Greek theatre, concluding his definition of modern tragedy to be derived from that of ancient tragedy.

The Goat coincides with the Greek belief that “tragedy is fundamentally about transgression and the violation of boundaries” (Constantinidis 189). This can be seen through the many parallels to the Aristotelian plot structure, as well as content from Greek tragedies, most notably, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King.  Oedipus’ incestuous acts violated a taboo that differentiates human society. Regardless of the incognizance in Oedipus’ case, and although Martin’s actions were different, the comparison of Albee’s play is still effective, as the act of bestiality creates the same ‘shock value’ in contemporary Western culture. This initial shock is what creates the downward spiral of tragic occurrences in both cases: the destruction of the protagonist’s home and family and the death of their lover being the end result.

Although all Greek tragedy cannot be summarized into a cohesive statement, the majority of plays share many themes.  Stratos E. Constantinidis’ belief that “Greek tragedy focuses on behaviour that is violent or sexual in nature and whose transgressive force is often increased by being located within the nexus of family relationships” encapsulates the events of both The Goat and Oedipus the King. In this way, both plays are fundamentally presenting the same thing.

Martin, the aging protagonist of The Goat, is very well a contemporary Oedipus. Not only do they both, inadvertently or not, breach social boundaries, however, they share many character traits as well. Martin, described as “a decent, liberal, right-thinking, talented, famous, gentle man” (Albee 1581), happens to be at the peak of his career, receiving the top award in his field. Oedipus, for the most part, fits this description, as he is very loyal over his new home and kingdom, talented, as seen through his outwitting of the Sphinx, and famous, as he is now King of Thebes. The only difference may be that Oedipus, seen through his accusatory attitude, is not quite as gentle as Martin.

Martin and Oedipus are living at the high points of their lives: both destined to shift from prosperity to sorrow. Although it could be argued the character of Martin better fits Arthur Miller’s theory of tragedy, as he is a common man (Silver), since he is the winner of the ‘Pritzker Prize’, described as “architecture’s version of the Nobel” (Albee 1573), he has achieved greatness. In a very contemporary sense, Martin’s career-related and assumed financial success, as well as his loving family, fulfil the requirement of greatness a protagonist has in an Aristotelian tragedy (Silver).  By replicating Oedipus in this way, Albee has set the stage to recreate a tragedy of similar calibre, establishing the genre can be authentic in a contemporary setting.

Martin, however, is not the only character afflicted by tragedy. Stevie, Martin’s once-loving wife, mirrors Jocasta, Oedipus’ mother and wife. Although the circumstances are different, the ordeal faced by these women is very similar and exceptionally tragic. Through no action of her own, Stevie’s marriage, family and life have been “brought . . . down to nothing!” (Albee 1596). She speaks of more than simply marriage when she accuses that Martin has “broken something and it can’t be fixed!” (Albee 1596). The tragedy faced by Stevie justifies, to the audience, her killing of Sylvia.

Stevie, proving herself a vindictive tragic heroine, took as drastic an action as Jocasta. When she enters “dragging a dead goat . . . blood is down [her] dress, on her arms” (Albee 1604), she parallels the vengeance of Medea, from Euripides’ play, who “think[s] it right to murder just for a thwarted bed” (Euripides 185). Although Stevie does not mimic Jocasta’s suicidal actions, they share the same intent. Jocasta, following through with the most selfish action possible, hanged herself to escape her dishonourable life. Stevie’s most selfish act would be to murder the one who Martin claims loves him. In doing so, Stevie establishes the same calamity as her ancient Greek counterpart as well as emphasizing the overall tragedy of the situation by bringing a goat, a symbol of Greek tragedy, on the stage.

The destruction of the nuclear family, in the case of The Goat, is a modern version of the tragedy faced by Jocasta and her children, Antigone and Ismene. “Risking all / to shoulder the curse that weighs down my parents, / yes and you too – that wounds us all together. / What more misery could you want?” (Sophocles 184). Oedipus, in some of the last words of the play, explains to his juvenile daughters/sisters “Such disgrace, and [they] must bear it all!” (Sophocles 184). Although they are too young to understand, Oedipus is telling them they are the product of incestuous acts, they will never live a normal, married life, and they will have no family.

Billy, Martin’s son, is destined to face a similar life upon the destruction of their family. Ending The Goat, Billy questions “[to one, then the other; no reaction from them] Dad? Mom?” (Albee 1604). Billy is not asking for anything in particular; however, the lack of response and subsequent tableau signifies their change in relationship and that Billy is on his own. This symbolic collapse of the family concludes the play, as, from what we have seen, it is the most important aspect of Martin’s life. By continuing to imitate the characters and causes of tragedy in Oedipus the King, Albee reinforces his definition of modern tragedy.

Oedipus the King seems to be the epitome of Greek tragedy, according to Aristotle. In Poetics, he constantly refers to the plot of Sophocles’ play to assist in his definitions, such as in his differentiation of “simple and complex plots” (Aristotle 35). Aristotle states a tale should “thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place”, and that Oedipus does so (36). Therefore, it is clear that Albee intended to use Oedipus the King as a basis for his play to again connect to Aristotle and his beliefs, and he does so to reinforce his definition of modern tragedy as a contemporary adaptation.

In writing The Goat; or, Who is Sylvia?, Albee establishes his belief in the Aristotelian theory of tragedy.  By following the elements of Aristotle’s dramatic theory from Poetics, and mimicking what seems to be Aristotle’s favourite tragedy: Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Albee has created a story that both coincides with his opinion of the historical theory of tragedy and presents the nuclear family in a contemporary setting. In doing so, Albee proves the best definition of modern tragedy is a contemporary version of the genre from ancient Greece that follows Aristotle’s dramatic theory.





Works Cited

Albee, Edward. “The Goat; or, Who Is Sylvia?” Gainor, J. Ellen, Stanton B. Garner Jr. and Martin Puchner. The Norton Anthology of Drama, Volume 2: The Nineteenth Century to the Present. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009.

Aristotle. “Poetics.” Greenwald, Michael L., Roger Schultz and Roberto D. Pomo. The Longman Anthology of Drama and Theater. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc., 2001.

Constantinidis, Stratos E. Text and Presentation 2004. McFarland and Company, Inc., 2004.

Euripides. “Medea.” Greenwald, Michael L., Roger Schultz and Roberto D. Pomo. The Longman Anthology of Drama and Theater. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc., 2001.

Morris, Ian and Barry B. Powell. The Greeks: History, Culture, and Society. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2010.

Silver, Cassandra. “Historical Theories of Tragedy.” Mississauga: University of Toronto, Mississauga, 5 April 2013. Lecture.

Sophocles. “Oedipus the King.” Gainor, J. Ellen, Stanton B. Garner Jr. and Martin Puchner. The Norton Anthology of Drama, Volume 1: Antiquity through the Eighteenth Century. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.