Raymond Williams Views on Tragedy | “Rejection of Tragedy”

Raymond Williams Views on Tragedy “Rejection of Tragedy”

Aristotle was the first who defined real meanings of tragedy. Many writers followed him for centuries. In modern world, Raymond Williams while expressing his views rejects conventional concept of tragedy. Aristotle may have defined tragedy in detail but now is not the time to stick with the old notions. World has been changed and so as humans. Feelings and emotions may have not been changed yet majority of people have become heartless. Everyday people see a new tragedy in real life. If the same thing is repeated in theaters then it would have no effect. Raymond William is not the only person who rejects traditional tragedy. Many dramatist have also changed their style of writing tragedy. New techniques in theaters have been introduced and contemporary ideas have already been replaced with new ones.

Raymond Williams Views on Tragedy:

Bertolt Brecht was a dramatist who changed meanings of tragedy. In fact, He presented a whole new concept of tragedy. “Rejection of Tragedy” by Raymond Williams deals with Brecht’s plays, views and some of his modern techniques. Bertolt Brecht was a German dramatist who introduced “Epic Theater” and it impressed Raymond Williams. He talks about six plays of Bertolt Brecht in his essay “Rejection of Tragedy” which are:

  • A Man is a Man
  • The Three Penni Opera
  • Mother Courage and her children
  • Saint Joan of the Stockyards
  • The Good Woman of Sezuan
  • The Life of Galileo.

Raymond Williams supports Bertolt Brecht, his views and epic theater in his essay “Rejection of Tragedy”.

Epic Theater:

Whole essay “Rejection of Tragedy” is based on epic theater. Views of Bertolt Brecht on tragedy are in fact Raymond Williams views. In order to understand Raymond Williams views on tragedy, one must know what is epic theater.

It seems a complex term but it is not difficult to understand. Just keep in mind that there were some characteristics which were necessary to be followed in order to be part of epic theater. Those characteristics were:

  • Distancing Effect
  • Purpose of Theater is Education
  • Contemporary existence
  • Historicisation

Epic Theater | Wikipedia Link

Raymond Williams and Brecht Views on Tragedy W.R.T Distancing Effects:

Bertolt Brecht was of the view that people should not see a play like a ritual ceremony. He thought that spectators should not involve themselves in a play. Aristotle’s definition of tragedy forced on catharsis. It was only possible if spectators put their feet in hero’s shoes. Bertolt Brecht was against it. He said that spectators should sit and saw stage-world without involving themselves in it. They should keep themselves away from the play and witness the events that are being presented on the stage. “Distancing effect” is a technique which is very significant in Brecht’s plays and Raymond Williams agrees with his views of tragedy.

Response to Tragedy is Vital:

A person becomes part of tragedy when he sees it on stage. As a result, he thinks that sufferings of tragic character is due to his bad deeds. Brecht raised objection on this point. He thinks that a person is mixture of both good and bad. Reaction of a person depends on circumstances. Sometimes his reaction is positive sometimes it is negative. Moreover, he forces on showing a bad system instead of a bad person. In this way, he focuses more on the effect of tragedy rather than its events. A tragic incident, faced by a good person, may not be tragic for a wicked person.

Hence, variety of responses defines the intensity of tragedy. A play is not tragic until spectators’ response is tragic. Spectators should become critics, judge the play and then give response. In this way, a play becomes experimental and rational instead of just imitation of events.

Repetition of Sufferings:

He thinks that repetition of sufferings in every play ends the sense of sympathy. Scientifically and psychologically if a person faces same accident again and again then he becomes addicted to it. If sufferings of a character are being scene in every play then a person may become heartless. First time it will effect and obtain sympathy second time it will be less effective but finally it will have no effect. Thus, Brecht asserts that the spectators should consider a drama only a drama. They should understand that it is imitation of reality and not reality itself. Thus, it is also a technique that Brecht refers in his plays.

Purpose of Theater is Education:

Basic purpose of a play, says Brecht, is to educate instead of catharsis of pity and fear and “it is the noblest function that we have found for theater”. In this regard, a dramatist can use reversal technique. Stage is not bound to show nobility only to promote morality. Immorality can also be shown on the stage. When people see immorality, they will think about their own immoral attitudes. Tragedy can also spread awareness and helps people to decide what to do and what not to do. Goodness can be shown on stage to promote goodness. Similarly, a playwright can show evil on stage to make people realize their deteriorated values and standards. The playwright who writes to teach people is the best writer in the eyes of Bertolt Brecht.

Brecht goes on and gives cynical reviews on double standards of society. He thinks that people are materialistic and they have lost their moral values. A person, who is innocent but declared criminal mistakenly, is unacceptable in this society but a person who kills people for revolutionary purposes is idealized. Brecht does not accept it too as it is against moral standards.

Contemporary Existence and Raymond Williams Views on Tragedy:

Aristotle defined theory of imitation. He said a poet either presented worst world or a better world. Brecht does not agree with Aristotle. He is of the considered view that world should be shown as it is. A playwright should neither present a better world nor worst. He promotes realism. Instead of portraying other societies a dramatist should present society of his own. Remote world is less effective in modern world. Spectators should watch and criticize their own world.

Aristotle worked hard while defining a tragic character. He says that tragic character must be noble by birth because he is best to complete the purpose of a true tragedy. Brecht also rejects this idea. Every play of Brecht is evident that  a common man can be a good tragic character. Not only a common man but also a criminal and even a prostitute can be a tragic character, says Brecht. Today, a common man is entity and it has the same importance as a king has. If he faces a tragedy then his tragedy is equal to the tragedy of a king. Hence, a noble character is no more required for a tragedy in the modern world. Furthermore, a tragedy should portray contemporary people.


Bertolt Brecht further emphasizes on the importance of historical events. Instead of creating Utopian worlds, a dramatist should involve history in his plays. He himself did the same. Many of his plays, for instance “Life of Galileo” and “The Mother”, are remarkable examples of it.

Raymond William expands the very idea of Brecht. He rejects conventional tragedy. This essay and plays of Brecht reject conventional tragedy and provide new definition of tragedy. Raymond Williams also quotes examples and views from Brecht’s plays and uses them as an evidence for rejection of tragedy. Suffice is to say that conventional tragedy is not acceptable in Brecht and Raymond Williams views, therefore, it is rejected.

Related Questions:

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  • Explain in detail what Raymond William means by the “Rejection of Tragedy”.