I mention this because recently I attended a live theatre production of Eurydice, the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and (you guessed it) Eurydice. A modernized version, it retained the essential elements and was both extremely well done and unbearably tragic, so much so that many in the audience --- possibly including me --- got fairly weepy. (The fact that my very talented oldest daughter played the lead role with passion and sensitivity had nothing to do with it, I swear.) Eurydice dies accidentally on her wedding day and her devastated groom is willing to travel even to the underworld to retrieve her. But that doesn’t go well, either...
Eurydice reminded me of Testament, and it got me thinking: why do we like tragic endings? To feel ennobled, watching the suffering of others? Don’t think so, despite what ancient Greeks thought. To learn a lesson? Maybe, although a good comedy probably adequately provides that for most of us. To get pointers on life? Not really. (When a ghost comes calling and tells you he’s your dad, foully murdered by his brother, and wants you to enact revenge, don’t do it --- yeah, that’s kind of a no-brainer, even if your name isn’t Hamlet.)
And writers have to be careful with tragic ends, because people can feel really betrayed, can’t they? Case in point: a romance has developed between my protagonist in Gryphon’s Heir and another character. I have no idea how --- or whether --- it will work out in subsequent books, although there have been intimations it may not. (Why don’t I know? Because Rhiss and Lowri, the two involved, haven’t got around to telling me... yet.) However, many readers, charmed by the romance, have already told me in no uncertain terms this is one affair of the heart that needs to end happily. (To which I shrug and declaim slowly, “Well, I’m not sure...” which for some reason, tends not to please them.) So it’s apparently okay for some characters to meet tragic --- or at least unfulfilled --- ends, but not others.
Returning to the question: partly, I suspect, we can’t help ourselves: there’s morbid curiosity in watching a train wreck in slow motion, isn’t there? We watch in awed fascination as life goes so terribly, completely off the rails in spectacular fashion. We want to turn away, but can’t help looking. And our own rather humdrum lives assume a certain blessed tranquility by comparison. Holy smoke, we think, puts my problems in perspective, for sure.
Partly it’s catharsis. The ancient Greeks probably had it right: emotional release is good for us now and again. A little slice of life, even tragic --- your life lesson for the day, I call it with my students --- provided gratis for your entertainment and edification.
But primarily, I think, tragedy makes for such great drama. We can really sink our teeth into it. Macbeth! we want to shout, don’t listen to those damned witches! They’re up to no good, you dummy! And while you’re at it, don’t listen to your wife, either! She’s a piece of work, all right! But he’s too busy ignoring our sensible advice --- thankfully --- so we spend the next several acts watching the train wreck inevitably unfold. I know folks whose lives are like that. Tragedy involves people making really, really bad choices --- although in fairness, events outside our control often seem to helpfully grease the skidway to hell --- and we all have our hamartia. Even otherwise decent people can (and do) make stupid, stupid decisions. So we can relate. Everyone has that fatal flaw --- in fact, some of us seem to possess many. And that’s the stuff of stories. Good stories. Wonderful, terrible, awful stories.
So lay on, Macduff: cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of... tragedy (sorry, Will.)
We’re watching with bated breath... even though we know this won’t end well. Or maybe especially because we know.