Articulate with reference to texts, what the term tragedy as applied to drama/ film now means

Articulate with reference to texts, what the term tragedy as applied to drama/ film now means.

Texts to be studied:

Full Metal Jacket, (film,) Directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1987
Thelma and Louise, (film,) Directed by Ridley Scott, 1991

Paul Catherall

Note – I have used italics for some terms used in reference to tragic theory.

(i.) Introduction.

My aim in this study will be, to define and contrast, the aims and methods of tragic drama in the Classical, Renaissance and Modern periods.
After establishing the aims, methods and ultimate intention of Classical and Renaissance tragic drama, I will demonstrate the similarities and differences between ancient and modern tragic texts. My final intention, will be to present a definition of tragedy, as applied to recent filmic texts.

(ii.) Aspects of tragedy in Classical and Renaissance drama.

The primary aim of much Classical and Renaissance tragic drama, is to confront the spectator with the inevitability of suffering in human life.
The protagonists of Classical and Renaissance tragedy are often powerful, sometimes awesome figures. When these individuals fall, their decline is emphasised by the scale of their descent from influence, or happiness, to despair, powerlessness and suffering.
For Aristotle, tragic protagonists must possess Empathy (1), a combination of qualities which allow the audience to identify with the character. Despite the exalted rank of tragic characters, such as Oedipus, Lear and Richard II, we often feel a sense of identification with their imperfect, though aspiring natures.

(1.) Augustal Boal, Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy, p.133 (From: J. Drakakis, ed., Tragedy.)


In his Poetics, Aristotle defines this ‘complex character’ (2), as the best kind of tragic hero, or anti-hero:

‘We are left therefore with the person… who is not outstanding in moral excellence.
The change to bad fortune which he undergoes is not due to some moral defect or depravity, but to an error of some kind.’ 3.

Classical protagonists often exhibit the capacity to make unavoidable and inevitable errors, or Hamartia (4). Both Antigone and Oedipus fall due to catastrophic actions over which they have either little conscious or unconscious control. In Renaissance tragic drama, we feel that protagonists exert more conscious choice over their actions, and that their hamartia is based upon considered decisions. Renaissance protagonists often demonstrate Hubris (*), assumptions or beliefs, either in the self, or some external influence, which will ensure their success or survival. Thus, Shakespeare’s Lear gives up his kingdom in the belief that his daughters will love him, and Macbeth takes the throne of Scotland from Duncan, in the belief that he can defy hierarchical moral order.

Aristotle suggests that the spectator should share the emotions of tragic protagonists, experiencing the pain and suffering of individuals, through the physical action of the drama. Through this identification with the protagonist, the spectator undergoes Catharsis (5), the ‘purging’ of the emotions. Although Aristotle does not explicitly define catharsis, I believe, like O.B. Hardison (6), that catharsis is a process of clarification and insight, both in human and moral nature. This educational, or perceptive process is achieved through the movement of the protagonist from ignorance to knowledge (7).
The point at which the protagonist understands the true nature of his condition, is what Aristotle calls recognition and reversal (8), where the destiny of the protagonist is unavoidably altered as a result of the knowledge he/she has acquired.

Alongside the relationship between protagonist and spectator, the role of plot is also important to Classical and Renaissance tragedy. For Aristotle, role of plot and action are crucial to the aims of tragedy. For Aristotle, Spectacle and Catastrophe (9) are fundamental to the success of tragic drama. The spectacle of suffering and pain, is essential in conveying the reality of tragic events common to human life. Catastrophe is the cumulation of Peripeteia (10), or the decline of fortune, and for Aristotle, should constitute a finalè of considerable suffering for the protagonist, conveyed through violent or emotional drama.
Individuals, such as Oedipus and Antony are often presented as virtuous heroes and leaders. The courage, success and statesmanship of Oedipus as king and hero, contrasts sharply with the amorality of his crime, and descent into misery.

(2.) Malcom Heath, ed., trans., Aristotle’s Poetics, p.29 (8.6 Kinds of Tragedy.)
(3.) Malcom Heath, ed., trans., Aristotle’s Poetics, p.21 (7.2 Second Deduction.)
(*.) Augustal Boal, Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy, p.135 (From: J. Drakakis, ed., Tragedy.)
(4.) Augustal Boal, Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy, p.127 (From: J. Drakakis, ed., Tragedy.)
(5.) Augustal Boal, Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy, p.134 (From: J. Drakakis, ed., Tragedy.)
(6.) O.B. Hardison, Aristotle’s Poetics, p.117 (Chapter VI.)
(7.) Malcom Heath, ed., trans., Aristotle’s Poetics, p.18 (6.4 Reversal.)
(8.) Malcom Heath, ed., trans., Aristotle’s Poetics, p.18 (6.3 – 6.4 Recognition and Reversal.)
(9.) Augustal Boal, Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy, p.134 (From: J. Drakakis, ed., Tragedy.)
(10.) Augustal Boal, Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy, p.134 (From: J. Drakakis, ed., Tragedy.)
In Classical tragedy, the primary aim of the drama, is therefore, to demonstrate the inevitability of suffering, and necessity for endurance within a fallible human and moral nature.
The use of kings and nobles as protagonists in Classical drama, should not deceive us that the protagonists, like Oedipus and Creon, represent human nature in a universal, rather than restricted sense. This kind of tragedy portrays the human condition, fallible and subject to destruction from interior and external forces, what T.S. Eliot called:

‘The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove…’ 11

In Renaissance tragic drama, however, personal choice plays a more prominent role in the destiny of the protagonist. The decisions of the protagonist are often of a conscious nature, what Aristotle defines as Wilfulness (12), acted out of knowledge, rather than ignorance.
The primary aim of Renaissance tragic drama, seems more of an educational nature, a warning to the spectator, to make rational decisions within an amoral natural order. The destruction that results from conscious errors, is often emphasised in punishment entirely disproportionate to the crime, as seen in King Lear’s speech:

‘I am a man, more sinned against than sinning…’ 13

(iii.) Issues in Modern Filmic Tragedy.

Central to tragedy in recent films, is the relationship between the protagonist and
social order. Modern film tragedy is often less concerned with the choices of individuals, than the nature of the environment in which choices are made.
In Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, we are confronted with the brutality and suffering of war. The film raises general issues concerning the suffering and loss of war, but particularly draws on issues of ideology, and the irrationality of political ethics as a justification for conflict.
In Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise, we are presented with another aspect of social tragedy, in which ideology plays a central role. The role and attitudes to gender in society is the most striking aspect of the film, emphasising the destructive nature of modern social culture. In both films, we are presented with cultural and institutional environments, in which ideology defines the actions and destiny of characters.
Although the aim of modern tragic films is often more explicit, and perhaps more ideologically conscious than traditional approaches in drama, many features of ancient tragic texts are present. Perhaps the most important methodological features of the films are spectacle and catastrophe, since modern films are able to use sophisticated special effects, greatly adding to dramatic realism, and Aristotle’s fundamental requirement for tragic drama:

‘Tragedy is the imitation of an action…’ *.

(11.) T.S. Eliot, Selected Works, p.221 (The Four Quartets, Little Gidding.)
(12.) Augustal Boal, Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy, p.127 (From: J. Drakakis, ed., Tragedy.)
(13.) Kenneth Muir, ed., King Lear, p.103 (Act 3, Scene 2, Line 59.)
(*.) Malcom Heath, ed., trans., Aristotle’s Poetics, p.10 (4.1 Definition of Tragedy.)

Other traditional features that are used to convey the scale of descent, or decline of the protagonist, include recognition and reversal. In the case of Full Metal Jacket, we often have the impression that there is no central protagonist, save perhaps two nations fighting in the Jungles of Vietnam. Most obviously, we are led to empathise with the American faction, whose familiar cultural identity we broadly recognise as our own. Rather than serve as a protagonist, a representative of the suffering and loss of war, the character of Joker serves to guide us through the circumstances and events of war. From the beginning, Joker is a device, or tool, which Kubrik uses to remind us of the irrationality and brutality of ideological war. Joker is an anomaly, a soldier whose helmet is daubed with ‘born to kill,’ yet who paradoxically fights to expose the carnage and madness around him. Joker’s comment on his ‘peace badge’, reminds us of the human capacity for both love and destruction:

‘I think it has something to do with the duality of man, sir… the Jungian thing…’ 14

The American war machine often seems a protagonist itself. The collective moods, anxieties and beliefs of the American servicemen personify the ideological beliefs and feelings of a nation. When the credulous American command falls during the ‘Tet’ cease-fire, a recognition and reversal occurs, not for Joker, but for the entire military machine.
The initial arrogance of the American forces in Vietnam, could be described as their hamartia. The subsequent nemesis (*), or decline of the American forces, is a direct result of this overconfidence, and sense of ideological superiority:

Officer: ‘This is the big shit sandwich, and we’re all gonna have to take a bite…’ 15.

Perhaps one of the ultimate aims of modern tragedy, is therefore to expose the ideological fallibility of society, much in the same way that Classical and Renaissance tragedy reveals the flaws of individuals. Like Renaissance Tragedy, modern tragic film reveals the hamarita or flaws in social authority. In Renaissance texts, like King Lear, the flaws of the individual directly influence the state, since Lear is the state. In Thelma and Louise, and Full Metal Jacket, we witness the decline of individuals, not as a consequence of personal hamartia, but due to the flaws or defects in social or cultural order.
In the following sections, I shall illustrate how the role of social order, ideology and culture, is the determining influence on the fate and actions of central characters, and how the faculty of individual choice is circumscribed by these external influences.

(iv) A tragedy of gender ideology – Thelma and Louise.

Thelma and Louise is primarily an ideological tragedy. I use this phrase, because the ideology of gender and popular culture is a central issue throughout the film. From the opening scenes, we are presented with impressions of the role of women in contemporary society. Louise is introduced working in a low paid waitress job, whilst Thelma is presented as a dutiful house-wife, enduring the jibes and insults of her husband.
In both cases, we are shown the auxiliary and servile nature of women in society. The social condition of women is clearly associated with the culture, and social attitudes of gender.. Throughout the film, Thelma’s husband, Darrel, is unwilling to allow his wife any kind of freedom, he expects her to both serve and obey him:

‘No you won’t, you’ll be back today… Get you’re butt back here now!’ 16.
(14.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket.
(*) Augustal Boal, Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy, p.134 (From: J. Drakakis, ed., Tragedy.)
(15.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket.
(16.) Ridley Scott, (Director,) Thelma and Louise. 4.
The excursion of Thelma and Louise to the country, demonstrates their aspiration for self-determination and self-respect. The aspirations of the women are constantly seen in contrast with the social culture and attitudes of men. The two women aspire to possess the same cultural freedoms as men, and to break the stereotypical nature of female identity:

Thelma: ‘I don’t know how to fish.’
Louise: ‘Neither do I, but if Darrel doesn’t, how hard can it be?’ 17.

The aspirations of the women are confounded when they stop at a roadside bar, and a man, Mervyn attempts to rape Themla. When Louise kills the man, abusive and violent, her actions are not so much the result of fear or anger, although these factors are present, but the injustice that Louise feels for all abused and undervalued women. Louise’ actions are a matter of principle, an outcry against the injustice of gender inequality and indifference:

‘In the future when a woman’s crying like that she isn’t having any fun…’ 18.

When the police inspector, Hal Slovak interviews the cafe waitress, we are reminded that Thelma and Louise are ordinary women, no less moral or good than any other member of society. The waitress, who claims she understands ‘human nature’ suggests that Thelma and Louise were, ‘not the murdering types.’ 19.

Louise’s decision to flee from authority, is also influenced by culture and gender ideology. Louise considers, that since Thelma danced with her assailant all evening, no-one will believe that she was unwilling to have intercourse with Mervyn:

‘Just about a hundred people saw you with him…
whose gonna believe that, we don’t live in that kind of world Thelma…’ 20.

In the scene where Darrel is interviewed at home, we are shown another aspect of male attitudes toward women. The policemen encourage Darrel to respond courteously to Thelma when she calls. Instead, Darrel bursts out laughing. The idea of treating his wife as an equal, and with affection is totally against his machoistic nature.

Thelma and Louise is at times a violent and disturbing film. The violence that the two women encounter, and perpetrate themselves, seems symptomatic of the conflict between their aspirations for self-determination and the circumscribed ideological environment in which they exist. From the beginning of the film, we encounter subtle hints of the violence and conflict to come. Thelma’s gun is discussed early in the film, we learn from Darrel that she has never used it before. The issue of the gun seems to symbolise the latent capacity for self-assertion, and indeed, violence in the female psyche.
When Darrell and the policemen learn of Thelma’s armed robbery at the store, none of them can believe what they are seeing:

Darrel: ‘Thelma would never learn to use the gun, she never used it in her life!’ 21.

(17.) Ridley Scott, (Director,) Thelma and Louise.
(18.) Ridley Scott, (Director,) Thelma and Louise.
(19.) Ridley Scott, (Director,) Thelma and Louise.
(20.) Ridley Scott, (Director,) Thelma and Louise.
(21.) Ridley Scott, (Director,) Thelma and Louise.

Throughout the film, we are reminded of the relationship between violence, and the ideological framework of society. Almost all the men Thelma and Louise encounter exhibit violence of one kind or another. Darrel’s aggression is seen in his sexism and unwillingness to accept his wife as an equal. Louise’s partner, Jimmy is also uses aggression to coerce Louise into revealing her secret.
When the hunt begins for the women, the sympathetic policeman, Slovak, played by Harvey Keitel, recognises the essential innocence of the two women, and the circumstantial reasons for their crimes. Slovak wants to help the women, but is powerless to prevent pursuit by the intimidating militia.
Throughout the film, Thelma and Louise respond with violence to the brutality and aggression they encounter. The violence of the women, such as the store raid, and trapping of the policeman in his own car boot, is almost always influenced by circumstance, and the women’s incapacity to resolve their problems in any other way.

In Thelma and Louise, we see individuals whose destinies are influenced and defined by the society in which they live. When Louise shoots the rapist, we empathise with the morality and justice of Louise’s action. What Louise did was wrong by the standards of conventional legality, but we recognise Louise’s dilemma, to either fight, or accept the abusive environment in which she exists.
Like Antigone, Thelma and Louise are compelled to act out of an inner, or moral necessity. From an empirical perspective, it is arguable that Louise’s action was an irrational and amoral decision, however, from a thematic perspective, the dramatic event of the killing is necessary to the wider issues of the film.
Thelma and Louise act out of knowledge, their actions are directly related to the circumstances in which they find themselves, and are immediate responses to the problems they encounter. The tragic consequences of their actions, seem less the result of hubris, or personal flaws, and more the result of snap decisions, in which the factor of survival is predominantly present. Thelma and Louise often have the choice of using violence, or submitting to the aggression, or authority of a predominantly patriarchal, and suppressive social order. However, the two women consistently choose to reject passive options, and engage in confrontation with the oppressive ideological and cultural environment in which they find themselves.
In this sense, therefore, Thelma and Louise have no choice, save to be true to their own nature, and aspirations for social freedom as individuals.

Thelma and Louise is therefore tragic, in the sense that the film demonstrates the fallibility, and capacity for self destruction in society. Like Full Metal Jacket, we often feel there is no central protagonist in the film, with whom we can empathise and identify. Rather, this role is shared between the two women, and the other individuals, such as Darrel and Slovak, who come to represent the patriarchal social order responsible for the fall of the two women.
The descent of Darrel into apathy, and unwilling contribution of Slovak to the destruction of the women, both symbolise a recognition and reversal for patriarchal order, and an acknowledgement that popular cultural attitudes are both unjust and destructive.
Thelma and Louise, is therefore an ideological tragedy, since the destiny of the protagonists are defined by the destructive social attitudes and culture of society.

(v) A tragedy of political ideology – Full Metal Jacket.

From the outset of Full Metal Jacket, we are shown scenes of dehumanisation, and indoctrination, by the forces of culture and ideology. The scene where the recruits are shaven, suggests a surrender of personal identity, and loss of individuality as human beings.
Throughout the film, references are constantly made to institutional and religious ethics. The servicemen will become, ‘ministers of death, praying for war’ (22) . Similarly, the soldiers will henceforth be married to their guns:

Sergeant Heartman: ‘Tonight, you will sleep with your rifle, you will give your rifle a girl’s name…’ 23.

Drill Sergeant Heartman, seems to symbolise the brutalising process of ideological conditioning in American society. His recruits are not merely trained to kill, but become ideological instruments against the political threat of Socialism:

‘Chaplain Charlie will give you a sermon… on how the marine corps will defeat the evils of Communism…’ 24.

Like Kubrick’s previous film, Dr. Strangelove (1964), the film explores the brutality and suffering of war, and the ideological causes of conflict. Interestingly, the film is split into two parts: the first, documenting the combat training of a recruit platoon on ‘Paris Island’, and the second portraying the actual experience of war for the recruits.
Throughout the two episodes, Private Joker is both our commentator and guide. Joker’s commentary reminds us of the brutality and madness of war, regardless of the ideological principles for which it is fought. Despite the psychological conditioning of ‘Paris Island,’ Joker retains his ability to consider events from a moral and human perspective. When Joker is sent to De-Nang as a military journalist, he questions the propagandist nature of the war magazine, Stars and Stripes:

Captain: ‘Grunts like to read about dead officers, change it so there’s an officer in it…’
Joker: ‘What about a general?’ 25.

In the training camp, we witness the indoctrination of recruits, in a combination of anti-communist, patriotic and machoistic drill. The obvious comparison with Heartman’s monosyllabic doggerel-songs, are the ideological slogans and protocol of Hitler’s Third Reich:

Sergeant Heartman: ‘What do we do for a living ladies?’
Recruits: ‘Kill, kill, kill!’
Heartman: ‘And what makes the grass grow?’
Recruits: ‘Blood, blood, blood!’ 26.

In the boot camp, we are given hints of the brutality to come in Vietnam, in the violence inflicted on, and by, the simple minded soldier, Pyle.
Pyle’s madness is symptomatic of the brutalising effect of contemporary social and military ideology. Pyle becomes the ideal killer, without remorse or guilt, symbolic perhaps of the entire military and political machine, which goes to war for an ideological, and seemingly illogical cause. Young men are transformed into mindless killers, fighting a war of ideology, rather than the supposed humanitarian reason of assisting South Vietnam:

‘It is your killer instinct that must be harnessed, it is the hard heart that kills…’ 27.

(22.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket.
(23.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket.
(24.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket.
(25.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket.
(26.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket.
(27.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket. 7.
The self-destruction of ideological conflict is demonstrated in Pyle’s shooting of Heartman, and subsequent suicide.

In Vietnam itself, we follow the progress of Joker, who has decided to become a war-journalist for the magazine Stars and Stripes. The ideological impact of Western capitalism is immediately presented as a corrupting and degenerative influence. De Nang is a city of prostitutes and petty thievery, where the local Vietnamese exploit and steal from their supposed allies, the Americans. Throughout the film, Joker draws our attention to the ideological nature of the war, and the very real suffering that results from conflict. Joker is less an active protagonist than an observer, or commentator on the wider events in Vietnam. As a serviceman, Joker has little choice but to obey orders. Joker’s passivity, and inability to influence the destruction about him, is powerfully evoked at the mass grave in ‘Hue’, and in the scene where he asks an air-gunner, why he shoots women and children in the fields below:

Gunner: ‘You should do a story on men sometime. …’cos I’m so fuckin’ great.
I got me one hundred and fifty-one dead gooks killed…’ 28.

Throughout the film, we have the impression that the American war machine, or the cultural ideology behind it, is the main protagonist in the film. The ideology of militant capitalism and democracy is constantly demonstrated, in the jingoist language of the Americans, and in their cultural assumptions of Communism.
When Joker interviews the soldiers, we are given the impression that the American forces are invulnerable, and far superior to the Vietnamese army:

Raptor-man: When the going gets tough, who do they call in? …They call in Mother Green, and her killing machine… 29.

However, as the ‘Viet-Cong’ gains the upper hand, the hamartia or hubris of American culture is exposed. At the magazine briefing, Joker’s officer admits that, ‘the war is now unwinnable.’ 30.

In the final part of the film, where Joker accompanies his old comrade, Cowboy through the ruins of Hue, we witness both the destruction, and bloody indifference of war.
The young men we saw on ‘Paris Island’ have become experienced killers. Soldiers like Animal Mother, seem to symbolise the wasted potential of youth as part of the machinery of ideological war. Although Kubrick is loath to explicitly criticise the ideological background to the Vietnam war, we are given hints of Kubrick’s feelings in the comments of the embittered soldiers:

Raptor-man: ‘At least they dies for a good cause…’
Animal Mother: ‘What cause was that? If I’m gonna get my balls blown off for a word, my word is poontang…’

The final conflict between the platoon, and a young girl, suggests the indifference and brutality of the conflict. Like the young men who have been killed, we are struck by the wasted potential of youth in the girl’s death, and by the violation of an ancient and proud nation in her final prayers.

(28.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket.
(29.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket.
(30) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket. 8.

Ultimately, therefore, Kubrick’s film is an exploration into the brutality and suffering of war, particularly stressing the irrationality of ideological conflict.

Unlike Thelma and Louise, there is no real protagonist, with whom we can identify and share suffering, save Joker, whose role is to remind us of our passivity and inability to influence the destructive consequences of ideological dogma. Instead, we watch the decline of American optimism and self-confidence, as the American forces are driven out of Vietnam, and the social psyche of the American nation itself becomes the tragic protagonist. In a sense, the Vietnamese people themselves might be seen as protagonists in the film, since it is they who suffer at the hands of American aggression and violence.

The main concern of Full Metal Jacket, is therefore the destructive nature of ideological systems, and the irrationality of war fought over political or social beliefs. When the film was produced, in 1987, the cold war was still a very real threat in Europe, and so we have to identify the conflict of ideologies as a warning for the nuclear threat, and global catastrophe in the modern world.

(vi) Conclusion – A definition of Modern Filmic Tragedy.

Throughout the two films, we are struck by the nature of the protagonists, or characters and the environments in which they exist. Common to both films are ordinary individuals, typical of society, whose lives are influenced or defined by ideology and culture.
Often, these individuals come to symbolise wider issues in society. In Full Metal Jacket, the central issue of the film, is the cause and purpose of war. In Thelma and Louise, the main issue in focus, is the role and cultural attitudes to women in society.
None of the individuals in the films have any real choice over their destinies, all seem passive, or circumscribed by events over which they have little control. In Full Metal Jacket, Joker joins the army, because he wanted to, ‘meet an ancient, and interesting people, and kill them…’ Joker is symptomatic of social attitudes, since the politics of ideological conflict is an integral, and unquestioned aspect of his American culture.
In Thelma and Louise, we are presented with individuals whose decisions are similarly circumscribes by social attitudes. In the film, we have the impression that Louise’s decision to kill the rapist was irrational, but we also identify with Louise’s moral perspective, and applaud her motive. Louise’s action is an outcry for justice in an amoral cultural climate, and symptomatic of a flawed gender culture, rather than that of Louise herself.

Modern tragedy seems to owe much to traditional tragic forms, such as reversal and recognition, the spectacle and catastrophe, etc. However, whereas Classical tragedy is often concerned with the individual, and the theme of suffering in human life, modern tragedy seems more concerned with the suffering of society as a whole.
In this respect, modern tragic texts are more similar to Renaissance tragedy, such as King Lear and Macbeth, where the decline of the individual has direct influence over the fortunes of society as a whole. Modern protagonists, however, are often less able to influence their own destinies. The choices of modern protagonists are often reached out of knowledge, rather than ignorance, but not out of freedom (*), or action without external influence.
The protagonists of Full Metal Jacket and Thelma and Louise, are all circumscribed and defined by the ideological culture in which they exist. The violence and destruction that results from ideological dogma is the central theme, and basis of tragic drama in both films.

(*) Augustal Boal, Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy, p.134 (From: J. Drakakis, ed., Tragedy.)


Perhaps there is no general definition of Modern tragedy, save the common theme of needless destruction as a result of ideological and cultural attitudes. The ideological basis of modern filmic tragedy can be seen in many recent films; examples include the economic and social critique of Scorcese’s Taxi Driver (1977,) and in the tragedy of racial discrimination, as seen in Edward Zwick’s Glory, (1987.)

Like Renaissance tragedy, modern tragic films are therefore a combination of warning – as seen in the ideological warfare of Full Metal Jacket, and exposure of flaws existing in our own society, as seen in the critique of gender attitudes in Thelma and Louise.

Modern tragic drama, as seen popularly in the form of film, is therefore an artistic medium, which through imitation of an action, and the portrayal of pity and suffering, evokes empathy for the spectator with the protagonist. Although not always clearly defined, the protagonist exhibits attributes of the traditional Aristotelian and Classical tragic forms, such as recognition and reversal, hamartia and catastrophe. These attributes are present in a wider sense, amongst the characters constituting the social, or ideological order of the society portrayed. Thus, in Thelma and Louise, we feel empathy both for the loss of the two women’s lives, and the sense of loss demonstrated by the Harvey Keitel character, Slovak.

Furthermore, central characters, such as Joker, whose lives are influenced by the circumstances of their environment, often possess little, or no influence over events resulting from that environment. Thus, in Full Metal Jacket, Joker merely documents, or commentates on the brutality and suffering he sees around him, and in Thelma and Louise, the actions of the two women are defined by the cultural attitudes that influence their choices.

Finally, modern filmic tragedy possesses a consistent ideological basis, which precipitates the events of the drama, and influences exerted on the characters.
Thus, in Thelma and Louise, ideology of gender attitudes is the cause of conflict and destruction for the women, and in Full Metal Jacket, the socio-economic interests of capitalism, thinly veiled by the militant ideology of democracy, is the cause of war with communist North-Vietnam.



Primary Texts


Kubrick, Stanley, director., Full Metal Jacket (Warner Brothers, 1987)
Scott, Ridley, director., Thelma and Louise (Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1991)


Heath, Malcom, ed., trans., Aristotle’s Poetics (Penguin, London, 1996.)
Fagles, Robert, ed., trans., Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays (Penguin, London, 1998.)
Hunter, G.K., ed., Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Penguin, London, 1981.)
Muir, Kenneth, ed., Shakespeare’s King Lear (Routledge, London, 1997.)

Secondary Reading

Haigh, A.E., The Tragic Drama of the Greeks (Dover, Oxford, 1968.)
Hardison, O.B., Aristotle’s Poetics (Prentice Hall Press, London, 1968.)
Ross, David, Aristotle (Methuen, London, 1964.)