A friend called me on a Sunday, responding to a birthday message I’d sent. As friends do, we caught up on each other’s lives and then made suggestions about books to read and movies to see. I recommend the films, August: Osage County and Blue Jasmine, both of which are films with dark themes but well executed. My friend said she’d seen Blue Jasmine and loved it but thought the ending was depressing. I reminded her that Woody Allen’s screen play was based on Tennessee Williams’, Street Car Named Desire, which dictated the ending. August: Osage County, I went on, had a similarly dark conclusion but at least some of the characters faced truths about themselves and were made stronger.
When we’d finished our conversation, I sat down to think more about the difference between August: Osage County and Blue Jasmine. To my mind, the former is a traditional tragedy. The story leaves us in tears but offers a ray of hope. Like the eponymous characters Lear, Hamlet and Othello, the lives of the play’s central characters may end badly, but they are at last forced to see the truth about themselves, and truth is a greater prize than happiness.
Blue Jasmine (or Street Car Named Desire), is what I’d call “literature of despair.” It’s similar in outlook to Theatre of the Absurd. Allen’s plot reveals an existence stripped of its numbing rituals. Shorn of diversion, life is unmasked as an existence devoid of meaning or hope – hope being that sharp thorn hidden beneath the petals of illusion. Once dispelled, we discover we have nothing to learn. An American Tragedy, like Street Car Named Desire, is another example of despair literature. The central character, Clyde Griffiths, murders his pregnant lover in the hope of obtaining a better lifestyle. Convicted for his crime, he dies in the electric chair, a victim of an ingratiating manner which allowed him to enter a world far beyond his talents, His flaw is that he never understands his error. As with Dreiser, Thomas Hardy’s Tess d’Urbervilles explores a similar theme. Tess is destroyed because she is beautiful, desired by someone above her class. If she learns anything, it’s not about herself, but that life is cruel and unjust at best, or indifferent at worst.
I’ve long felt tragedy is too broad a term to describe stories where the central character is destroyed. A difference exists between a disaster which gives life meaning and one that doesn’t. A distinction between the two orders of darkness seems required.
(Image from Tess of the D’Urbervilles courtesy of hansmatheson.org)