Times are hard for democracy. Trump wants a wall. Senators refuse to question judicial nominees. And anti-Hillary liberals seriously contend that she is “as bad as” the opposing party’s presumptive nominee, vowing not to vote if she wins the nomination.
But when were they ever other than hard? Democracy has always been vulnerable to extreme opinions and dogmatic certainties. Sometimes the price of free speech is listening to things you don’t want to hear.
Theater holds a possible remedy, though, to some of our worst tendencies. It’s pretty simple. We need more tragedy.
Of course, tragedy might seem remote and irrelevant. To many it is dimly remembered as something to do with hubris, catharsis and tragic flaws. We hear the word tragedy in the news mainly when it’s misapplied to some disaster — natural or otherwise. But it needn’t be either irrelevant or misappropriated. Tragedy is not just the stuff of English tests. It has a long and illustrious history as a salve for self-government. It’s no coincidence that democracy and tragedy arose around the same time in ancient Athens.
While scholars disagree about exactly how tragedy arose, we are certain that it evolved alongside Athenian democracy. Athenians understood that what they saw onstage taught them truths and ways of thinking vital for their roles as citizens. Like the law courts, tragedy was a civic institution. Funded by the state, it was perhaps the greatest citizenship class ever.