28 pages 56 minutes read

Arthur Miller

Tragedy and the Common Man

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1949

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Tragedy and the Common Man”

The essay Tragedy and the Common Man was written by playwright Arthur Miller in 1949. It was published in The New York Times in the same year, just after the premier of his most famous play, Death of a Salesman. Born in New York City in 1915, Arthur Miller found success as a playwright through “social drama”: drama that depicted the struggles of ordinary American life at the time. In response to criticisms of Death of a Salesman, particularly criticism of its protagonist, Willy Loman, Miller wrote his essay Tragedy and the Common Man to argue that “common” or normal middle- or working-class people provide equally apt subjects for tragic drama as people of wealth or high rank.

This study guide refers to the original version published in 1949 in The New York Times, which can be accessed online. Citations given are to paragraph numbers in this version.

Content Warning: The source material uses androcentric language prevalent at the time, and this is reflected in the guide. The guide makes reference to themes of suicide, murder, and incest, limited to the brief summary of Classical and Renaissance tragic plots.

Miller opens his essay with an observation that, at his time of writing, tragedies have become uncommon. He cites the reasons why their interest has declined: a popular belief that contemporary society lacks heroes, the fact that scientific skepticism has lessened the “heroic attack on life” (1), and the pervasive idea that tragedy is archaic and only fit for people of high stature, such as kings, nobility, or other important figures. Miller disagrees with these arguments and presents his thesis: The common man can be a subject of tragedy as much as people of high stature. He supports this with modern psychiatry; certain concepts/emotional situations (such as the Oedipus and Orestes complexes) derive their names from the royal figures of tragic works but apply to common people. This underpins his point that all people can experience the same emotional situations. He points out that it is commonly accepted that people of high stature can have the same mental/emotional states as the lowly and that if tragedy were only reserved for nobility, common people would not find that these stories resonate with them so much or even have the ability to understand them.

Miller goes on to provide his definition of tragedy: Tragedy is created when a character is ready to die for his sense of personal dignity and/or to regain his rightful position in society. He lists examples of famous tragic heroes from classical Greek tragedy (Orestes and Medea) as well as Shakespearean drama (Hamlet and Macbeth). The character’s previous dignity or rightful position may be displaced by events in the play, or the character may be trying to attain a rightful sense of place for the first time but, in both cases, the tragic events are a result of the character’s “compulsion to evaluate himself justly” (5).

The tragic story is initiated by a tragic flaw. Miller argues that this flaw is not always a weakness, merely an unwillingness to be passive in the face of a challenge to one’s image, and that those who appear to be without this tragic flaw are those who have accepted their fate. Those who choose not to be passive in the face of things that “degrade” them can act as an example for a society to examine and question previously accepted aspects of that society. The fear and terror that is usually associated with tragedy comes from this deeply challenging premise. More importantly, the questioning of rules and assumptions leads to learning and social change. This learning is not exclusive to nobility or royalty but accessible to the common man: In fact, Miller points out, it is the “inner dynamic” of popular social revolutions.

Claiming that a tragic character must be of a certain rank or stature, Miller asserts, ignores tragedy’s deeper purpose. If a character’s stature truly mattered, tragedies would only deal with issues faced by nobles and royalty, and they would not have resonated with wide popular audiences so deeply, or across so many centuries. On the contrary, Miller notes that the reason tragedy appeals to so many is because it deals with a common fear—the fear of being separated from one’s chosen self-image. “Today,” Miller asserts, this fear may be stronger than ever, and felt most strongly by the common man.

Miller returns to the nature of the tragic flaw. He notes that the (self-)destruction which results from the hero’s attempt to “evaluate himself justly” highlights a flaw in the society the character lives in, not necessarily in the character himself. Tragedy, then, serves to critique the aspects of society that “suppress” man.

Miller argues that the psychiatric or sociological view of life becoming pervasive in the mid-20th century is partly to blame for the lack of tragedy as a continued art form. This introspective focus renders heroic action futile or impossible by presenting “our miseries, our indignities” (12) as stemming from the mind itself, removing the societal aspect. The opposite approach, which places all the blame on society, means that the tragic hero must be faultless, lacking “validity” as a character. A tragedy must fall between these two extremes to be effective.

Therefore, tragedy requires the author to be willing to question everything; all social structures, institutions, and customs should be examined. This need not foment social unrest but is an inner struggle and is expressive of the universal human condition.

Miller returns to what he considers the most common misconception about tragedy: that because it has an unhappy ending, it must be pessimistic. Miller argues that the opposite is true: Tragedy is optimistic because it reinforces man’s “indestructible will,” his tenacity in the face of opposing forces. Tragedy, then, must include the possibility of victory; if a hero is faced with a battle he cannot possibly win, he is not a tragic hero but a “pathetic” hero. Tragedy requires a balance between the possible and impossible, and thus reinforces the idea of mankind’s strength of spirit. This optimism explains the lasting appeal of the tragic form.

Miller concludes his essay by stating that the tradition must be revived and updated to reflect the “average man” of the modern era.