It was not uncommon to have a visceral reaction when watching “Oedipus” at the Dionysus Festival or viewing “Romeo and Juliet” at the Globe. These fantastical pieces, with their cathartic catastrophes, have set the tone for much of what we see in contemporary theater.
Today, audiences often watch a protagonist deal with some dismal reality. Spoleto Festival USA’s production of “Mayday Mayday” is only the latest example. Catastrophe in theater no longer affects only the nobility; now it is described by many relatively average people enduring a particular misery.
Catastrophe in the theater has morphed from violent eye gouging and poisoned minds to a plethora of autobiographical trauma. Here’s a sampling:
“Oedipus Rex” or “Oedipus the King” by Sophocles (circa 429 B.C.). Known as the seminal tragedy to come from Ancient Greece, Sophocles’ “Oedipus” has been reimagined numerous times with the evolution of theater. Spurning the psychological Oedipus complex, this play has set the bar for modern catastrophe theater and how personal tragedy can thrive on stage.
“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare (1600-02). Considered Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, “Hamlet” explores the themes of revenge, fate, incest and moral corruption. Relying heavily on the motifs of choice and destiny, the blood-thirsty Prince of Denmark does not realize that his doom has been preordained.
“Athalie” by Jean Racine (1690). Racine was known as a French tragedian playwright. “Athalie,” drawing from the tragic notion of the Greeks and Shakespeare, centers on a queen who predicts her own death after murdering for her power.
“Hedda Gabler” by Henrik Ibsen (1890). With a plot that spirals downward from the start, “Hedda Gabler” confronts rivalry, jealousy, power and suicide.
“Our Town” by Thornton Wilder (1936). A more subdued tragedy, “Our Town” explores the lives of people in small-town America. With themes of death, marriage and happiness, Wilder’s play results in the death of the protagonist and her depressing choice of a specific day to come back to Earth.
“How I Learned to Drive” by Paula Vogel (1997). This Pulitzer Prize-winning play focuses on a teenage girl who is molested by her uncle. When driving becomes her only means of control in her life and her feelings toward her uncle become unorthodox, Lil’Bit (the title character) grows up to ponder what made her uncle a pedophile.
“Bash” by Neil LaBute (1999). LaBute’s tension-filled play comprises three one-acts. Influenced by Greek tragedies, the show recalls “Medea” and “Iphigenia” as four people deal with fate, revenge and brutal insecurity.
“Wishful Drinking” by Carrie Fisher (2006). After experiencing the many hazards of Hollywood, and the realization that Princess Leia would haunt her forever, Fisher decided to bring her troubled celebrity life to the stage.
“The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion (2007). Vanessa Redgrave took on the voice of Didion for the adapted memoir-turned-play. The one-woman show recounts Didion’s loss of her husband and daughter in a two-year period and how Didion is a representation of the everywoman experiencing grief.
“Belleville” by Amy Herzog (2013). In Herzog’s play, the tragedy sneaks up on the audience when a seemingly happy married couple begins to fall apart and stumbles toward a dark conclusion.
Josh Austin is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.