"Tragedy in American Drama and Theater: Genre, Mediality, Ethics"

International Conference, Augsburg, June, 1-3, 2017


poster - Tragedy

After the primacy of melodrama throughout the 19th century, it was Eugene O’Neill and the avant-gardist spirit of the little theatre movement almost exactly one hundred years ago who began to draw on the typology of tragedy to reinvent and transform the American theatre landscape. While this appropriation of tragedy has continued to resonate and pervade the landscape of drama writing and performance practice up until today, the range of scholarly interest was thus far mostly content with the inquiry into the prevalent literary canon of O’Neill, Miller, or Williams (Wetmore, Andreach) and the deployment of common terminology and frameworks (Aristotle, Schopenhauer, or Nietzsche). Moreover, scholarship itself, in the last decades, has been rather silent on a systematic and wide-ranging investigation of the development of tragedy in American drama and theater. Instead, provocative claims appeared that declared the “death of tragedy” (Steiner) or the dismissal of tragedy as a distorted representation of human life (Meeker). However, a second trend in Anglo-American scholarship shows a renewed interest (Felski, Brown/Silverstone, Lehmann) and the editors of the PMLA even speak of an “urgency” (Foley/Howard) of scholarly interest in tragedy.
The interdisciplinary and international conference “Tragedy in American Drama and Theater: Genre, Mediality, Ethics” sets out to reevaluate tragedy as both a literary genre and as a theatrical form that explores its poetological, structural, and symbolic reactivations in the American modernist and contemporary drama in relation to innovative theorizations. We aim at addressing the question of the genre’s innate diachronic/historical dialectic of generic transformations and continuities of appearance in the twentieth and twenty-first century with regard to three realms of inquiry: genre, mediality, and ethics. In particular the intricate interrelation between the theorizations of genre, the medial characteristics of text and performance culture, and the ethical underpinnings of tragedy and the tragic turn tragedy into a genre that brings together different fields of inquiry. This engenders a sense of sustainability in (American) tragedy that dynamically oscillates between transformation and stability, disruption and regeneration of its generic, ethical, and aesthetic character.

Contrary to Aristotle’s subordination of the theatrical spectacle to the dramatic text, we discuss the foregrounding of theatrical practices as a dramaturgical strategy to enhance the possibilities of communication and codification of American tragedy. With recourse to canonical and contemporary plays, our conference sheds new light on tragedy as a transmedial genre, in which typological components (representation, suffering, catharsis, pity and fear) are engendered and refigured through visual, auditory, or material/corporeal means. This approach equally reflects recent developments in American theater as new media, video, photography or digital media increasingly leave their imprint on the refiguration of forms of (re-)presentation. The tragic is, as Lehmann reminds us, not a representation of reality but a “mode of seeing” that is produced and facilitated by the “echo chamber of tragic art” (cf. Widmann, our translation, n.p.).
Moreover, literary and cultural theory of the later 20th century including postcolonialism, gender theory, reader-response theory and ecocriticism provide critical impulses to rethinking the correlation between tragedy and ethics. The question of ethics in tragedy has been an ambivalent one. Reflected in Aristotle’s concept of peripeteia (reversal from good to bad or vice versa) it frequently raised the question of an embedded moralism engendered by tragedy. This conference addresses the complexity of the question, while maintaining that the American tragedy engenders ethical criticism in a time of wars and international conflicts, the rise and fall of communism, the crises of capitalism, through increasing globalization and digitization of our life worlds, or the threats through climate change. Tragedy is a site for the negotiation of cultural conflicts, the complex dynamics of identity formation in multinational and -cultural environments, and the historical weight of supposedly identity-forming myths of the American Dream, the ideals of the pursuit of happiness, freedom, a culture of optimism, and individualism. Tragedy thus constitutes a space in which societies communicate and negotiate their values and norms, their morals and ethics. Tragedy, in this context, provides a source of vital counter-discourses to dominant discourses within society. The talks throughout the conference bring together preexisting forms of theorization and explore tragedy’s creative, thematic, and aesthetic centrality and value attested to it since the time of its origins in ancient Greek culture.

The synchronic as well as diachronic perspective is combined with the interrelation of theoretically informed textual interpretations. As the subject of tragedy requires interdisciplinarity, the conference brings into dialogue on the one hand traditional fields of research like philosophy and literary studies and on the other hand newer fields of inquiry like media studies and cultural studies. This promises fruitful synergetic effects: firstly, concerning the insights into the development of tragedy as a genre in the American context, secondly, its theorization, and thirdly, the interrelation between the dramatic arts and other fields of scholarship, in particular philosophy.

For the conference poster, click here.

Conference Organization:

Prof. Dr. Hubert Zapf
Dr. Johanna Hartmann (
Julia Rössler, M.A. (