illustrated portrait of American playwright Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller

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Discuss Arthur Miller as a theorist of tragedy.

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Miller’s main argument, as laid out in 1949 for the New York Times, was that the requirement for tragedy to be about “a great man brought low” did not confine tragedy to ancient Greece. Though “great” implies high office, royalty, etc., today in a democratic society all men are “equal”.  He maintained that modern psychiatry acknowledges similar nobility by using such terms as “Oedipus complex” in their analysis of psychiatric disorders (“We never hesitate to attribute to the well-placed and the exalted the very same mental processes as the lowly”) and that in modern drama the audience feels something similar to catharsis when a character like Willy Loman follows an uncontrollable path to an inevitable destructive conclusion.

In comparing Elizabethan tragedy such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth he points out that we all, high or low, try to maintain “a sense of personal dignity”, and that the loss of it is tragic in the best sense of the word. In a word, Miller modernized Aristotle's ideas by pointing to general psychology.

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