How is Wilson’s play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom tragic according to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy?

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Ma Rainey's Bottom, also known as The Tragedy of Levee Green conforms to the tenets proposed by Aristotle in "Theory of Tragedy", which he published in Poetics. Based on Levee's tragedy as the force that holds the plot together, it is arguable that the following factors are evidenced throughout this play.

1. Plot

As the most important part of the play, the plot should be complex, but also easily understood. The complexity stems from the fact that situations are bound to come, unfold, and then transform. The "easiness" of understanding actually means being able to make complete sense of it. If the audience "gets it", then it is a well-written plot.

In this case, the audience is immersed in the world of show business, particularly of music. In the Blues scene, white hierarchies and black hierarchies coexist, with the characters standing by the role they each play in their groups, their rank systems, and their circumstances. Looming in the distance are the universal obstacles of racism and social injustice. Nevertheless, all characters want to thrive and leave a mark.

Levee's story represents the plot as a whole. His complexities as a character, and the fate that he is meant to receive, serve as the cautionary tale that makes this a true tragedy on its own.

Catastrophe, Anagnorisis and Peripeteia

Ma Rainey's also conforms to these three principles, one of which should be present in a tragedy. In this case, we find all three in the story of Levee.

  • Anagnorisis is described by Aristotle by

a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined for good or bad fortune

This element occurs early in Levee's life. A victim of extreme racial crimes, Levee's father is lynched and his mother is raped. It is too early for Levee, but he soon enough in life gets to realize that life is not fair, in fact, that life is brutal.

  • Peripeteia, or "reversal of intention"

Levee is definitely a man bound to tragedy. He comes from chaos, and he is going to leave in chaos. Still, he tries to push his tragedy aside and thrive through music. Understanding that there are higher obstacles than he can beat, he sells his soul and tries to use this venue to make his wishes come true. Incredibly, even this does not work, which prompts a rage that ends in murder.

  • Catastrophe

Levee's rage leads to murder. None of this hopes gave way. He could beat no obstacle. His life is in ruin.

2. Characters

The characters in a tragedy should be identified with the following descriptors

  1. Essentially good- A quality of moral purpose. Levee is a good man who has been bullied by fate.
  2. Fit of character- Again, Levee represents antagonism and anger, but deep within, he is just a musician who wants to succeed. He is not a villain in the mundane sense of the word. He is respectable, and he loves his parents. He is a good man turned bad.
  3. Realistic- There is nothing magical nor over-sophisticated about any character.
  4. Consistent personality traits- Levee, as well as all the other characters, are archetypal of their specific behaviors. They represent the emotions that they express throughout the play as well as their own particular struggles. That being said, they do not move away from those characteristics.  
  5. Necessary or logical- Each character plays a specific role that nobody else could replace. They are all equally relevant.
  6. Idealized, ennobled- Ma Rainey is seen as the queen bee of the group. The musicians, each of them, is the epitome of the emotions that they elicit in the audience. Tragedy immolates Levee and ennobles him as a victim of life and circumstances.

3. Diction, the fourth element

The choice of words embody each character thus bringing out each of their backgrounds and lifestyles through speech.

Levee: You ain’t gotta rehearse that . . . ain’t nothing but old jug-band music. They need one of them jug bands for this.

Slow Drag: Don’t make me no difference. Long as we get paid.

Levee: That ain’t what I’m talking about, n**ger. I’m talking about art!

Slow Drag: What’s drawing got to do with it?

Levee: Where you get this n**ger from, Cutler? He sound like one of the Alabama n**gers.

The diction used reveals several things:  a) struggle,  b) a search for identity,  c) the reality of black America in the 1920's.

4. Melody, the fifth element

Music envelops the play, moves it forward, and fuels the passions of the characters. Ma Raine, the Mother of Blues, does not take center stage in the play, but it is her character's spirit and soul, its substance and strength, its passion and talent, that puts it all together.

5. Catharsis

While the audience may or may not agree with Levee's actions, it is clear that the ending came as an ultimate action to end his tragedy. It is the accumulation of all of his frustrations, his anger, his grief, and his pain. It is a violent and drastic ending, but it seals the fate of Levee for once, and for all.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

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