Why Tragedy is Good for you?

You eat your five a day, take your vitamins, avoid junk food, exercise rigorously – but have you had your daily dose of Tragedy?

I am grateful for the inspiration and title for this article to Oliver Taplin, a well-known Classics scholar, author of numerous books, and the presenter of a number of TV programmes including Greek Fire – a powerful documentary about the “fire” that Ancient Greek culture and drama has brought to the civilised world. (Oliver has kindly endorsed my book on Ritual Theatre – to be published in 6 weeks.)

GreekFireSo I hope you quickly realise that I am not talking about the meaningless and gratuitous tragedy that devastates lives. I’m talking about Tragedy with a capital “T”. Tragedy as a dramatic form that was conceived by the Greeks and was popular in Shakespeare’s day and beyond.

Tragedy is Good For Your

I hope in this article to show you that taking your periodic dose of Tragedy is excellent for your health and well-being. It is essential for a robust sense of humour which is the cornerstone of emotional/physical and spiritual health.  This also ensures a balanced life – where laughter is balanced against serious things such as paying the bills, pursuing your goals, meeting your commitments etc.

Tragedy will give you much better energy levels; your skin will look alive and fresh – men will look more handsome and women more beautiful. You will feel quite simply wonderful.

Avoiding Suffering

And yet if you are like most humans, you probably avoid situations and experiences where there is an opportunity to engage with pain and suffering. You shrink away from reading a heavy book, or seeing a heavy film or play when you’re feeling down because you fear it’s going to make you feel worse. You pursue lighter experiences and events that are going to lift you out of your low mood (you hope) or keep you in a happy state.

And yet you may too find yourself in situations and around people that are far from desirable, or you find yourself exhausted most of the time, or horrible things keep happening to you.

You too may find yourself unable to stop yourself from doing things that you know perfectly well are going to turn out badly and yet a little voice inside eggs you on to do them – believing that it will all work out OK – beating yourself up when they don’t.

So, on the one hand, you avoid things that may lead to suffering and pain, AND ON THE OTHER you also pursue them.

This is part of being human.

How The Ancient Greeks Saw It

The Greeks very clearly saw that it was necessary and healthy for the well-being of their society for emotions to be expressed and released.

Dionysian rite

In other words, suffering was not to be avoided but to be embraced. This is how Greek Theatre evolved which had its beginnings in Dionysian rites:

“In Dionysian rites, participants reached an altered state known as ecstasis (from which the word ecstasy is derived), which enabled the release of powerful emotions through wild ecstatic expression. This was developed by Aristotle into the theory of catharsis in which the dramatic action of the play events climaxed into a release of emotion which had a purging effect and brought about transformation.” (See my article Marrying Theatre with Personal Transformation)

Thousands of years later, we believe the opposite – that it is bad to express emotions. Malidoma Somé, the African initiated elder, compares the healthy expression of emotion within his tribe to the “emotional poverty” of the West.  He is puzzled how people going through terrible tragedies in their lives, sweep everything under the carpet, put on a false smile and pretend everything is “all right”.

Most people have been trained to suppress their feelings from an early age.

Or perhaps you are someone who was brought up in a family where everyone screams and shouts, and so you scream and shout – but never feel that it does you any good. You don’t experience what the Greeks and Malidoma Somé is talking about – the peace that comes when your negative emotions have been cleansed – and the emotional richness that is a direct result of this.

Emotional Richness

Emotional Richness is the state when your emotions are a source of richness, fulfilment and well-being. This is a state where you won’t need to seek after happiness through pleasurable pursuits and events because happiness will be with you. You will feel it as a warmth in your belly that goes with you wherever you go, whether you are stuck in traffic or on top of a mountain.

You will feel joy all the deeper. You will feel more alive to all your emotions and more clear about what you are feeling. Your anger will be clean and clear – and you will be able to express it without causing distress to other people. And you will not find yourself unconsciously expressing passive anger – this is anger that is so suppressed that it is expressed in covert ways. (This is an article in itself – so I won’t explain further here!)

Tragedy and the End of Suffering

Tragedy is a celebration of suffering through a dramatic form – in which the universal suffering that is part of the human condition is enacted to an audience, to bring about ecstasis (ecstasy) and catharsis (emotional cleansing). This is why the Greeks and Shakespeare wrote plays about mega suffering that is out of proportion to the suffering that most people experience.orestesThey wrote about mothers who tear their sons apart (The Bacchae), where wives murder their husbands on return from the war (Agamemnon), where sons go mad  and kill their mothers (Orestes), where ambitious tyrants murder the king and their best friends (Macbeth) or where Kings give away their power and then go mad (Lear).

Tragedy Verus Comedy

Did you know that in the acting profession that the cast of one of the really gruelling tragedies are more likely to be happier; laugh more; get on better with each other and generally have a good time during the production? By contrast, in a comedy the cast are generally unhappier; get into petty fights with each other; enjoy the process less, and are often drowning their sorrows before and after the performance. For the same reason comedians are often depressives.

The casts of tragedies feel better because they are experiencing this ecstasis and catharsis on a daily basis – and it is good for them.

Tragedy and the Law of Attraction

The Law of Attraction teaches that if you participate in negative experiences, you will draw more negative experiences to you. Yet the opposite is true – if you don’t cleanse yourself of the negative experiences that are making you unhappy, you will draw negative experiences to you like filings to a magnet.

Tragedy allows you to journey through the deepest pain that is part of the human condition without it tearing you apart. This is because you are doing it in aesthetic form – through acting; through pretending you are a tragic character; through playing out the big human emotions that are in everybody, and cleansing yourself of their negative effects while at the same time giving pleasure to other people.

This why the audience is so important. The audience enjoys watching this suffering because they don’t have to suffer. They marvel at your skill in expressing emotions that terrify them. You heal them, and you heal yourself without needing to suffer. Through this process, both are liberated.

Having a Good Time

Yesterday I went to a dramatherapy workshop where I got to play out many negative and positive emotions and experiences through the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. And I feel simply amazing today – much better than if I had gone to a party or other event where I would have expected to have a “good time”.

I feel calmer, as if something has resolved in me, without really knowing what has happened.  At the same was able to receive some insight/guidance around an important area of my life. I feel so good today because at the same time I have washed away/cleansing myself of unexpressed or suppressed emotion that builds up as a result of our so-called civilised life.  This I why I say having your daily/weekly or monthly dose of Tragedy is a vital part of a healthy life. it will keep you free of depression and low feelings and will also enable you to occupy a bigger space in the world.


On Thursday I will be starting the Performance Course. This is a place where you will have an opportunity to play this out and experience just how good tragedy is for you.

Lear_header_largerKing Lear is one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.  The course will be an opportunity to play out many different characters:

Lear, the tragic old king who goes mad and rails against his ungrateful daughters, Goneril and Reagan (Lear’s scheming daughters) and the illegitimate Edmund who are all opportunities play out the darker aspects of human nature.

And then there are the innocent characters – Cordelia and the Fool – who eventually bring healing and redemption. This is a space to play out the many parts of yourself and bring healing and redemption.

We will be working differently to working on a normal play so as to intensify the healing effects of Tragedy. This will enable the ecstasis/ catharsis to take place –  and thus free yourself of suffering; reclaim your life energy; feel happier; feel more alive; and all the things I have discussed in this article.

Such is the power of Tragedy and why it is so terribly good for you.

If you cannot join this experience, I suggest you look for opportunities to engage with Tragedy and to play out your real feelings in a similar way. Or go to a good production of a Tragedy or a film where you will get to experience the thrill of catharsis.  I hope you will begin to see Tragedy in a new light and find a way of including more Tragedy in your life and as a result experience greater health and well-being and the emotional richness that naturally follows from that.

If this article has spoken to you, or if you have any questions, or there’s something you’d like to share please do leave a comment. I love to hear from you.

If you would like less suffering and more emotional richness, then I suggest you check out my upcoming events.

© Claire Schrader 2011

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