How tragedy can end happily

Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is tragic and despairing while Steve Waters's new play Temple offers redemption

June 04, 2015
Simon Russell Beale (left) as the Dean of St Paul's and Paul Higgins as the Canon Chancellor in Steve Waters's play Temple © Johan Persson
Simon Russell Beale (left) as the Dean of St Paul's and Paul Higgins as the Canon Chancellor in Steve Waters's play Temple © Johan Persson

What makes a play tragic rather than comic? This was question posed by Rowan Williams in a typically deft lecture last week at the Actors’ Church in Covent Garden. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, a keen amateur actor in his youth, offered this answer. “Good drama is always about what we know and what we don’t know. It reacquaints us with our ignorance.” More specifically, in a tragedy, “what you don’t know will kill you”; while in a comedy, “what you don’t know… won’t kill you.”

Williams elaborated: “Not knowing who I am, not knowing who my neighbours are, not knowing what my world is, will kill me… It will dry up the springs of my nourishment, it will squeeze the life out of me.” Yet humour, he argued, derives from a similar source. The classic comic moment is when we can see something bad is about to happen, like in a pantomime when we shout "Behind you!" Crucially, though, the stakes are lower. “In comedy not knowing makes us absurd, and recognising absurdity is not the end of the world.”

I had the chance to measure Williams’s thesis in the same week when I went to see two plays with tragic themes playing within streets of the Actors’ Church. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, his classic 1949 play about the slow disintegration of a person’s world; and a new play by Steve Waters called Temple, a fictionalised account of what happened in 2011 when the Occupy anti-capitalist movement pitched its tents on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral—in which Williams himself plays an important, if offstage, role.

In Death of a Salesman Antony Sher puts on a larger-than-life and often very funny performance as Willy Loman. When he speaks about his thwarted career ambitions we wince at his naivety, but can’t help laugh as well. His garrulous salesman patter once made his livelihood possible but now imprisons his perceptions. When he speaks no one listens. Loman’s son Biff tries to escape his father’s ambitions for him but can only do so by destroying his father’s dreams. This production, directed by Greg Doran, cast Alex Hassell as Biff—the same actor who recently played Hal to Sher’s Falstaff in the Henry IV plays. Hal must reject the fantasist Falstaff and take on his father's crown. What Miller does so brilliantly in Death of a Salesman is to imagine the tragic consequences when the father is the fantasist.

After his lecture, I asked Williams how Death of a Salesman fits into his tragic scheme. "Only bit by bit," he told me, "in the interaction of the play does the sense of what the characters have to lose, come into focus.” That slow journey towards self-understanding is comic at first but ultimately ends in Willy’s suicide. “It starts apparently as domestic, rather prosaic interchange,” he told me, “but it moves towards a tragic conclusion in the sense that Willy and others have begun to see that human shipwreck is a terrible thing; human dignity is a precious thing.”

Williams also argued in his lecture that in a secular world tragedy and comedy were less likely. I asked him what he meant by that. “In a world where less is at stake,” he told me, “where loss is not the loss of something quite so precious and extraordinary, both the tragic and the comic lose some of their force. A lot of comedy is about embarrassment—a lot of British comedy—and embarrassment can only make sense when there is a fairly robust sense of the possibility of social shame. Something can be lost that is quite important. If nothing loses you honour or credibility then nothing’s very funny and the same is true for tragedy.”

The idea of losing honour or credibility is the theme of Temple, an exceptional new play by Steve Waters now playing at the Donmar Warehouse. Simon Russell Beale plays the Dean, a character based on the real Dean of St Paul’s Graeme Knowles, who has closed the cathedral due to health and safety concerns caused by Occupy. He wants to reopen the church for worshippers but doing so would mean cooperating with the bankers of the City of London, and the possible violent eviction of protestors. He has little sympathy with Occupy and what he regards as their simplistic “What Would Jesus Do?” posters, but desperately wants to keep the Chapter united. His Canon Chancellor, a left-wing priest with a Phd in Nietzsche—closely based on Giles Fraser—supports the protestors and thinks that re-opening the church would be a mistake. To the delight of Occupy and the outrage of the Dean the Canon Chancellor posts his resignation on Twitter. The Dean tries to keep the warring sides of the church together, eventually taking the decision to re-open but also to resign. He compares himself caustically to Pontius Pilate, taking the safe decision that he also suspects might be the wrong one. But the Dean, in taking the world’s cares on his shoulders, seems more like Christ than Pilate; a martyr to his own sense of duty.

This beautifully played piece—just over 90 minutes—touches on deep issues with a light touch. and Russell Beale is quietly magnificent as the emotionally restrained Canon trying to do his best. During the crisis, the play says, Rowan Williams has been in Assisi—cue laughs from the audience at the Archbishop’s otherworldliness, an accusation often made against him during his time at Lambeth Palace. Temple could be seen as an indirect assessment of Williams’s own success or otherwise as Archbishop. He would be the first to admit that it had practical shortcomings. But as this play hints, what seems like failure can with time turn out to be a success we just didn’t recognise as one. When asked at the lecture whether the Jesus story was tragic or comic, Williams replied that though there are "undoubtedly tragic moments", notably the cruxifiction, the story is also comic because, despite all that happens, for his followers "learning goes on being possible."

Death of a Salesman in playing at the Noël Coward Theatre; Temple is at the Donmar Warehouse