Richard Halpern, Eclipse of Action: Tragedy and Political Economy

Richard Halpern, Eclipse of Action: Tragedy and Political Economy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017) 313 pp. £34.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780226433653

Halpern begins Eclipse of Action with an argument that modern tragedy reflects a crisis in the political economy, a ‘crisis of action’ rather than a ‘crisis in action’, one that threatens the definition of tragedy itself, so that it becomes ‘less meaningful and consequential’ (3). Greek tragedy typically depicts the demise of the state, while modern tragedy replaces the monarchial figure with middle-class protagonists and the domestic realm of the ‘bourgeois or petit bourgeois household’ (15).

In Chapter One, Halpern explores Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) and The Theory of Moral Sentiment (1759), which examine the notion of a shifting market based on supply and demand to assess diverse dichotomies and correlates, all of which affect in some way an understanding of tragedy and economy. In Smith’s theatre, then, tragedy no longer imitates action; rather it ‘represents states of suffering’, where the spectator’s concern becomes an outward show of emotion by which he himself becomes a spectacle. An example Halpern offers is Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1623), when Banquo’s bloody ghost appears at the banquet, a sight so disturbing that Macbeth himself becomes a spectacle. Adam Ferguson responded to Smith in An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), arguing that human beings thrive on action and particularly competitive, antagonistic action, whereas the pursuit of animal pleasures causes political decay. Hannah Arendt, on the other hand, argues in The Human Condition (1958) that the product of work is useful, but the product of art is uselessness because it cannot be used up.

Having established the framework for the relationship between tragedy and economy, Halpern begins Chapter Two with a discussion of The Oresteia, first staged in 458 BCE, drawing connections between military prowess, economic benefit to the state, and the chorus of Greek tragedy. For example, Clytemnestra’s net-like plot to murder her warrior husband Agamemnon offers ‘an irresistible image of the economic’ (86) through the management of her household and her references to the commodities naval power provides. Greek drama, Halpern determines, focuses on action rather than activity, employing political rhetoric that envisions ‘the city as provisioning itself by means of military action rather than material production’, even though the poet himself is a ‘maker’ of sorts (89). The theatrical space fills the gap between public, political space, a sphere for both military and political action, and the domestic one, where production typically occurs.

In Chapter Three, Halpern claims that early modern tragedy also probes the tension found in the political economy. In his analysis of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, whose first recorded performance occurred in 1594, Halpern draws on Karl Marx to contend that Faustus’ sale of his soul is ‘the reduction of soul to a commodity by means of its exchange for other material goods’ (115), a transaction, he concludes, that is analogous to Marlowe selling his play to the theatre manager. Using Marx’s theory of the alienation, Halpern points out the alienation of the playwright’s labor upon the sale of his manuscript, by which construct the play becomes a commodity.

In Chapter Four, Halpern analyses Shakespeare’s Hamlet, probably performed in 1600 or 1601, observing the economic hostility to the professional theatre, where the players neither made nor produced anything and therefore contributed no ‘durable commodities’ (139). Drawing on Arendt’s notion of labor and work, Halpern suggests that Shakespeare’s play develops conflict between making (and thus labor) and doing (activity devoid of production). Although theatre actors may ‘play’ onstage, and hence were referred to as ‘players’, the characters within the play itself are ceaselessly laboring, whether the worms and maggots of the graveyard, the Danish workers, or the gravediggers. The labor within this play creates an economic metabolism that intersects with the political as the laborers are impressed to work by the state; however, the laborers also appropriate the state through the revolt of the masses. Hamlet, Halpern concludes, is not a play of action but rather one of activity.

In Chapter Five, Halpern investigates Milton’s Samson as a sub-tragic hero, who ‘descends to the level of human experience’ through his labor (160-61), which is demonstrated in Samson’s pulling down the temple. If capitalism creates the conditions for revolution, then the workers themselves must seize the moment. For Marx, labor creates the conditions for action, whereas for Arendt, labor and action are antithetical. For Milton, conversely, labor is punishment, a consequence, where ‘the gap between production and action is largely unbridgeable’ (179). In Samson Agonistes (1671), Milton exposes the dilemma facing modern tragedy—that devoid of a universal framework, heroic action becomes meaningless.

If any chapter disappoints, it must be Chapter Six, the novelization of tragedy, where Halpern fails to provide primary discussion of or examples from the novels themselves, despite naming Hardy and Conrad; rather, he opens his chapter with a controversial claim that a ‘fully-fledged commercial society coincided with . . . a hiatus of almost two centuries . . . [of] tragic drama’ (181). Although he notes that Strindberg and Ibsen were important to the rebirth of tragic drama, he abandons discussion of their plays here. Instead, drawing on Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art (1835), Halpern points out that modern audiences cannot value tragedy as highly as did Greek society because the subjects in modern tragedy are motivated by forces such as love or honour rather than ethical principles at the ‘cost of the tragic hero’ (195-96). In his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), Marx argues that it is class struggle that brings about the hero’s part, mapping historical progress onto dramatic genres, where farce provides ‘the endless novelization of history’ (223).

Halpern reserves his last chapter for Samuel Beckett, who, he claims, is a ‘post-Hegelian’ thinker. In pairing Waiting for Godot (1952) with Alexander Kojève’s second edition of Introduction à la Lecture de Hegel (1962), Halpern points to Kojève’s footnote claim that the end of history and, accordingly, the end of the master-slave relationship has arrived. For Beckett, however, the master-slave context is depicted unmistakably in Pozzo and Lucky, while in his Endgame (1957), the battle between Hamm and Clov portrays the master-slave relationship in a world devastated by annihilation. If for Georges Bataille in The Accursed Share (1949) revolutionary violence between master and slave is an end in itself, for Beckett, Halpern suggests, the end is the absence of possibility.

In a postscript to the book, Halpern explores post-Beckett philosophies on production, action, and political economy, arguing that an innovative form of tragic drama has emerged. He draws on Sarah Kane’s play Blasted (1995) to point out that tragic drama has taken on a new hybrid form, one that is ‘critically aware of its social and political status’ (260).

Halpern’s book is well worth the read. Its complex, multi-faceted and wide-ranging arguments will certainly appeal to scholars of history, philosophy, economics and theatre.

Judy A. Hayden, University of Tampa