Eclipse of ActionTragedy and Political Economy

Eclipse of ActionTragedy and Political Economy

Richard Halpern

Print publication date: 2017

ISBN: 9780226433653

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


Eclipse of Action takes up the long-standing claim that tragic drama and modern society are somehow inimical. It proposes that tragedy does indeed face new, if not quite disabling, challenges in the modern era, and that these arise from an unexpected quarter: the birth of political economy in the eighteenth century. Classical philosophers such as Aristotle had argued that human happiness or unhappiness results from our actions in the ethical and political spheres. Accordingly, Aristotle also designated action as the source of tragedy’s ethical significance and artistic perfection. Adam’s Smith’s The Wealth of Nations overturned Aristotelian ethics by introducing a new kind of happiness that pertained to the public as a whole rather than to individuals, and that was achieved not through action but through economic production. But by toppling action from its place at the summit of human endeavor, Smith also, if only incidentally, posed problems for tragedy. Modern economic thought, and the capitalist economy it attempts to understand, trigger a crisis of action that is also a potential crisis for tragic drama and for theater more generally. But in so doing, it simply brings to the fore a conflict between action and production that had been brewing since the time of the Greeks. Eclipse of Action explores this conflict in the work of playwrights from Aeschylus, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Milton to Beckett, Arthur Miller, and Sarah Kane, and in philosophers and theorists from Aristotle to Hegel, Marx, Arendt, Kojève, and Bataille.