“The most certain sign of decadence in a nation is the fact that it cannot witness the performance of tragedy but must ever be titillated by comic entertainments.” –St. John G. Ervine, author of John Ferguson

Tragedy is a tough gig these days. Those intrepid troupes who are bold enough to produce it must brace themselves for tittering and giggles from the audience precisely at the most tragic parts. We don’t know, as a culture, what tragedy is.

We think it means a natural disaster on the other side of the world and that Red Cross will take care of it. But real tragedy is a family affair.

We think it means an epic battle between absolute good and absolute evil. But real tragedy is about the conflict among flawed people holding differing views of goodness.

So I applaud Community Actors Theatre for taking on John Ferguson, a genuine tragedy. They no doubt had to brave a great deal of indifference and misunderstanding in mounting such a production, especially with their limited means. The actors indeed had to soldier on through the titters and giggles of the audience, embarrassed, as we moderns are, by the very idea of tragedy.

The embarrassment is not because we haven’t known tragedy — it happens around us all the time. It is because we refuse to identify it as tragedy, to acknowledge that the human condition — our condition — is full of joy and sorrow, glory and squalor, war and peace, cruelty and kindness — all brought about by ordinary humans making every-day decisions, not superheroes and supervillains.

What tragedy does, what it should do for us today, is to show us the power and consequences of ordinary humans making every-day decisions. It’s meant to make us reflect on the power and consequences of our own, seemingly small, actions.

John Ferguson does that. If we let it.

Its playwright knew what he was about, and he inveighs against the trivial stuff being trotted out at the theater in his day. His words should have resonance today for those who care about theater: “Imagination, unchecked by experience, becomes violence or sentimentality, and the writer who does not frequently renew his contacts with human beings is in desperate danger of substituting rhetoric for speech and opinions for feelings; Nothing but bankruptcy and the hell that has been specially prepared for those who spend their lives in debasing the public taste ... a hell in which, for all eternity, they will be compelled to witness their own theatrical entertainments ... will convince them that this is no laughing matter.”

John Ferguson plays at Community Actors Theatre through June 17.

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