At the risk of turning away even more of the potential audience, I want to take a couple of minutes to talk about … Aristotle. Yes, the Greek philosopher. Which (if you’re counting) makes this entry even less timely than the one about the Jamestown colony.
Aristotle’s Poetics divides men into “higher,” or noble, and “lower,” or ordinary types. In Aristotle’s view, it is the higher type–kings, princes, gods–that is the appropriate subject of tragedy and the lower type that is the subject of comedy. Now, what interests me about this is that the Aristotelian distinction seems now to be preposterously dated. But it might tell us more about media and its audience than you might think.
The notion that the important and powerful are the right subject for serious literature has a long history that stretches right from Aristotle to Shakespeare. Shakespeare, too, focused his tragedies on the doings of the mighty. This is a very resilient idea (and believe me, I’m not about to pick a fight with Shakespeare) that held sway for many centuries and really only started coming apart with Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the great novel in which the limelight is constantly stolen by the hero’s sidekick, Sancho Panza. I am not sure how much it really has to do with the nature of tragedy. It is pretty clear that it does have to do with the concerns of the audience.
In American literature and pop culture for most of the 20th century, Aristotle’s equation gets reversed. Most of the tragic works of American literature from the last century deal with people on the margins of society, in other words, folks who are poor. The same is even more true of comedy. From The Honeymooners to Laverne and Shirley to Taxi, TV dealt with people who were closer to broke than to rich.
You would be hard pressed now to find the same sorts of shows. Frasier might be off the air, but we still live in its shadow. There are two ways of looking at this. One is that our self-perception has changed. More of the audience for media has money. More of the audience identifies with people who have money. But another view might be that the transformation is driven by a greater consciousness that the golden pot of advertising dollars is ever more concentrated among shows that appeal to the affluent.
This is why (how’s that for a segueway) I like Jennifer Aniston. Office Space, The Good Girl, Friends With Money–it’s hard to think of another actor with the same interest in playing characters in the lower middle of the socio-economic scale. Is it type-casting or social consciousness? I don’t really know.
Oh, you might be wondering why this entry starts with a video of Bobby Darrin’s version of Mack the Knife. These days people might be more familiar with Clay Aiken’s American Idol version. The song is from Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, which is itself based on John Gay’s more bluntly titled Beggar’s Opera–the kind of work (and title) that might have some trouble getting off the ground now.
Some of the blogosphere seems to be up in arms about the lack of sympathy I evidenced for subprime borrowers facing foreclosure. You might imagine this as a kind of “mea culpa,” but really I don’t intend it to be anything like that.