The Tragedy of Excess

macbeth-1971-14-gThe notion of ‘excess’ is in itself a strange one.
Who is it that defines what is indeed, ‘too much’? In real life it is easy enough to say that excess is what goes beyond the bounds of acceptability and/or reason, but these two factors tend to have little to no place within drama. Drama, as with all literature, opens up the restrictions of imagination in order to allow the exploration of anything and everything.

For there to be excess, there needs to be some sort of boundary… some sort of a limit to action that apparently exists with inherency in any given society. This boundary, through theatre, can be pushed and even erased. Through its enhanced relatability, the theatre in particular opens up an opportunity to explore what lies beyond those bounds of ‘excess’ with which we have become societally familiar.

Take the character of Macbeth, for example. A man contented with his own lot and success in life is pushed beyond his accepted role into a bloodbath of a game of thrones. In this case, literary freedom shows this exploration of excess to be, politically, a horribly dangerous move that ends in tragedy… a theme common to Shakespeare, and likely politically motivated in the first place.

Similarly, Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman falls victim to the temptations of excess. In his case, it is that of an excess of ambition. Where this case differs from that of Macbeth, however, is that the breaking of boundaries stems from an arguably noble cause; that of wanting to better the futures of his children. Regardless, he too ends up falling victim to tragic consequences of going beyond what it was his right to attempt.

Where then, do you ask, is the exemplary character for whom going beyond their expectations ends well? I would argue that there cannot ever be such a character, or there would not be the necessity for them to be explored and made an example of through literature. For noble and heroic efforts to be able to transcend expectations, I would argue that they have to end tragically in order to be convincingly poignant. Whether this is to warn against the dangers of excess, or to celebrate human courage and endeavour with a suitably ‘heroic’ end, however, would be up to the political and societal persuasions of the playwright.

There is definitely something more inspiring and captivating about watching someone rise or fall in their efforts to break into excess that only theatre can truly capture. The faux ‘reality’ of theatre invests us into the life of the transcendental human venturing into the world of ‘excess’, allowing us to personally experience a playwright’s support or condemnation of an ambitious persuasion.