We think of the events in classic tragedies as inevitable: The characters always make the same decisions, and the outcome never changes. But what if you could stop and rewind the action? If you gave Macbeth a second chance, would he make a different choice?
Rebecca Bushnell, the School of Arts and Sciences Board of Overseers Professor of English, has spent much of her career studying tragedy, especially how its temporal structure affects our own experience of time. More recently she became interested in time-travel movies, where the characters try to fix history, and then in videogames, which often let the player just start over when things go wrong. Her new book, Tragic Time in Drama, Film, and Videogames: The Future in the Instant, looks at the different ways these three forms treat time and how they can inform each other.
Bushnell, the editor of A Companion to Tragedy, says that since ancient Greece, tragedy has been a model for experiencing time that is focused on a crisis: Everything leads up to a moment of critical choice, and then everything changes after that. She’s written about how this way of thinking about time may have handicapped our ability to see things in the long view, as opposed to through a short, crisis-directed window.
She’s also challenged the idea of fate in tragedies. “A lot of people think that Greek tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy are all about the terrible workings of fate: You go into a play and you know exactly how it’s going to turn out, so the terror come from just watching the person walk into it,” she says. “But I don’t believe in fate.”
Bushnell started watching movies like Twelve Monkeys and Run Lola Run because they explore whether it is possible to go back and correct a crucial error. Then her daughter Ruth Toner, a physics Ph.D. and long-time gamer, sent her an NPR article which looked at videogames as tragedies. Bushnell started playing complex narrative games like Heavy Rain, as well as Mass Effect, in which the player is asked to save the galaxy. She says, “Videogames are played in this very complex relationship to time in which you’re in the present and pressured to make decisions, but you can also rewind and pull it back.”
Bushnell argues that whenever there is a decision, there is a chance that things can happen differently. She also believes that those choices do not necessarily come out of psychological character in the way that we think about it, but rather that characters become defined by the choices that they make. It’s a process that is built into some video games: “The choices that you make regarding dialogue or action influence in turn how your character evolves.”
Dramatic tragedies really have a new beginning each time they are performed—something different can always happen. Today some theater has become outright interactive. “Experimental theater and videogames feed off each other in a really interesting sort of way,” says Bushnell. “For a lot of young people, it has become their experience of story and narrative and theater.”
Bushnell teaches an Introduction to Tragedy class that starts with the Greeks and wraps up with film and games. For their final paper, the students have to pick something from popular culture and analyze it to find the deep structure of tragedy. “I feel like it’s a success when the students say, ‘Oh, yeah, now I see it’: that is, they can see in popular culture and the world around them tragic language and models as they have been transformed.”