People bandy about the word “tragedy” too easily.

Granted, when something dreadful or lamentable happens, one wants to say more than “What a very sad event.” But a tragedy is more than a terribly unfortunate occurrence. It has a defined meaning in theater and literature: Tragedy is a work of art that depicts extreme human suffering in such a way that the viewer or reader gains a feeling of relief from it. [cite] And this relief, this pleasurable result, which we call catharsis, is important. It purifies us, makes us whole again. It’s a paradox of emotion, yet it works. 

In contrast, the daily sorrows we experience — the sudden death of an energetic young person, for example — offer no relief, no pleasure. We struggle through them and hope to eventually find some peace, but there’s no happiness or satisfaction. 

In fact, confronted with a calamitous sorrow, we turn to artistic tragedy to find solace. See for example: Shakespearean tragedy, murder mysteries, and country music.

These past few months, I’ve weathered more than my usual portion of very sad events. So I was more than usually looking forward to seeing the Greek tragedy Electra at the Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Catherine Eaton as Electra at the Public

The play, written by Sophocles, tells the tale of the vengeance that Electra and her brother Orestes wreak on their mother Clytemnestra and their step father, over the murder of their father, Agamemnon.

It’s a play packed with familial tension and human suffering. Wife turning against husband, daughter and son turning against mother, infidelity, lamentation, deception, murder. 

The production at the Public is excellent — fast-paced but without a sense of hurry, set on a stark and haunting stage that mirrors Electra’s desperation and grief.

Catherine Eaton, portraying Electra, sustains an astonishing and intense fury through the entire 75-minute drama — I found it hard to take my eyes off her. By the end, I found myself wrung out, drained, and thereby — strangely, amazingly — cleansed and ready to return to life. My own sorrows are still there, but I can see them in new light. 

If you too are in need of a cathartic cleansing, do see Electra. Showtimes and ticket info here.

Disclosure: The Pittsburgh Public Theater provided complimentary tickets for me to see this production.

Photo credit: Pittsburgh Public Theater