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‘Tragedy and the narratology of dreaming.’ - Dr Nick Lowe (RHUL)

Tragedy is the product of a culture with a deep established interest, and investment, in the poetics of dreaming, manifest not just in the prominence of dreams within the texts (and in the epic and lyric material tragedy sets out to repurpose in its new, radically experiential mode) but also, I want to suggest, in some of the most distinctive features of the genre’s own narrative poetics and thematics. The idea that the poetics of narrative mimesis may themselves be founded in the narratology of dreaming is one that has mainly been floated in connection with film (most prominently by Suzanne Langer and Colin McGinn); but the late Bert States argued in a series of thought-provoking publications that theatre, not least Greek tragedy, is if anything even more deeply indebted to the cognitive mechanics of dream narrative. Existing studies of ancient dreaming have been mainly concerned with the cultural history of dreaming, its theory and interpretation, often within a legacy Freudian framework, and only incidentally engaging with current developments in sleep science and the neuropsychology of the dreaming mind, let alone the implications of this work for more fundamental questions in narrative cognition. But a key feature of current neurochemical models of dreaming is that narratogenic functions of waking consciousness are active, even heightened, while others (particularly those involved with working memory and judgment) are radically inhibited, in ways that map turn out to map strikingly on to some of the distinctive features of tragic mimesis. And just as it is possible to argue that the poetics of film, especially popular film, are evolving in the direction of an ever closer approximation to the narrative poetics of dream, I want to make the case that one of the drivers of tragedy’s own evolution, and one of the factors in tragedy’s persistent transcultural reach and power, is an exploration of theatre’s power to simulate and thematise cognitively salient aspects of dream experience.

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