Book Review: Prof. Richard Halpern on the Eclipse of Action

By Ryan Campagna

Facing the ghost of his father, who beckons him forward, Hamlet famously asks, “Whither wilt thou lead me?” The image of this tragic figure questioning the ambiguous status of his future expresses yet a greater symbolic and meta-generic concern: “whither” the genre of tragedy itself? That is, what has tragedy become and what is to become of it? The anxiety of such a question lurks behind the claims of George Steiner when he notoriously argues that tragedy, proven to be at odds with the state of modernity, has died. Steiner’s ideas book-end Richard Halpern’s newest work, Eclipse of Action: Tragedy and Political Economy (Chicago, 2017) and ultimately provide quite a colossal and ambitious, yet well-matched, sparring partner for Halpern’s own thinking. Halpern diagnoses the problem of tragedy’s decline with a very compelling and rigorous explanation, one that couples a grain of optimism with a heap of unease: tragedy has not died, but it is in crisis, and this crisis stems not from the modern worldviews of rationalism and secular metaphysics (à la Steiner), but rather it indicates a much bigger issue within the logic of capitalist culture: the eclipse of action by production.

To see this bigger issue, Halpern invites us to consider tragedy’s debilitation in juxtaposition with the emergence of political economy, and he argues that the “crisis of modern tragedy is not…primarily a matter of worldview” for “it reflects a quite consequential crisis of action that afflicts modernity and is given its clearest intellectual form in political economy.” Specifically, the discourse of political economy does not directly cause tragedy’s decline, but “it gives intellectual form to conditions of capitalist modernity that do.” The weight of such a claim takes shape when considering the arguments of Aristotle, who saw action as both the very essence of tragedy and drama, but also as that which is most directly responsible for human happiness (or unhappiness). If tragedy was predicated upon action, or the imitation of action, and tragedy reflected the importance of political action to secure human happiness, then how does tragedy shift when Adam Smith introduces the concept of political economy and argues that it is production and not action that secures human happiness? Ultimately, Halpern believes that “it is not as if tragic drama can no longer be written or staged under capitalism,” but rather “what tends to get hollowed out [by capitalism] is the political reach and seriousness of action, and therefore of tragedy.” Thus, at stake in his argument is not “a question of whether tragedy continues to exist, but of how and whether tragedy matters.”

In service to such a question, Eclipse of Action tracks the conflict between production and action, also translated as a conflict between making and doing, or, in the most classical sense, poiesis and praxis, as it is staged within tragic drama. To do this, the book examines a range of tragedians as far back as Aeschylus and as recent as Sarah Kane. Chapter one begins with a wonderful extended analysis of Smith’s claim that “a public mourning raises the price of black cloth” and considers the anti-tragic sentiments at the heart of his thinking in The Wealth of Nations. Chapter two examines the Oresteia and the “raptor economy” of ancient Greece to suggest that action in the classical sense emerges from a “matrix of production” and that Aeschylus’s trilogy contemplates the line between making and doing to find the appropriate place for tragic theatre in the polis. Halpern then devotes three chapters to early modern tragedy, specifically Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Milton’s Samson Agonistes. In these chapters, Halpern’s overlaying interest resides in the commercialization of theater that takes place during this period and how these tragedies, as commercialized entities, each begin to reflect the eclipse of production over action in their respective ways. Chapter six departs from a direct reading of explicit tragedies, and observes the novelization of tragedy that takes place in the 18th and 19th centuries, but does so via the unexpected route of Hegel and Marx. Chapter seven focuses on the theoretical inflation of action once it has been eclipsed by production and analyzes Samuel Beckett’s reaction against contemporary political theories that inflate action’s importance. Beckett chooses instead to stage the very impossibility of action in the age of political economy and the contradictory notion that actions, though they cannot occur, sometimes still miraculously do. In the postscript, Halpern closes the book by concentrating on Sarah Kane’s Blasted, a tragedy which reflects the dilemmas of post-Fordist action where action has not only been eclipsed by production but subsumed by it as well.

Ultimately, the narrative of the book delineates action’s classical birth through “an ongoing matrix of production” and the subsequent process of action’s eclipse over time by production. Seen through a metaphor of combat, action may have won a few early battles, but production won the war. According to Halpern, the eclipse of action begins with the emergence of modern commercial society. Political economy, then, is “the moment when this process begins to become conscious of itself.” The conscious devaluation of action by political economy then prompts a backlash by various political theorists who over-inflate the value of action. Tragedy indexes this conflict and becomes “a privileged repository of the hopes invested in action.”  

Eclipse of Action commendably levies an argument on a wide historical scale with an intellectual scope that is of interest to a swath of various disciplines. Although it casts an ambitiously wide net, the book nonetheless maintains a strong sense of subtlety and nuance. Halpern’s resistance to the grand provocation of a claim like “tragedy has died,” an idea not just found in Steiner but echoed by thinkers such as Nietzsche and Hegel, demonstrates a rhetorical restraint that helps to make his argument so unique and sharp. Halpern indirectly forces us to recognize that whether tragedy is alive or dead is not as interesting as how it got there in the first place. Thus, the brilliance of Halpern’s argument lies not in its re-thinking of what became of tragedy as much as it lies in its re-imagining of how tragedy became that way.