A great love story is, well, great. For some reason tragic love stories engage us all the more. Maybe because it reminds us how our less than tragic love lives aren’t so bad or maybe because its entertaining to empathize with fictional characters. Either way, tragic love stories have been included in all forms of entertainment since the beginning of storytelling. Here is a list of some of our favorites.
This opera written by Giuseppe Verdi is the story of Ethiopian princess Aida and her time spent as a slave in Egypt. The Egyptians do not know she is the princess and think she is just an Ethiopian commoner. Radamès, a young warrior of Egypt, is in love with Aida but also dreams of defeating Ethiopia in battle.
Aida is in love with Radamès but so is Amneris, the daughter of the Egyptian king. Amneris fears that Radamès is in love with another and when she suspects it is Aida she befriends her. When the King of Ethiopia, Amonasro, attempts to invade Radamès is chosen to lead the attack against them. Of course, Aida is confused as to where her loyalties lie, to father or lover.
Radamès is victorious and Amonasro is captured, yet his identity and that of his daughter Aida are still unknown to the Egyptians. Amneris is insistent on finding out if Aida and Radamès are in love and tricks Aida into admitting it by telling her that Radamès has been killed in battle.
The king of Egypt announces that Radamès reward for winning the battle will be the hand of his daughter, Amneris, in marriage and succeeding him as king. Still, Radamès loves Aida and chooses to help her and her father escape. Radamès is captured and his penalty for treason is death by live burial. When waiting for his sentence to be executed he thinks back to Aida and hopes she has made it home.
But when he is put into the vault where he will be buried alive he finds Aida there waiting for him so they can die and live in eternity forever.
This story has many characters but the tragedy is in the love story of Sara and Coalhouse Walker. Both are African-American and conceive a baby, although Coalhouse is not aware of this until he learns that Sarah is living in New Rochelle with Mother, a white woman left to take care of the house while her husband, Father, sets out to the North Pole with Robert Peary.
Sarah ended up living with Mother when she buried her newborn baby in Mother’s garden. When the police capture her Mother says that Sarah and her newborn baby were her responsibility and they move in. Father opposes this throughout the play.
When Coalhouse discovers the whereabouts of Sarah he set out to win her back. It is then he learns of his child. Coalhouse and Sarah spend time together and declare their love and devotion to each other.
But when Coalhouse is the victim of hate crime Sarah stands up for him at a campaign rally for the vice-president a mistaken identity leads to tragic events that lead to Sarah’s death. Coalhouse grows angry at the injustice and his rage is heightened when Mother is given custody of his child.
This leads Coalhouse acting out with a violent threat and it all results in his death as well. Not only is this storyline in Ragtime tragic, but the theme of struggles versus privilege due to race is a tragedy in itself.
3. Sunday in the Park with George
With music and lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim this tragic love tale opened on Broadway in 1984 and subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize for drama the next year. The main character is Georges Seurat, the artist who painted “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” This painting is at the Art Institute of Chicago and was made iconic in the move Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
It begins with Seurat, simply known as George, sketching ideas for his famous painting. His mistress Dot is model as well as random people who come along to enjoy the park. When the crowd gets surly, George is able to make them stop as if inanimate with one movement.
Dot is dismayed because she feels unimportant to George, who always chooses to work opposed to be with her. It is when he decides to skip taking her to the Follies she leaves him for Louis, a local baker. Later she visits George to reveal that she is pregnant. They both know it’s George’s child but Dot decides to marry Louis because he is a safer bet.
Time continues to go on while George denies his family. Eventually his great grandson is an artist that carries his name. The two lovers never reunite and the painting is finished. George knows he has to sacrifice for his art and the tragedy is he sacrifices a family.
4. Miss Saigon
Our fourth production on this list of tragic love stories is a musical that premiered in London’s West End in 1989. The plot is based on the well renowned Puccini opera Madama Butterfly. Written by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr. the plot follows Chris, an American soldier during and after the Vietnam war, and Kim, the girl he falls in love with.
The couple meets in a bar and after they quickly fall in love the United States evacuates all of their soldiers from Saigon. The chaos separates Kim and Chris and he is sent back to the States without her, even though they had been married just before the evacuation.
Kim waits for Chris to return and has his baby. Chris pushes Kim to the back of his mind, believing her to be dead, and marries Ellen, an American woman he met after the war. When Chris learns of Kim and his son he tells Ellen. They decide to travel to Vietnam to find Kim and her child.
Kim, after learning Chris is back, is at first unaware that he has married another woman. When she does find out she asks Ellen to take her son back to America with Chris. Ellen rejects the idea wanting her own children with Chris. This results in Kim killing herself to ensure her son live in America.
5. Tristan and Isolde
This Richard Wagner opera is a musical drama that premiered in 1865 in Munich. It surrounds an Irish Princess, Isolde, as she is being sent to Cornwall to marry King Marke. Marke has sent his nephew, Tristan, to bring Isolde to Cornwall.
Isolde and her servant Brangäne are taken aboard Tristan’s ship and the Irish princess is furious, calling out for a storm to sink the ship with her and everyone else in it. She is not only angry for being taken but Isolde also resent Tristan for killing her fiancé. Isolde attempts to kill Tristan with what she believes to be a poison. It is in fact a love potion prepared by her Brangäne.
The couple falls in love and Tristan and Isolde meet secretly. The king learns about their affair and is heartbroken by the betrayal from both. Meanwhile, Melot, another confidant to the king, has also fallen in love with Isolde. Tristan and Melot duel and Tristan is wounded.
Tristan is taken to his castle in Brittany by Kurwenal, a loyalist of his, and while there the fatally wounded man waits for Isolde to return. While waiting his wounds get worse and worse until he dies just as she rushes in to see him. Of course, Isolde is heartbroken and dies by his side.
6. The Phantom of the Opera
Based on the Gaston Leroux novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra this musical was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and premiered in 1986 on London’s West End. The prologue begins in 1905 on stage of the Opéra Populaire where an auction is being held. We see a broken chandelier on the floor. We learn that this prop is connected to legend of the Phantom of the Opera. This is when the lamp mystically rises and we face back twenty-five years.
The first act begins with a soprano rehearsing until a prop falls and everyone fears it is the phantom. The soprano quits and Christine is put in her place. Christine is then reacquainted with childhood friend Raoul. She tells him of the “Angel of Music” that would appear to her when she was young and teach her how to sing. Raoul dismisses it as fantasy.
Little does Raoul know that the Phantom is watching and grows jealous as Raoul asks Christine on a date. When Raoul leaves the Phantom appears disguised as the “Angel of Music” and she asks him to let everyone know he exists. He says that he will and brings her down to his hidden world under the opera house.
To the Phantom’s dismay Christine and Raoul get engaged. She loves Raoul but feels obligated to the Phantom for her education. In a fiery rage fueled with jealousy the Phantom causes a great deal of havoc and destruction. Yet, Christine shows him compassion and he is vanquished. Christine and Raoul are reunited but the tragic Phantom never gets his love.