Saturday, September 18, 2004

On Tragedy and Comedy

The categories Tragedy and Comedy do not encompass all drama, but they are still useful as concepts and ways of understanding much drama. Tragedy involves big people propelled by their situations into making big and irreconcilable choices, producing disaster. Comedy involves an initial deviation from the norm which produces many complications which are later resolved on technicality. Basically, Tragedy is Revolutionary, and Comedy is Conservative.

Tragedy challenges the status quo by dialectic means. Not metaphysical dialectic, as Hegel would have it. We need merely acknowledge that it is in the dialectic style, with a thesis -- the default view before the precipitating event -- the antithesis brought about by some sort of crisis, and the synthesis, hinted but not quite arrived at, for if society accepted the synthesis -- or, if you wish, the transcendence of an apparent contradiction/false dichotomy -- then the subject of the tragedy would be irrelevant.


1) Macbeth -- preordained order vs. rule of the competent; prudence vs. seizing opportunity
2) Antigone -- Familial love/personal moral obligation vs. the public interest/the survival of society
3) Hamlet -- Filial duty/revenge/taking one's rightful place vs. justice/prudence

Never does the tragic hero sove the predicament, unless he solves it too late to do him any good. Macbeth achieves a grim acceptance. Antigone achieves introspection and self-doubt. Hamlet does begin to understand what is necessary to live a proper life, but only after he has inescapably alienated too many people.

Comedy also begins with the thesis of the current state of things. Often, this is the social order. There is also in Comedy a precipitating event that created an antithesis or many antitheses, as circumstance and preexisting rules combine to form seemingly irreconcilable conflicts. This is only solves through more machination, at which point the contradiction is solved. But rather than solving the issue by killing off the character representing the antithesis, the Comedy kills off the antithesis itself, completely closing the door on any sort of synthesis. In other words, it says that things are fine how they are. We laugh at the otherness of the situation, and are relieved when it is shown to be reconcilable with the past, and we are shown so too by implication, since in almost any good drama the audience identifies with the protagonists.

(NB Comedy is not the same as Funny Drama, but is rather in this writing a specialized term as defined above.)

This is why the social satires of the past now ring hollow: the other is us. We, as a society, have rejected the social structures Oscar Wilde (to name a prominent example) was poking fun at. When the protagonists are ejected from normal life, we not only empathize with them but approve, and don't see what's so irreconcilable. We don't hold as true the norms the play does. Instead, we watch it and laugh quite unselfconsciously at the past. Comedy has turned into ritualistic mockery, satire into farce.

There is, of course, still plenty of funniness around. Neil Simon, to name a prominent example, makes good art from examining character foibles or oddities, personality norms, and people forced to violate their personal customs. But without his particular brilliance in dialogue, his plays wouldn't be terribly funny. Because we're not the same.

The ideas that once were radical -- that different lifestyles should be tolarated and allowed to coexist, and that personal choice takes priority over tradition and the wishes of others -- now deeply permeate much of American society. This is not entirely a bad thing. But it is a bad thing to mislabel the alternative as conservative or establishment morality. Tolerance is now the conservative attitude. Drama that makes fun of intolerant people is funny now only in a look-at-those-freaks kind of way. Properly, any piece of art that seeks to (re)impose standards should be viewed as radical or dynamic, as change-seeking. This is where we need more tragedy.

Our culture's blind spot is comparatively benign. We don't know what our culture is. That's the blind spot. This is one of the reasons we need art. Of course, apart from our needing art, there are reasons I (and individuals in general) need art -- personal moral guidance. But I am discussing society here.

We need new comedies to reveal -- and reinforce -- our social norms. Show us -- in abstracted form -- what normal life is in the West, help us non-anthropoligists figure out what is truly expected of us. And expose our culture's flaws not with strident screeds, but with tragedy. Bot in anger, but in puzzlement and sorrow. And if you think you have solutions, suggest them. Art is not only or primarily a means to social change -- or social reinforcement. But it is foolish to deny the role it can and should play in the moral educaiton of our society.


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