Seriously funny

by Stephen Finegold | 1 September 2014

It is possible to feel pity, even despair for a character then laugh out loud at some shocking revelation.

I have often come across a curious assertion in the practice and teaching of theatre that comedy and tragedy are in some way mutually exclusive, that one cannot survive in the company of the other. “For the summer term we must perform a tragedy because we did a comedy last term”, or “the focus of this season’s programming will be comedy as it sells better than tragedy”, are just a couple of quotes I have heard in passing. I am fascinated by this view and have spent the last thirty years exploring and investigating its reasoning.

I’m not, of course, suggesting that comedy and tragedy are never found in the same piece or that tragicomedy or even comitragedy are not considered acceptable genres or tones in theatre, rather that there seems to be a reluctance to seek the comic in the tragic and vice-versa.
In his book The life of drama, the eminent literary critic and playwright, Eric Bentley, writes:

“Where romantic comedy says: these aggressions can be transcended, and realistic comedy says: these aggressions will be punished, tragic-comedy … says: these aggressions can neither be transcended nor brought to heel, they are human nature, they are life, they rule the world. The peculiar, unparalleled ruthlessness of the genre suggests a wrestling match with no holds barred.”

With these words Bentley points out the power, the purpose and the effect of mixing tone, colour and texture in theatre. Comedy alone, Bentley argues, creates an unreal world, either where humanity transcends evil or where the evil face certain punishment.

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