Tragedy and Comedy

Tragedy isn’t Accidental

“That was such a tragic accident.”  Huh?

Tragedy is a balloon word, like “culture” or “freedom.”  It has been used in so many ways that its exact meaning is lost.  I’ll expect you to be more precise with it.  Know its roots.  Tragedy and comedy are complementary forms.  Stemming from early drama (with its rituals), a tragic protagonist makes a choice which leads to their eventual, inevitable destruction.  Conversely, comedy’s choices are about marriage and sex.  There is usually a marriage at the end of a comedy—they are life-affirming in a positive way.

Typically, tragic protagonists fall from on high and we enjoy watching this inevitable, choice-driven event while noticing the characteristic within them that led to it.  In this way, tragedy is much like blues music, where we might feel joy at hearing that someone is “diggin’ my potatoes” (cheating on the singer with “his” woman).  The Greeks called this catharsis, a ritual purging (out both ends, grossly enough, but we politely think of the upper one).

What Tragedies Accomplish

      Tragedies are life-affirming in a negative sense.  The “body count” at the end usually evokes “pity” and “terror.” Aristotle used these terms, and we still do today.  And why do we feel good after a tragedy?  Why, it didn’t happen to us!  That’s one reason.  Another is that we shared in someone’s suffering, and this causes us to reflect on things.  Are there many ways in which Americans communally share anything?  How much more individualized are we now than we were 100 years ago?

Genres and categories like tragedy and comedy are artificially applied to much modern literature, and to all NA literature.  When a Mohawk writer is intentionally using tragedy, they are also using their Mohawk culture and mixing in elements from white culture, too.  How are readers going to separate these threads?  Is it even possible?  Do you see what an interesting mess this provides for us as readers?  It’s not necessarily a bad thing that we can’t get easy answers.

Problems Using Terms like Tragedy

Not only is tragedy a misused term, then, but when applied to another world literature–like Native American literature–it becomes problematic.  If we can test some of these, we won’t have to rely on problem terms like “tragedy” that much.

I’d like you to leave this lecture as a seeker for the tragic and the non-tragic in their properly literary senses, and not merely the pop culture idea of good/bad, which is oversimplified.

What of Comedy, Then?

Well, comedy is easy. . . it’s about union, with most comedies featuring sexual union occurring offstage while the wedding guests joke about how long it will take till the wife starts cheating on the husband.  It’s a strange genre, really, with old people trying to create matches for the young, often involving their older friends marrying to maintain wealth and control.  Critic Northrop Frye on comedy: “A comedy is not a play which ends happily: it is a play in which a certain structure is present and works through to its own logical end [. . .]”

Frye’s Use of Mythical Cycles–and I’m not talking Harleys!

Frye continues, connecting comedy and tragedy with the workings of the four seasons.

The mythical backbone of all literature is the cycle of nature, which rolls from birth to death and back again to rebirth. The first half of this cycle, the movement from birth to death, spring to winter, dawn to dark, is the basis of the great alliance of nature and reason, the sense of nature as a rational order in which all movement is toward the increasingly predictable . . . [T]ragedy [and] the history play (always very close to tragedy) . . . are always close to this first half. There may be surprises in the last act of a Shakespearean tragedy, but the pervading feeling is of something inevitable working itself out . . . Comedy, however, is based on the second half of the great cycle, moving from death to rebirth, decadence to renewal, winter to spring, darkness to a new dawn . . . This movement from sterility to renewed life is as natural as the tragic movement, because it happens. But though natural it is somehow irrational: the sense of the alliance of nature with reason and predictable order is no longer present. We can see that death is the inevitable result of birth, but new life is not the inevitable result of death. It is hoped for, even expected, but at its core is something unpredictable and mysterious, something that belongs to the imaginative equivalents of faith, hope, and love, not to the rational virtues (119-22).

So we’re often partly correct about these genres while perhaps missing the key workings of each.  There!  You are cursed to correct any newscaster who utters “That was a tragic accident!”

And if all this isn’t strangely contingent enough, do some web searches to see how the original festivals of Dionysus worked out (with their Maenads) prior to the Greeks settling down and merely watching plays!  See the connections?

“Dionysus Mosaic” by miriam.mollerus is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“Dionysus” by TheoJunior is licensed under CC BY 2.0

CC licensed content, Original