in Space, Time, and the Imagination
A Reflective Recap
Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination ( Nelson Hall, 1983)—or CSTI—was billed as “a new concept that challenges accepted theories of comedic art.” If it was a challenge, the challenge was based in a communicational approach to comedic meaning and thus, inherently was also a theory of comedic artistic construction.
CSTI discarded all previous ideas that comedy must necessarily be defined with reference to laughter and that comedy necessarily dwelt in triviality and lacked seriousness; the dark comedies of the twentieth century, not to mention Shakespeare’s darker comedies, had made patently clear the inadequacies of such commonplaces.
It would be wrong, however, to see CSTI as a general refutation of Aristotle. CSTI, in fact, tried to follow Aristotle in three seminal areas. First, CSTI committed itself to a precise definition of comedy, something of a novelty among 20th century comedic inquiries. Second, it committed itself to a formal theory, just as Aristotle had set down a precise formal definition of tragedy. And third, it recognized that Aristotle in fact moved to a second definition, what might be called an “emotional corollary” definition of tragedy, which is also a necessary step in comedic definition.
CSTI’s Formal Definition of Comedy: “Comedy as seen from a formal perspective is the representation of life patterned to demonstrate or to assert a faith in human survival, often including or emphasizing how that survival is possible or under what conditions that survival takes place.” (13)
Range of Comedy: By this definition, CSTI considers comedies over a period of 3,000 years and across something like 15 cultures. CSTI’s definition thus considered is of a “super-genre” or what Northrop Frye called a “mythos” that transcends differences, for example, between drama, narrative, and epic poetry.
Thus, it is possible to find CSTI’s formal definition fitting biblical accounts as ancient as the story of David found in I and II Samuel. At the opposite extreme perhaps, modern American cartoon cinema is routinely comedic in form.
Nevertheless, CSTI’s definition necessarily excludes some works that have been called comedy. Notably, at chapter length, CSTI considers why Old Comedy was differentiated even by the Greeks from Middle and New Comedy. Old Comedy is only accidentally comedy by CSTI’s formal definition. Stand-up comedy and stand-up comedians also fall outside CSTI’s definition, as do full-length dramatic works that do not form themselves as comedy but instead choose to elicit laughter without formal regulation. Recognizing such work as outside comedy is not meant in any way to denigrate that work, only to recognize it clearly for itself.
Keys to the Formal Definition: Subsequent reference to CSTI has often characterized it as focused on “success and survival.” Television shows like “Survivor” perhaps heighten CSTI’s claims in this area, especially claims which it did not make at the time that comedy can be developed extemporaneously or improvisationally in things like “reality” television and sportscasting.
CSTI’s actual definition, quoted above, is considerably more complex than just “success or survival.” It would be more insightful to say that its theory is one of patterning. Patterning is a repetitive function within art, and in literary art patterning allows the “plenitudinal” inferential meanings (which an audience considers however briefly in understanding artistic meaning) to be orchestrated toward a limited number of generic meanings within the work as a whole. The more a particular kind of success or survival is repeated, often in disguise, throughout a work, the more central that kind of success or survival becomes to the work’s overall demonstrated faith in particular kinds of success or survival. Thus, in “Hogan’s Heroes,” the successes and survivals of being “allies,” of working together for a clear commonly-held goal, of working through the psychology of one’s supposed captors and “masters”–all these are so constantly repeated in ever-new creative guises that they become central facets of the demonstrated faith in survival.
It is also important to notice that comedy is concerned with a demonstrated faith, not a demonstrated fact. Does allying oneself with others for a clear commonly-held goal really breed success and survival outside television? “Hogan’s Heroes” cannot answer that question. It can only be an artistic statement demonstrating such success and survival and hoping ( if it is sincere in its comedy) to make such faith seem reasonable.(Ironic comedy might even go so far as to make a demonstrated success and survival palpably unconvincing—most of Molière is ironic comedy.)
And it is key to the definition CSTI articulates to recognize that the definition is for a representation of life, not the representation of a particular action. Shakespeare was addicted to multiple-plot-and-action comedies. Criticism needs to take seriously that his vision of comedy has prevailed over all single-action criticism.
Emotive Corollary: CSTI spends a whole chapter working with the problem of an emotive corollary to its formal definition. Aristotle had a simple corollary for tragedy, “the purgation of pity and fear.” He could afford that narrow definition because he was looking at a very narrow set of tragedies from one period in Classical Greece. A modern theory of comedy must look over vastly more material and cannot afford a narrow idea of emotive corollary or “dynamis.” Nevertheless, dynamis is still important, and the dynamis of any comedy is precisely the power which a demonstration of success and survival can have on audience. In Waiting for Godot, there was a clear authorial intention for that dynamis to be desperate. But when the play was taken to a federal high-security prison, perhaps not surprisingly, the inmates experienced a quite different, almost elating dynamis.
Practical Criticism: After four theoretical chapters, CSTI goes on to sixteen chapters considering individual plays. These chapters are best considered in two lights. First, do they illustrate and explicate CSTI’s theory at work in practical criticism? Second, does adoption of CSTI’s definition allow for satisfying (fruitful) resolution of long-standing critical controversies between otherwise insightful critics?
There is a third set of questions I’d appreciate readers, especially those trained in criticism, to carefully consider for the range of the five sections of practical criticism, a range stretching from from the Bible and Periclean Greece to the modern detective story and American Western. First, as developed in these sixteen chapters, does the theory in fact unite the practice of such diverse works over such diverse time frames, especially does it unite them in ways that explain why the older comedies considered are still alive and well despite comedy’s reputation for being ephemeral? And second, if the theory does hold all these major works as a consistent set within one generic definition, should there not be a prominent place in literary discussion for the communicational principles that unite them?
Paul H. Grawe
Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies