Comedy in a New Mood





Comedy in a New Mood







Chapter 2


The Domain of Sombre Comedy



[N.B.:  This document uses the word "comic" to mean "of or pertaining to comedy."  In more recent documents, Grawe uses the word "comedic" for that concept, in order to distinguish between comedy (formal comedy) and humor, the humorous, or the funny (comic).]  


Sombre Comedy: Comedy in a New Mood

Chapter 11


Meeting Morris Weitz’ challenge that traditional genre definitions give no clear boundaries to the genres they define can be an opportunity to explicate the terms and implications of a genre definition more thoroughly.  In the present chapter we hope to provide further exposition of the implications of our definitions of comedy and sombre comedy while simultaneously discovering what range of plays lies within our definition of sombre comedy and what the limits of that range are.

Perhaps the least satisfying part of our definition of both comedy and sombre comedy is our insistence that both center on “survival.”  Just what do we mean by this survival?  Does survival in a meaningless void, as in Waiting for Godot, stretch the meaning of comic survival beyond endurance?  These are questions we must explicitly confront, and obviously the answers to them will widen or narrow the range of plays that fit our definitions of comedy and sombre comedy.



The most important point to be made about this concept of “survival” is that it can not be separated in our definition from the concept of a “patterned action.”  The survival of a hero or heroine at the end of the play or the suggestion that “life must go on” are not sufficient to make a play a patterned action centered on survival.  In order for a play to be comic, it must be designed throughout to focus attention on the survival that is eventually created for the virtual future of the play.  Two examples may be useful in clarifying this distinction between plays in which people survive and plays patterned around survival.

Riders to the Sea and Blood Wedding are similar plays from many points of view.  Both contrast the life of woman to the life of man, both suggest that man’s heroism is the heroism of the moment while woman’s heroism is the silent, victimized heroism of a life-time; the heroines of both plays have lost men of their families before their plays begin and lose the last male of their family at the denouement.  And both plays foreshadow a future of continuing, agonized life.  With many similarities in theme and plot, the two plays serve our purpose admirably, for the Riders to the Sea the patterned action is centered on this agonized survival while in Blood Wedding it is not.



In Riders to the Sea, our entire attention is focused on Maurya and her daughters.  It is their reaction to the death of sons and brothers which is important in the play and not the deaths themselves.  Synge makes this point in many ways:  by Bartley’s minimal appearance on stage and by Michael’s death preceding the opening curtain, by the fact that all these deaths are entirely “natural” and unmotivated catastrophes, and by Bartley’s death being only a final event in a recurrent and seemingly predestined cycle of similar deaths in his family.  The question of the play, therefore, rapidly narrows not to the question whether Bartley will in fact go and in turn be killed nor to the question whether the clothes found in the Far North are really Michael’s. From Nora’s report of the young priest’s words in the seventh line of the play—“’If it’s Michael’s they are you can tell herself he’s got a clean burial by the grace of God  . . . .’”—a mood of certainty that Michael is dead and that Bartley will die settles in on the play.  This mood is later reinforced by Maurya’s inability to bless Bartley and her seeing Michael’s ghost on the grey pony.



So we are left to watch Maurya’s reactions and her daughters’ reactions to their fate.  The question of the play becomes whether this absolute destruction of their last male hope will crush the women completely.  Again, it is the reported priest’s words about the clothes found in the Far North that set the direction of the play:  “’. . . and if they’re not his, let no one say a word about them, for she’ll be getting her death with crying and lamenting.’”  Is Maurya really too frail to bear the brunt of so consistent a nemesis?  That is the question that interests us as the play progresses, and, by and large, what interests the characters around her.  At the end of the play, when Bartley has been brought in wrapt in a sail and the women are keening, Maurya becomes quiet, and the death of her final son givers her a new strength:  “They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me . . . .”  And in the final lines of the play, Maurya asserts the ability of the women to live on, agonized, yes; but also freed not for a time to live in peace:  “Michael has a clean burial in the Far North, by the grace of the Almighty God.  Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the white boards, and a deep grave surely.  What more can we want than that?  No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied.”

“Satisfied” becomes the highly ambivalent and charged future toward which and in which the play is centered.  It is survival and not much more.



In Blood Wedding, we find some of these elements of a pattern emphasizing survival.  Where in Riders to the Sea Bartley’s role is minimized and his death is seen as a completely natural accident, in Blood Wedding attention is called to both the Bridegroom’s and Leonardo’s roles; their clash is seen as not only predestined, but also a necessary outgrowth of their personalities and of the society in which they live.  Where in Synge, Bartley’s death is so much bound up in the cycle of deaths of his brothers that his particular catastrophe loses its individuality and centrality in the play, in Lorca the Bridegroom’s death is individualized and emphasized almost to the exclusion of any interest in his mother’s tragedy.  And, while in Synge the final lines of the play clearly direct the play into the virtual future, in Lorca the final lines of the play:

And it barely fits the hand

but it slides in clean

through the astonished flesh

and stops there, at the place

where trembles enmeshed

the dark root of a scream,

move back to a contemplation of the catastrophe.  While we are sure of the future in Blood Wedding and while that future is almost equally well-defined as the future in Riders to the Sea, one is a patterned action centered on survival, while the other only suggests a survival as part of its coda ending.



No doubt, at about this point, the objection has naturally suggested itself to the reader that Maury is not going to propagate a new generation, that her “survival” at the end of Riders to the Sea is merely personal and unrelated to the actual continuance of the race.

It would be well if we could restrict the survival of comedy to that of heroes, heroines, and butts who in the virtual future of the play literally propagate the race.  Unfortunately, the practice of comedy has never so restricted itself.  The heroine of The Solid Gold Cadillac, like Maurya, is hardly likely to propagate the race herself.  Nor is Dolly Levi in the virtual future of either The Matchmaker or of Hello, Dolly. Such heroines, like many of the other “survivors” in comedy, must be taken as symbols of the survival of mankind.  While unable to propagate the race themselves, they stand for those talents, qualities of character, opportunism, adaptation, or whatever it is that their creators see as insuring mankind’s survival.

So much for a first restriction on the domain of comedy and sombre comedy—survival by itself is not enough; to be comic, a play must center its entire patterned action around that survival.  But, one might say, this “survival” is a terribly vague term, and when it is used to describe what Didi and Gogo do in the virtual future of Waiting for Godot or what the Smiths and Martins do in the virtual future of The Bald Soprano, the term becomes completely meaningless:  there is no such things as survival in a meaningless universe, certainly not in a comic universe.



On the contrary!  The meaningless survival of Waiting for Godot or The Bald Soprano is in the very best comic tradition.  Such a fine comic tradition, in fact, that Freud essentially defined all comedy in such terms when he suggested that comedy is a vast ado over nothing.  Shakespeare’s play of similar title is really not a very good example of this type of drama, because at least there are marriages which culminate that play.  A better example would be that contemporary classic film, the Beatles’ Help!, or for that mater almost anything of the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy.  In such comic worlds there is always a great deal of action, extended effort always bordering on farce, and yet few real values, little sense of ultimate purpose or direction in things, little sense even of basic motivation.  The Beatles of Help! survive in a nonsensical, meaningless world, but they do survive.

So, we have failed to find a restriction on the value or meaning of the survival which qualifies a play as comic or sombre comic.  To the objection that simply “survival” is too vague a term to be used in the definition of a genre, we would respond that the similarities which make us label plays comedy are at best vague as well.  One can not really hope to unite Roman comedy and Shavian comedy, Shakespearean and sentimental comedy, comedy à la Molière and comedy à la Neal Simon in a nice precise, finely discriminating definition.  Finely discriminating definitions, like Meredith’s, always ultimately end up excluding half of the plays that we consider comedy from the genre.  If they are designed to fit Twelfth Night, they exclude The Miser or Major Barbara or The Solid Gold Cadillac.  In this study, we are willing to leave vagueness where precision would only be an arbitrary narrowing of the genre under discussion.  That is rather a novel approach in comic criticism, perhaps a long-overdue approach.  And, to the charge that in being vague we make our definitions meaningless, we must answer that vagueness and meaninglessness are not synonymous nor are they necessarily co-existent.  “Survival” and the counters we have used for it—“on-going life,” “success,” “viability”—are none of them finely-precisioned terms.  But while they may be vague, they are not meaningless, and their meanings can be used to differentiate the comic play from the non-comic. 



Beyond attempts to make terms like “survival” more precise than they have been thus far in our discussion, we must forebear to narrow our definition of sombre comedy in at least two other ways.  We must not limit our definition of sombre comedy to allow only good or great plays within the genre, and we must not limit our definition so that only certain favored writers are “allowed” to write sombre comedy.

As we look through the recent studies of sombre comedy, what is immediately striking is that almost all of them focus on certain pessimistic writers for all their major examples of sombre comedy.  Ibsen, Strindberg, Ionesco, Pirandello, Beckett—these are the names most frequently associated with “dark comedy.”  Pessimism about humanity and pessimism about the meaning of the universe are the themes that characterized these sombre comedians’ most somberly comic plays.  Such unanimity of philosophical-emotional outlook among the practitioners of sombre comedy would legitimately raise the question whether sombre comedy is no more than the vehicle of a particular school or historical group of playwrights, a conclusion which would make sombre comedy different from all other genres (which are forms available to many artists with many philosophic and emotional stances, capable of significant mutations and adaptations for the playwright’s own unique purposes).



The reader will find, if he reviews the last chapter, that we have made a conscious attempt to use examples that might not seem to be sombre comedy if we were to assume that such comedy always embodies a metaphysical pessimism.  Raisin in the Sun is quite obviously sombre comedy by our definition.  But the plight of the urban black is social, not metaphysical, and the play is almost totally devoid of metaphysical implications.  Furthermore, while there is reason for despair in the impersonal suppression of black by white, the play itself is not characterized by pessimism, but rather ends in an almost lyric celebration of the indomitable courage and will of a suppressed people.

Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life is another sombre comedy (at least by our definition) that can hardly be called pessimistic.  Rather, Saroyan balances his theatre between the Arab’s oft-repeated conclusion, “No foundation.  All the way down the line,” and Willie the pinball player’s “As far as I’m concerned, this is the only country in the world.”  For Saroyan, man continues:  The children at heart, Tom and Kitty, find each other, and, if they don’t live happily ever after, they at least have something precious, another eternally child-like soul; Dudley Bostwich may never win Elsie Mandelspiegel, but they find something valuable in each other that is worth the continued effort; the world may have its Blicks, but it also has its Kit Carsons to set it back on course.  Saroyan is at once optimistic about humanity and aware of the pain of existence, at once the poet of the good in mankind and its confessor.  Throughout The Time of Your Life there is a recognition, very much at home within the sombre comic form, that the good in this created world is not divorced from the inadequate, the hurt, the deprived, or even the deformed, an idea summed up by Joe when he says that the child he misses having had was not the bright or beautiful or intelligent one, but the one who was “dumb and goofy-looking.”



For all Saroyan’s sense of the value of imperfect humanity, Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth perhaps marks the optimistic limit of sombre comedy toward which Saroyan was moving.  For Wilder, the entire cosmos is acting out a pre-established pattern.  The stars and planets are in their courses, the world has direction and meaning, and man struggles on, sometimes despairing but never giving up, often guilty of short-comings, yet ultimately noble in his pursuit of an elusive progress and humanity.

With such arguments, we would hope to establish that sombre comedy is a genre rather than the vehicle of a school, that it is a form available to predominantly optimistic as well as to pessimistic playwrights.  But the reader may find himself objecting that after all Raisin in the Sun, The Skin of Our Teeth, and The Time of Your Life are really very lightweight plays which are hardly to be matched against the plays of Beckett, Ionesco, Pirandello, Brecht, or Albee and hardly models for a definition of sombre comedy.  If the reader is so inclined, he is certainly not alone, for a very well defined critical pre-supposition in our times has been that, play for play—The Bald Soprano against The Waltz of the Toreadors, The Time of Your Life against The American Dream—the pessimistic plays are simply superior.  (It might, of course, also be that our own philosophic interests have, to some extent, distorted our critical perception.)



But assuming that our critical bias toward the pessimistic playwrights is totally appropriate, should that be any reason to form a definition of sombre comedy which works exceptionally well for these pessimistic plays but ignores the comic and the sombre as they appear in these lesser and more optimistic plays? Again, this is to accept Meredith’s idea of genre definition, and again it is to distort our study so that it does not live up to its stated intent, to define sombre comedy so that it is both truly comic and truly sombre at the same time.  In defining comedy, we have not limited our attention to the master comedies.  We have considered plays like How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying and The Solid Gold Cadillac as well as The Tempest and The Miser.  And we have felt that if our definition did not suffice for The Solid Gold Cadillac as well as The Tempest, the fact that it worked beautifully for The Tempest would not save it as a general theory of comedy.  So, too, with sombre comedy.  Even if The Bald Soprano is infinitely better than The Time of Your Life, if they are both sombre and comedy, our definition or any adequate definition of sombre comedy will have to work with both.

We have established, then, two more criteria that do not restrict the boundaries of sombre comedy.  Sombre comedies are not all bound to be great works of literature nor are they bound to be ultimately pessimistic in philosophical or emotional outlook.



So much for criteria which can not be used to establish reasonable boundaries for sombre comedy.  On to those that can.  We have said that optimistic as well as pessimistic plays fall within the sombre comic genre.  But there does seem to be an optimistic and a pessimistic limit beyond which plays cease to be sombre comedy.  Let us reconsider The Skin of Our Teeth to establish the optimistic limit.

While for Wilder the entire cosmos is acting out the will of God, the philosophic and religious optimism of The Skin of Our Teeth is not unrestrained, and it is in missing the ambiguity of both the sombre comic form and the philosophic stance of the play that critics like Vos have made the mistake of considering Wilder a mere Pollyanna trumpeting optimistic assertions without dramatic proof.  The sombre ambiguities which darken The Skin of Our Teeth should be immediately evident—and one sometimes wonders if Wilder could be any more obvious about these ambiguities.  This is a play about man surviving—surviving natural disaster, surviving moral decadence, surviving the self-destructive insanity within him—but always (and this is so obvious that it should not have to be said) by the very skin of his teeth.  Man is continually forced to use the last piece of kindling, to escape on the last boat, to win out only after total war in his quest for survival.  Each time man escapes, he comes back renewed to build a greater society; but in the very beginnings of that new society, the seeds of destruction are already planted.  True, there is an optimism in all this, but there is also a graver sobriety that realized that man carries with him not only the great thought of the past by which he builds ever greater societies; he also carries with him as part of his family and of himself Henry, who is simply Cain disguised.  And as man’s successes increase, so do Cain’s powers to bring those successes to nothing more than survival.  The Antrobuses survive, but they are continually straining and worrying over their survival, so that Sabina’s lines which open and close the play—“Oh, oh, oh, six o’clock and the master not home yet.  Pray God nothing’s happened to him crossing the Hudson!”—symbolize Wilder’s view of the life of man.



In The Skin of Our Teeth we again notice the critical importance of the interpretation of the virtual future.  For critics like Vos, the virtual future of the play is one in which man is never really threatened, the order and the meaning of the universe are never seriously in question, and Henry is not central to the life of the Antrobus family.  In our own interpretation, the virtual future of the play moves towards even greater dangers than man has already faced, though dangers which man will survive, but only barely.  It is a future in which the animosity between the principle represented by Mr. Antrobus and the principle represented by Henry will progress even further to being the central challenge facing the Antrobus family.

This ambivalence in even the most optimistic sombre comedy seems inescapable.  After all, sombre comedy celebrates survival won at some continuing cost, and such a celebration necessarily emphasizes not only the success but also the cost.  Even the most optimistic sombre comedy, then, must, recognize that we do not inhabit the best of all possible worlds or—if we do—that there is something in the nature of things which forever separates the best possible world from a perfect world.



We can make a similar case for a pessimistic limit on the range of sombre comedy as well, a limit perhaps reached in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.  Language approaches meaninglessness in Waiting for Godot; character becomes fragmentary, transitory, ultimately illusory.  The objective world is a stark desert, nonsensical, puzzling, frustrating, ultimately illusory as well.  Purpose, symbolized by Godot, is not even non-existent; it is simply beyond man’s knowledge, and man is troubled first by the faith that purpose must exist and then by the conviction that it cannot exist.

Sombre comedy provides an ideal vehicle for Beckett’s metaphysical vision.  Tragedy is too grand a concept to encompass Beckett’s vagabonds and the finality of a tragic climax is an over-simplified solution to the existential dilemma they face.  Comedy refuses to end with the final curtain, and that is precisely the vehicle Beckett needs, for he intends to suggest that life is a prison that one cannot escape, a prison that one can only bear with and struggle with and wait through.  This is comedy and sombre comedy with a vengeance, comedy that has suddenly awakened to the sense that its instinctive faith in life is also a faith in the eternal agony of existence.



Such is the pessimistic limit of sombre comedy, an extreme that denies any value or significance to life.  And yet, it is a celebration of life’s continuance in the sense that it recalls and makes central to the pattern of the whole play a conviction that humanity will continue, that despite the meaninglessness of existence, man has no way out into nothingness.  In Waiting for Godot, it is possible that this survival in the midst of absurdity even occasions some pride in the audience for humanity and its representatives, Didi and Gogo.  Ironically, the fact that Didi and Gogo are represented not as heroes, but as vagabonds may only augment the audience’s pride in them because that pride is generalized.  Didi and Gogo don’t represent man at his best or even at his average.  They simply represent basic, generalized, sentient, if not sensible, mankind in confrontation with mankind’s metaphysical situation.  And thus, if an audience chooses to view their survival not simply as a catastrophe, but also as some final, stubborn victory of the human spirit, the pride with which it views that victory is enhanced by the fact that Didi and Godo are “just nobody.”  The greater the cost of their victory and the less their evident dignity, the more almost, we can identify with them and share in their triumph.



In describing the optimistic and pessimistic ranges of sombre comedy, we have talked in simplified terms, as if everything that Wilder, Beckett, or Ionesco or Saroyan ever wrote were sombre comedy.  There does seem to be a great tendency in contemporary criticism to make such over-simplifications (Vos and Styan are cases in point), particularly for the more pessimistic sombre comedians.  But we have been assuming in this study that it is not the production of particularly playwrights which determines the dramatic genre, but rather dramatic form, and secondarily emotional response, in which case we should not expect all works of a particular playwright to fall within one genre.  Not all Saroyan’s or Wilder’s plays are sombre comedy.  We have been using Wilder’s The Matchmaker as an example of good traditional social comedy throughout this study.  And similarly, in marking off the pessimistic limit of sombre comedy, it is imperative that we recognize that not every witty, harshly ironic, and metaphysically despairing play by Beckett or Ionesaco or some similar playwright is, of necessity, sombre comedy.  If sombre comedy does not represent a single philosophic and emotional outlook neither does the philosophic-emotional stance most commonly associated with sombre comedy limit itself to that genre.



At the pessimistic end of the spectrum, playwrights seem to desert sombre comedy when they no longer desire to make any statement about the future of man.  In Waiting for Godot (1953), Beckett had not yet reached the point of refusing to take a stand on man’s future, and in that play we get a clear sense that man’s future is to wait in doubt, wishing but unable to leave, because there is nowhere else for him to go.

By 1957, however, with the production of Endgame, Beckett moved to a point of agnosticism or skepticism about man’s future.  Endgame is a play which purposefully makes no statement on the future of man, choosing instead to create an ambiguous and agnostic ending which leaves us trying to piece together the virtual future, but without success.  Beckett forces us to look to the end of the play and beyond when early on Hamm asks in anguish, “What’s happening, what’s happening?” and Clov ambiguously answers, “Something is taking its course.”  Throughout the play these lines are echoed or altered (Clov:  “Why this farce, day after day?”  Hamm:  “Routine. One never knows.”), never proposing any definite way of viewing the play and always focusing our attention on the play’s resolution.[1]



Beckett tempts us to guess what the ultimate future of Endgame’s world will be, for throughout the play Hamm, Clov, and their surroundings are winding down, undergoing some form of enervation which seems to lead to final, complete annihilation.  But Beckett is also on guard to spike any such simple solutions as soon as they are raised.  We are shown that Hamm and Clov are continually anxious about the life of even a louse or a rat for fear that the survival of either one might begin the evolutionary cycle again.  And Hamm and Clov are never sure that over the ridge there is not some lush valley throbbing with life.  Hamm, particularly, is left with an awful sense that he cannot know what the future holds, and it is this uncertainty—not any sure vision of the future—which prompts his radical, ironic, hysteric outburst about the future:

But what in God’s name do you imagine?  That the earth will awake in spring?  That the rivers and seas will run with fish again?  That there’s manna in heaven still for imbeciles like you?[2]

Against this background of patterned uncertainty, the final scene of Endgame simply maintains the ambiguity of Beckett’s vision.  Hamm thinks he has been left by Clov.  He is without sight, without the ability to move, and he senses he is winding down to some nebulous end.  But the final irony of the play is that as Hamm prepares to go on or to die (one can’t say which ) alone, Clov is standing, watching, ready to go, but perhaps already deciding to stay, so that, at the final curtain, we have no sure sense of the virtual future constantly emphasized throughout this play.  We can say neither that man has proved his viability in Endgame, nor that he has proved himself to be no longer viable. Rather, the play ends with total agnosticism.  Endgame is like comedy and sombre comedy in that its point and emotional effect depend so largely on the virtual future which it creates.  But unlike all comedy, it provides no answers but only questions about the future beyond the curtain, and it makes no statement of faith in man’s survival or success.



Ionesco’s career from The Bald Soprano (1948) to Rhinoceros (1960) parallels Beckett’s.  In the earlier play, a strong statement is made about the nature of man and his society, a statement reinforced by a definite sombre comic pattern which leaves the despairing sense that man is caught in a metaphysically untenable situation which he is incapable of altering.  In the later play, Ionesco turned more agnostic (if not less despairing) and formed a play which was ambiguous and essentially beyond the sombre comic pattern.  A rare disease, Rhinoceritis, breaks out, turning men into rhinoceri.  At first Bérenger, a while collar worker, Daisy, his fiancée, and the whole town are alarmed by the presence of such brutes, but are unworried about the disease spreading.  Gradually, however, more and more people change and evidence mounts, though it is never even close to conclusive, that the disease only makes headway among people who have some desire to become rhinoceri.  Finally, only Daisy and Bérenger are let.  Up until now, both have felt superior to the rhinoceri, but isolated in a pachydermic world, Daisy’s superiority cracks, and she begins to see the rhinoceri as truly beautiful and humanity as ungainly and ugly.  She, of course, quickly becomes another pachyderm.

 Daisy’s desertion brings on a crisis for Bérenger, now left utterly alone.  Trying to reassert his values, attempting to strike a noble pose in adversity, he works himself into an hysterical mood.  But then comes the deus ex machina stage direction:  “Suddenly he snaps out of it.”  From there his soliloquy continues,



 Oh well, too bad!  I’ll take on the whole lot of them!  . . . .  I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end.  I’m not capitulating![3]

and with that “pseudo-triumphant cry of defiance,” (as Vos calls it)[4] the play ends.

In determining whether Rhinoceros is or is not a sombre comedy, several questions must be asked, again questions about what is to happen after the play ends or about the quality of existence after the play ends.  These questions must be answered in terms of some pattern within the play.  Does Bérenger turn into a rhinoceros?  We really can’t say.  Certainly he has not yielded yet, though he has had one unexplained, light attack of rhinoceritis.  And the play never asserts without equivocation that one must yield to the illness.  And besides, isn’t Bérenger’s renunciation of the rhinoceri so arbitrary as to be easily reconsidered?  Isn’t he likely to crack as Daisy has cracked, only later on?  If he so arbitrarily “snaps out of” his hysteria, isn’t he quite likely to snap out of his resistance as well?



Ionesco answers none of these questions, all of which would have to be answered before we could call Rhinoceros a sombre comedy, demonstrating man’s success or survival at a continuing price.  Even if we assume for the moment that Bérenger’s renunciation is final and that he will remain a man among the pachyderms—an assumption unbacked by any consistent pattern within the play—we are left asking, “Is Bérenger really successful, is his renunciation really worth anything?”  Are the rhinoceri really inferior to humanity?  And even if they are, is it better to live isolated rather than to join them (especially vis-à-vis Daisy’s sense of the ugliness of isolated humanity)?

These questions are not meant to be quibbling nor are they meant to denigrate Ionesco’s play.  They are simply meant to prove that Ionesco’s play falls outside even sombre comedy, that it asks rather than answers questions and that it fails to speak from any faith, even a pessimistic faith, about the survival of man.  Again as in Endgame, we find behind Rhinoceros a writer who has journeyed far enough into skepticism to have lost all certainties, to be left only with an agnostic questioning of the universe.  Comedy, including sombre comedy, has not been the genre for eternal questioning, and both Beckett and Ionesco have turned out of the comic form altogether, though they maintain comedy’s reliance on the virtual future to enforce their later agnostic messages.  On the optimistic extreme, sombre comedy seems barred from presenting a totally acceptable universe.  On the pessimistic extreme, sombre comedy seems to demand some definite faith, thus barring agnostic pessimism as well as unmitigated optimism from the genre.  Playwrights with a skeptical or agnostic view of the value of man and the meaning of his universe have moved beyond sombre comedy, though such writers frequently borrow sombre comic techniques like extensive and harsh irony and an emphasized virtual future for their plays.



Pessimism and optimism, as has been suggested above, are not merely philosophic stances, but emotional postures as well.  But there are other ways of describing the emotional response to sombre comedy which we should mention in order to round off our discussion in the last chapter on the emotive definition of sombre comedy and also to continue to establish the range of sombre comedy.

The emotions of pessimistic sombre comedy have been more fully discussed by other critics, Stytan and Guthke, for example, though more misleadingly when these emotions are summarized as “tears and laughter” or the like.  Briefly, we have many absurdist sombre comedies in which despair and futility are evoked by a representation of life as an inescapable prison.  Pessimistic sombre comedy many also produce a sense of nausea at the meaninglessness of this survival man gives so much for (The Bald Soprano) or a sense of the absurdity, grotesqueness, and groundlessness of that existence (Waiting for Godot).  On the optimistic end of the spectrum, sombre comedy can produce a wonder at the beauty and goodness which shines through a not totally ideal universe (The Time of Your Life), a sense of man’s stature even in the midst of an absurd universe and an absurd individual existence (The Waltz of the Toreadors), even a serenity which is assured that the imperfections of the world are within the ordinance and all-encompassing purpose of God (The Skin of Our Teeth.)



Though we are responsible to show that more than a single emotional response characterized our reaction to sombre comedy in order to establish the argument presented in the last chapter, we would only make ourselves foolish by attempting to list all the emotions which sombre comedy may engender.   Sombre comedy is only an infant form compared to the traditional genres of tragedy and comedy.  In the twentieth century, it has been clearly demonstrated that both traditional genres are capable of new directions, new meanings, and new powers over our emotional response.  We must assume that in future generations sombre comedy will prove itself just as capable of new adaptation and just as capable of expressing the unique genius of each subsequent age.

Instead, then, of attempting to catalogue responses to individual sombre comic plays, we might ask if there are any suitable generalizations, beyond the generalization that all of them are reactions to man’s destined survival at continuing cost, which we might make about these abiding emotional responses.



Two feelings, it seems to me, appear again and again in the emotional complexes evoked by sombre comedy.  The first of these is pity or—perhaps better—compassion.  Whether sombre comedy is optimistic or pessimistic, whether it sees man as a buffoon as in The Wild Duck or as a tortured hero as in The Graduate, sombre comedy seems to have a vast sympathy for man wrestling with himself, with society, and with the cosmos.

The second almost universal emotion of sombre comedy is pride in man’s survival, toward which all comedy, sombre or not, has a distinct bias.

These two emotions, pride and pity, are most obviously combined in sombre comedy which is neither at the pessimistic or optimistic extreme.  As sombre comedy presses toward these extremes, one or the other, pity or pride, tends to become less and less significant for more and more members of the audience. While we have argued that there is a certain pride which can be read into Waiting for Godot, we must admit that a great many critics and audiences do not react to the play with any sense of pride.  On the optimistic extreme, many critics including Vox are unable to consider the qualifications on the success of the Antrobus family to be real and, therefore, have little sense of compassion as an audience of The Skin of Our Teeth.  And, while the author of this study would argue for these mixed emotions in both Waiting for Godot and The Skin of Our Teeth, he admits that he does not react with both compassion and pride to the celebration of man’s survival at continuing cost in The Bald Soprano.



To sum up our position on the emotions of sombre comedy, then, the important point is, as we have continually stressed, that there is not one generalized response to the entire genre which might be used to define it, not even a complex response which Styan and Guthke have called “tears and laughter.”  What we can say is that the abiding reaction to any sombre comedy is a reaction to the remembrance of a faith that man will survive, but a remembrance mixed with the certainty—gained either through faith or generalized experience—that man’s survival will entail a continuous cost.  As far as the reaction to any specific sombre comedy is concerned, particularly any reaction we have attempted to describe in this chapter, there must be considerable debate, due to our woefully inadequate vocabulary for describing our emotional responses.

As we close this chapter, we may well review the various limits we have placed on the range of sombre comedy and the limits we have refused to impose on it.  We have refused to impose on sombre comedy the limitation implicit in Guthke and Styan that sombre comedy live up to a certain standard of literary excellence and truth to the nature of existence.  We have refused to impose the limitation that sombre comedy reflect only one emotional and philosophic stance or even that it reflect only one closely-related group of such stances.  We have refused even to make ambiguity a necessary condition of that response, though we have asserted that the great majority of sombre comedies do dwell on the paradox of pride and pity, or the triumph of on-going life and the pity of the cost exacted for it.



More positively, we have asserted that sombre comedy does have definite boundaries at both the optimistic and pessimistic extremes.  Pure optimism and pessimistic skepticism both seem excluded from the genre.  And we have also asserted the real importance of the phrase, “a patterned action of survival,” in differentiating sombre comic plays from all other plays in which survival is present but not central to the patterning of the play.




[1] The title, Endgame, is only seemingly helpful in this regard.  Endgames in chess lead either to checkmate—or to stalemate.

[2] Rpt. Haskell M. Block, et. al. eds., Masters of the Modern Drama.  (New York:  random House, 1962), p. 1112.

[3] Trans. Derek Prouse, rpt. Plays by Eugene Ionesco, Vol. 4 (London:  John Calder, 1960), p. 107.

[4] Vos, p. 65.




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