Comedy in a New Mood




Comedy in a New Mood







Chapter 3


The Conventions and Techniques 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 12



Any living genre is constantly changing, constantly experimenting with new forms and techniques, discarding old conventions or radically altering their significance.  To attempt to define the conventions or techniques of any genre in which artists still take an interest is, therefore, both futile and ridiculous.  And, for a genre like sombre comedy, which has only recently captured the imaginations of more than a few playwrights, it is unlikely that we can even say what the characteristic techniques of the genre may be.  Yet, it may be well to chronicle some of the more obvious techniques and conventions of sombre comedy as they have developed in the twentieth century, to investigate their character if only to find out what generalizations about them we cannot make.

Like the history of all other drama, the history of sombre comedy in the twentieth century has been one of aggressive experimentation, diversity of practice, and mixed conventions which in other ages would have been termed grotesque.  As we investigate the conventions and techniques of sombre comedy, it will become clear that sombre comedy often simply borrows comic techniques for much the same purposes; that sombre comedy also borrows comic technique for parodic and ironic purposes; and that some prominent sombre comic techniques can not be said to be derivative of comedy at all.  To some extent, we can say that optimistic sombre comedy shares more conventions with comedy than does pessimistic sombre comedy and that pessimistic sombre comedy more consistently uses comic techniques for parodic effect.  But even such vague generalizations have important exceptions.



One generalization about the technique of almost all sombre comedy does seem to follow almost necessarily from the definition of the genre itself. That generalization is that most of the techniques of sombre comedy play importantly in creating a particular type of irony, paradox, or ambiguity, the irony of on-going life celebrated with a recognition that survival requires a continuing cost.  Only in very extreme plays like The Bald Soprano, in which the negative emotions associated with the continuing cost of life do not seem to be at all balanced by positive emotions like pride in man’s continuance, does this irony or ambiguity seem to play an insignificant role.  Irony and ambiguity, of course, recur in almost all forms of drama.  But, in sombre comedy, a specific type of irony becomes almost an inherent part of the definition of the genre itself.

J. L. Styan has studied the irony of sombre comedy in more depth than we are able to here.   For our purposes, it may be best to dwell more on his conclusions about the irony of sombre comedy than on the specific means he describes by which that irony is created.  The purpose of sombre comedy’s particular form of irony is not, as Styan would have us believe, to confuse the audience—at least that is not its final purpose.  Nor is it the necessary purpose of that irony to scourge the audience, to make it unsure of itself and agnostic or skeptic in its faith—though some of the most pessimistic sombre comedies, in common with many of the plays that we have described as too agnostic or skeptical for sombre comedy, do use irony for such purposes.  There is an irony, for example, in the Antrobus family’s carrying with them not only the great works of the past, but also Cain, who will bring all those works to nought.  And yet, there is nothing confusing about this irony.  Nor does this irony scourge its audience.  Nor does it shake them in their beliefs, unless, of course, they happen to believe that m an is essentially good and that evil is alien to his personality.  Similarly, the ambiguity of the future of the Younger family in Raisin in the Sun is not meant to confuse, but to clarify the true nature of the social problem of the city and to illustrate the quandary of the black who wants to find a better life.



While the irony of sombre comedy need not confuse or scourge its audience, the scouring irony Styan insists upon is a natural outgrowth of the irony that man will survive, but only at a continuing price.  Styan’s irony chastises, scourges, and balks modern audiences who are trained to the simpler responses demanded by light comedy and who prefer light comedy’s reassuring emotional effects.  In front of such an audience, the sombre comic dramatist becomes a teacher of the paradoxes and ambiguities of an often unsettling and not totally objective reality, a teacher of the ambivalences and tensions of being human confronting an audience that has renounced a complex conception of humanity in favor of vague and self-complacent commonplaces.

In this educational effort, the use of comic techniques for ironic effect is a most important weapon.  Nowhere is this parodic element more evident than in sombre comedy’s use of stock comic characters, often stock characters of the most classical traditions.  Braggarts, those characters so dear to Roman comedy, but often neglected since, have made a strong comeback in sombre comedy.  Zorba the Greek, Uncle Vanya, Hjalmar Ekdal,  General Saintpé, some of the most memorable character studies in modern theatre , have fallen into this class, while O’Neill literally filled the stage with braggarts in The Iceman Cometh.  But, while these characters closely resemble classical models, they have all undergone an ironic change.  Classical braggarts were normally unsympathetic figures.  But in sombre comedy, almost all these braggarts have been made sympathetic, if not heroic.  As a result, audiences are often confused as to how to react to such comic characters transformed, and their confusion is used by the dramatist to focus the audience’s attention on the braggart or to suggest a complexity of character and reality entirely absent in the classical models.  In Uncle Vanya, for example, Vanya is more than a man of vain posturings.  He is also a sensitive soul, longing for freedom, longing for a greater world than the estate he manages.  He is a man of passionate love, complicated by its hopelessness and his approaching middle age.  We laugh at Vanya and his posturings throughout the play, but hardly ever without some discomfort, for we are also aware that beneath his posturings lie human qualities we would rather invest with a certain nobility.  And if we are uncomfortable in our reaction to Vanya, we are also uncomfortable in our reaction to his world, a world of trivia and provinciality most certainly, but still a world filled with beauty, with the power of nature, and with a rage for life.



With similar ironic intent, sombre comedy often employs eccentrics straight out of Renaissance and Jonsonian comedy.  These eccentrics, like the Madwoman of Chaillot and Joe in The Time of Your Life, are ordinarily not only the central roles in their respective plays, but also the agents by whom the worthy in mankind are preserved.  In this sense, they are copies of such eccentrics as Thomas Dekker’s Simon Eyre in The Shoemaker’s Holiday.  But again, we find that an ironic change has taken place.  Whereas Simon Eyre’s eccentricity is seen as part of a generally healthy constitution, indeed as a guarantee of that healthy constitution, in modern sombre comedy eccentricity is a real distortion of personality as well as a saving grace.  Giraudoux’s Countess is lucky to be mad:  it preserves her and those around her in the midst of an inhuman sanity.  But Giraudoux’s Countess is really mad, a saddening qualification on her survival.  The sympathetic eccentrics of traditional comedy seem to put on their eccentricity for their pleasure—Shakespeare’s many fools like Feste are our best example.  But the eccentrics of modern sombre comedy are bound to their eccentricity and have become the slaves of it.

Sombre comic eccentrics and braggarts are only two of many stock comic types used for ironic effect in sombre comedy.  We could go on and on through a great many more.  In Waiting for Godot, we find comic prevaricators, a type especially common in Roman comedy.  In The Bald Soprano and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? we find the social suburbanites, transformed to be sure, but still recognizably from the same sources as most social comedy from Molière’s The Precious Damsels to most of the inane situation comedy of television today.  In The Glass Menagerie, we find the football hero as knight-in-shining-armor, simply an updated version of the ideal, physically impressive comic hero which Shaw also satirized in The Millionairess and Arms and the Man.



Sombre comedy, as the reader may already be coming to realize, has not built its reputation for extraordinary originality by deserting all the favorite old comic devices, a point especially worth making since Styan, Guthke, and Hoy have all made such extravagant claims for the great difference between the truthfulness of comic and sombre comic techniques.  Indeed, nothing is more comic about sombre comedy than its willingness to get back to time-worn devices for its inspiration.  Concerning comedy, Northrop Frye has noted:

Bernard Shaw remarked that a comic dramatist could get a reputation for daring originality by stealing his method from Molière and his characters from Dickens; if we read Menander and Aristophanes for Molière and Dickens the statement would be hardly less true, at least as a general principle.[1]


However “true” sombre comedy may seem to be, the genre has been almost as reluctant to desert long-standing conventions as comedy itself.



Before we leave the questions of sombre comic character, we should point out that not all sombre comic characters are out of stock comic traditions.  Sombre comedy is notable for its inclusion of what we would normally think of as “tragic” character as well.  But when tragic character is included, it most often is placed in a role analogous to the role of the villain in light comedy. For example, in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, we have two tragic roles.  Hickey is a tragic figure in search of an ideal of truth which naturally collides with the ideal of self-deception held by the boarders at Harry Hope’s hotel.  Parritt is a tragic pilgrim in search of expiation and suffering.  His ultimate value of truth and the judgment that follows inexorably from the truth is the natural opposite to Larry who has learned that the truth demands judgment and who therefore prefers to play the “foolosopher” on the sidelines of life, whose commentary on the life around him implies no values, and therefore no judgment.

But Hickey and Parritt are not at the center of the play.  At the center are the boarders of Harry Hope’s hotel, who survive day after day and year after year on a bunch of daydreams with just enough relationship to reality to be agreed upon by the other boarders as realistic possibilities for the future.  Also near the center of the play is Larry, who has learned to survive by not judging and by not thinking when thinking forces judgment.  Hickey and Parritt are thrust late into this sombre comic world in which the boarders and Larry have learned to survive by self-deception and by refusing to see what must be seen.  And Hickey and Parritt act as villains within this world, upsetting the routine in which everyone has been happy and threatening to destroy all the boarders by making them face what must be faced.  In the end, the boarders are “strong” enough to resist, and Hickey and Parritt destroy themselves, permitting a return to the “golden age” the two villains almost destroyed.



Similarly, in Chekhov’s The Sea Gull, Constantine becomes a sombre comic villain, obstructing the sombre comic world around him.   And in T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, we find another example of a sacrificial tragic figure imposed on sombre comic action.  But in comparison to the number of stock comic figures carried over in sombre comedy, the number of sombre tragic figures is very small.

Along with stock figures, sombre comedy borrows many of the standard plotting devices of comedy for its own effects. As we mentioned in Chapter 10, traditional comedy often suggests that luck rather than any particular skill is responsible for the survival of mankind.  Such comedy implies a faith in Providence or some such agency which guarantees humanity’s survival.  Sombre comedy often depends on luck and deus ex machina endings as well.  But here, the point of the quick denouement or the happy-ever-after coda is ironically altered.  In The Madwoman of Chaillot, for example, the deus ex machina powers which the Countess employs are purposefully the most fanciful element of the play.  And because they are so fanciful, they suggest that the real world does not operate with the same poetic justice exhibited by the play.  Whereas in light comedies like The Shoemaker’s Holiday, the fortuitous ending seems “right,” in sombre comedy the deus ex machina ending is likely to seem deliberately contrived and unrealistic or hopelessly improbable.  A play like The Madwoman of Chaillot then moves toward an ending in which irony predominates and the happy-ever-after ending takes on a bitter quality of illusion.



Another comic pattern used in sombre comedy for altered effect is the return to an original state of affairs.  As Northrop Frye and Harold H. Watts have suggested, traditional comedy often moves toward a denouement which recreates or looks forward to a renewed, ideal society similar to the society existing before the opening scenes of the play or before the complications of the action.  Sombre comedy, particularly of the darker sort, takes pleasure in parodying this comic form.  But while the form is left the same, its meaning has become ambivalent or despairing.  Instead of the repeated ending simply standing for the completion of a cycle in man’s successful struggle for survival, in sombre comedies like Waiting for Godot or, even more, The Bald Soprano, the repetition suggests the meaninglessness of all the efforts required for man’s survival.  In The Skin of Our Teeth, Sabina’s repeated lines at the close of the play emphasize that the cycle we have witnessed is one of recurrent dangers and constant threats to man’s survival.  And, in The Iceman Cometh, the return to the original situation of Harry Hope’s hotel is an outright admission that the average man is not made to live with the truth.

Of all the plot devices taken from traditional comedy, none is more hackneyed than sombre comedy’s use of the successful wooing.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Graduate, and The Waltz of the Toreadors all follow the traditional pattern.   Anouilh’s play even contains the super-annuated suitor seen as unsuccessful rival in many Roman and Restoration wooing comedies.  But in the sombre variant, some catch has been tossed in:  Prostitution in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, incest in The Graduate, and the sympathetic transformation of the super-annuated suitor to hero in The Waltz of the Toreadors.  In the first two of these sombre comedies, the change deliberately calls into question the happy-ever-after ending, while in Anouilh’s play, it emphasizes the disappointment that is life and minimizes both the reality and significance of a romantic comic vision.



In our catalogue of comic techniques adopted in sombre comedy, we must not omit humor and jokes.  As we have insisted, humor, jokes, and laughter are not necessary to comedy, much less are they the definition of the genre.  We may say the same for sombre comedy.  But humor and laughter are important facets of most comedy and most sombre comedy.

In recent years, terms like “black humor” have sprung up suggesting that the humor of the new sombre comic theatre is essentially different from that of comedy.  There is both some truth and a great deal of error in such an assumption.  The humor of sombre comedy is often bitter, almost always frustrated, normally scourging, defensive, hysterical, or belligerent.  In other words, the humor of sombre comedy almost invariably has serious overtones.  But, if we take Freud and Bergson seriously, so do all jokes, even those of the lightest comedy.

Let us look at a typical joke from sombre comedy.  In Anouilh’s The Waltz of the Toreadors, we find this early exchange between General Saintpé and his private secretary before the complications of the plot set in and as they work on the General’s memoirs of the African campaigns:



Gen.:  And did we kill some Arabs.  And without any nonsense or regret either.  And then, my friend, the little girls of twelve they have down there—marvelous!  There she is, terrified, crouching naked in a corner, a little creature that knows it will be forced, and that desires it almost.  Two young breasts like fawns’, and cruppers, my boy!  And eyes!—and you, the soldier, the conqueror, the master.  Your sword is still out—you have killed—you are all powerful—she knows it and you know it—it is hot and dark in the tent, and you stand, face to face, in silence—

Secr.:  [Flushed and panting.]  And then, General?

Gen.:  [Simply.] Well, what do you want—at that age!  We’re not savages.  We turned them over to the Sisters of Mercy at Rabat.[2]

While this joke is more direct in confronting man’s baser instincts than most jokes in drawing-room comedy, the quick reversal, the sense of incongruity, and the practical harmlessness and strictly verbal nature of the joke all link it closely with traditional comic humor.



It may be objected that finding one such joke in sombre comedy hardly proves that sombre comedy characteristically employs traditional humor.  To such an objection, we can only assent, but in the case of this particular joke and play, the sombre comic pattern and the joke have a great deal in common.

The repartee between General Saintpé and his secretary takes place in the first act before the complications of the plot set in.  General Saintpé has been living for years in a dream romance with Ghislaine, a girl he met seventeen years earlier at a military ball.  In subsequent years, the General has managed to survive a ghastly marriage with a nagging, invalid wife through dreams of Ghislaine and more tangible affairs with local shopkeepers and maids at his country estate.  These affairs give the General no permanent pleasure, but they do give him momentary sensations of freedom and youth.  He has never tried to consummate his love for Ghislaine because he knows that the freedom and youth his dream world bestows upon him would be bitterly destroyed if it became a reality.  In the light of the General’s history and present life, the joke of the first act takes on very serious overtones and becomes a symbol for the General’s entire psychological state at the opening curtain.



Once the complications of the plot set in, General Saintpé is forced to stand by while Ghislaine, who has come to marry him, runs off and marries his private secretary instead, and while his wife tells him that he will never be free of her, that he will always be, in her earthy phrase, her “garbage can.”

In other words, the whole course of the action of The Waltz of the Toreadors is patterned to rob the General of the self-delusions of sexual prowess, youth and freedom epitomized in the joke from Act I.  Stripped of such defenses, the question is whether the General can indeed survive.  And, in the final scene, the General does survive with the help of the same mixture of illusion and sober judgment reflected in his memory of the Arab campaign.  Told that he is old, a has-been, his wife’s garbage can, General Sainitpé meets a new upstairs maid and instinctively returns to his old, self-preserving seduction routine.

Gen.:  Put your broom down, my child.  It’s really too late to be sweeping up, and there is never enough dust on things.  We must let it be. [He takes her by the hand at mid-stage.] You know, this is an easy sort of place.   I’m an old youngster without great needs.  You haven’t seen my roses, have you?  Come, I’ll show you the garden, and if you are very good I’ll give you one.  It doesn’t bore you, does it, Pamela, if I put my arm around your waist?



The New Maid:  [Coyly.] No, sir, but what will Madam say?

Gen.:  Madam will say nothing so long as you don’t tell her.  That’s a good girl.  It’s better like this.  Not that it means very much, but all the same, one feels less alone, in the dark.

[They go out, an absurd couple into the night and the garden.  “Lights Out”—the cavalry’s this time—is heard played by a far-off bugle in some barracks in the town—and the curtain falls.][3]

Thus, Anouilh’s play comes around to a new joke at the denouement, a joke closely related both in subject and in symbolic purpose to the joke in Act I, and yet a joke of much darker hue.  Perhaps we might describe these two jokes by saying that the first is very close to traditional humor, while the second is made definitely more sombre by being shunted to the visual level from the verbal level of the first and by the much more obvious and real pain of the absurdity of the situation.  The joke, “they go out, an absurd couple,” is more explicit, the irony is more intense, the incongruity is more obviously painful.



If this is, in fact, the difference between normal humor and sombre humor, we might say that in normal humor the witwork has been carefully wrought to conceal the true intent of the joke or to reveal that intent much mitigated by the surface structure of the joke.  In sombre humor, the witwork is left purposefully less than complete, and the true meaning of the joke is strikingly apparent and painful even on the most cursory inspection.  Sombre humor is more didactic and revealing, less “witty” in the Freudian sense of “disguised,” and more likely to be shunted from the purely verbal level to the visual level or level of action.

It should be noted explicitly that lighter and darker humor, as we have defined them, coexist easily, often , as in the case of The Waltz of the Toreadors, working toward the same final effect.  In sombre comedy, these effects are primarily those of irony, tension, and ambivalence.   Sombre comic humor, light or dark, points toward disparities (as Freud and Bergson suggested for all comedy), disparities which lie at the foundation of character and of reality, disparities which ensure survival at the same time that they call the value of that survival into question.


*  *  *




Thus far, we have been investigating sombre comic conventions and techniques in terms of their light comic counterparts, and to some small extent in terms of their counterparts in tragedy.  From the prominence of comic elements and the relative insignificance of the tragic elements we have discussed, we draw further confidence in the value of defining sombre comedy strictly in terms of comedy rather than in terms of tragedy-comedy or tragicomedy.  But, beyond a certain point, the conventions and techniques of sombre comedy diverge from those of all previous genres, and force us to study them either as unrelated to older genres or as deliberate deviations from them.

Timing and rhythm are two of these areas of marked difference.  Comedy normally builds toward a rapid denouement and resolution of complications, with the climax of the play, both in terms of action and emotion, occurring almost simultaneously with the final curtain.  In sombre comedy, there is often a reluctance to build tension and action in a steady crescendo up to the final  curtain, and there is also a decided preference in sombre comedy for anti-climax as a major technique.



Cyclical action, which we have already mentioned, is one of sombre comedy’s most trusted weapons for building a characteristic, anti-climactic, stuttered rhythm.   We have said that both comedy and sombre comedy often return to a previous state of affairs at the final curtain.  But in comedy, the previous state is normally one assumed to have occurred before the beginning of the play, rather than actually presented.  As a result, the final scene in such comedies comes as a revelation both of the future and of the past; it is filled with a sense of reinstatement, fruition and climax all at the same moment.  This is the pattern, for example, of The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest.  In sombre comedies like The Bald Soprano, however, we have already witnessed the final scene of the play.  The only difference is that the Martins are now speaking the line the Smiths spoke in the opening scene of the play and vice versa.  This repetition obviously has an ironic and bitter meaning; it creates no sense of reinstatement or fruition; and it has a definite sense of anti-climax, coming just after the hysterical nonsense which follows the departure of the Fire Chief.

In The Skin of Our Teeth, the cycle of action returns to Sabina’s opening despairing lines, “Oh, Oh, Oh!  Six o’clock and the master not home yet.”  The climax of the play has already been reached in the lyrical passages in the last act where Mr. Antrobus explains what kept him going through internecine war.  Sabina’s lines dissolve that lyricism and remind the audience that the main drive of the play is not that lyric resolve, but the continued crises it must meet.



In The Skin of Our Teeth and, more complexly, in Waiting for Godot, cyclical action means more than simply the repetition of the opening scene at the close of the play.  In Wilder’s play, each act repeats the one before; each presents a new and greater threat to the Antrobus’ survival and moves toward an escape by the skin of their teeth.  Sabina’s closing lines of the play simply announce that there is an indefinite number of further acts stretching into the virtual future which repeat the ones we have already seen.  In Beckett’s play, repeated questions with repeated nonsensical answers, the repeated entrances of Pozzo and Lucky and the messenger from Godot, all disrupt any “normal” crescendo through a series of incidents to a climax, and all assist in setting up a chaotic rhythm of their own.  This rhythm, whose basic measure is the interval between repetitions of the question “What are we waiting for?” is in its irregularity full of tension, and in the various answers to its driving question, the plotted direction of the play.

While sombre comedy, particularly of the darker sort, relies on different rhythms than those of typical comedy, we should not carry the point too far.  The border between traditional comedy and sombre comedy is nebulous at best, and anywhere near that boundary sombre comedy makes free, often parodic use of any comic convention it wills.  The chaotic rhythm of Waiting for Godot has much more in common with the rhythm of Endgame (which is not sombre comedy), measured as it is by the question, “What’s happening here?”  than it does with the rhythm of sombre comedies like The Madwoman of Chaillot, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Raisin in the Sun, all of which use the basic climactic rhythms of traditional comedy.



We have already said that sombre comedy uses many of the stock characters of comedy.  But, beyond that point, it often treats its characters very differently.  Traditional comedy is not known for its in-depth portraits of sympathetic characters.  This tendency is so pronounced that by itself it could explain theories like George Meredith’s which concentrate their full attention on the more completely-drawn comic villain.  In sombre comedy, the hero may be as flat or unrealistic as the typical hero of light comedy.  But, far more frequently, the sombre comic hero is a more complex figure than the traditional comic hero, much more like the comic butt who displays faults as well as virtues. But, sombre comic hero’s faults are likely to be far more serious than the comic butt’s at the same time that he is, if anything, more sympathetic than the butt.  Benjy of The Graduate, with his very real and potentially destructive faults of adultery and incest and yet his exceptional sympathy, is perhaps the typical sombre comic hero.  Such figures are, of course, anti-heroic.  They are purposefully kept from assuming super-human proportions (though this does not imply that they must be presented realistically), they are divided within themselves, and they exist in a state of tension and ambivalence appropriate to the sombre comic view of existence.  Even when such characters are placed in a purposefully non-realistic, mythic, or fairy-tale setting, as in Mother Courage or The Time of Your Life, this complexity of character is likely to strike us as it strikes Hoy and Styan—more realistic and more significant than the characters of lighter comedy.



Another of the differences in the treatment of character in sombre comedy is that in traditional comedy the social milieu of the play is likely to seem more realistic than the individual character, particularly the faintly-sketched hero or heroine, while in sombre comedy, the character predominates over the society.  In traditional comedy, despite exceptions among master playwrights like Shakespeare, Molière, and Shaw, what seems important is normally not the individual but the society.  This explains Bergson’s, Meredith’s, and Frye’s insistence on the social nature of the genre.  In sombre comedy, with its typically more complex hero, the societal nature of comedy can become much less apparent while its existential nature becomes more obvious.[4]  Complex heroes like Uncle Vanya, Romulus (in Duerrenmatt’s Romulus the Great) and Pirandello’s Henry IV become microcosmic incarnations of the ironies and ambivalences of man’s existence. Ultimately, of course, society drops out of the sombre comic play altogether, leaving Didi and Gogo or their counterparts on a barren stage directly confronting the universe.

Another important difference between sombre comedy and traditional comedy is the difference in their handling of pain and suffering.  Traditional comedy, for this purpose, can be seen as moving in one of two directions.  The first direction is that of drawing-room comedy, in which the entire action of the play, or almost the entire action, is carried on at a verbal level.  Painful incidents either do not occur or they occur to villains who have lost our sympathy and concern.  The second direction of traditional comedy is farce, in which a great deal of the action of the play is carried on at the level of physical action.  Action which would be painful or catastrophic in real life occurs at every moment in farce, but farce exists on such a non-realistic level of presentation that pain and suffering do not seem to occur and we do not expect them to occur.  In both directions of traditional comedy, the suffering we are aware of is likely to be confined to the suffering of suspense, the suffering of true love for a short time thwarted, and the like.  In almost all cases, the play moves toward a denouement in which whatever suffering has occurred to sympathetic characters is relieved and more than compensated.



In sombre comedy, pain and suffering are likely to be much more in evidence, symbols of that suffering are likely to abound, disastrous action can and often does occur on stage, and whatever suffering is displayed during the action is normally implied to continue in the virtual future.  It is the characters on stage rather than the audience who are likely to be able to ignore the pain, and when they do, the audience sees this self-delusion as a further affliction imposed upon the characters.  Ultimately, in plays which Vos has defined as perfect comedy—plays like Fry’s A Phoenix Too Frequent, Duerrenmatt’s The Visit or Wilder’s experimental play, Pullman Car Hiawatha—death and sacrifice are embodied on stage as part of the natural order:

Both weddings, the union of two bodies, and death, the separation of body and soul, provide the backdrop of the dramatic structure.[5]

These different treatments of pain define various approaches to sombre comedy.  Chekhov, for example, characteristically portrays real suffering on stage, but hardly ever portrays real disaster.  His characters suffer passively, mentally, and with a great amount of fatalism.  They also suffer grotesquely and grandiosely.  Beckett, on the other had, depends much more on symbols like the barren stage and Pozzo and Lucky instead of a direct revelation of the pain of his heroes.  Anouilh depends most on the visual contrasts between characters to represent the pain they cause one another and themselves.  And Eugene O’Neill depends most on his characters’ refusal to admit their suffering to bring it home to the audience.



Actual disaster scenes in sombre comedy tend to borrow the techniques of tragedy.  The Sea Gull and The Iceman Cometh both use off-stage catastrophes in much the same manner as Greek tragedy, the action being heard, but not quite understood on stage until announced.  In other sombre comedies, disaster often occurs almost as a ritual on stage (Zorba the Greek, for example).

These, then, are some of the techniques and conventions of sombre comedy as it has been practiced from the latter part of the nineteenth century up through the seventh decade of the twentieth century.  Most of these conventions and techniques recall those of traditional comedy as we would expect if sombre comedy is indeed a comic sub-genre.  But most of these comic conventions and techniques have taken on new and normally ironic meanings in shifting to the sombre comic mode.  Other techniques do occur in sombre comedy, notably one or two from tragedy which have undergone just as significant changes as the comic techniques.  The most pessimistic sombre comedies also share techniques with plays of the modern period which we have defined as beyond the range of sombre comedy.  The chaotic rhythms of Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead, the last two of which are not sombre comedy, share more in common than Waiting for Godot, and say, The Time of Your Life.  Again, the fairy-tale worlds invented by Giraudoux for sombre comedy in The Apollo of Bellac and The Madwoman of Chaillot have more in common with Rhinoceros than with most social comedy.



But in general, the most profitable approach to the techniques and conventions of sombre comedy is to see them either as essentially comic or as essentially contrasts to what we have come to expect from comedy.  In a great many cases, sombre comedy adopts the techniques of traditional comedy, adapting them for new purposes.  In some other sombre comedies, techniques seem to be adopted because they are anti-comic.  In terms of the history of modern theatre, this double trend is totally understandable, for as we observed in the earlier parts of this study, the twentieth century has seen the growth of seemingly opposite critical presuppositions, first that comedy is the serious genre capable of expressing the uniquely grave vision of our times and second that comedy needs radical transformation and a return to the “truth” or reality which only a new and revolutionary sombre theatre can provide.  Seeing sombre comedy either as pushing comic technique to new ends or as reacting against traditional comic technique is our best way to understand that sombre comedy is, intrinsically, neither more nor less true to reality than any other dramatic genre, no matter how real some of its effects may seem in comparison with the effects of older genres whose techniques and conventions are better known and better understood. Sombre comedy is theatre like any other dramatic genre, and the theatre is, however we may argue over the exact meaning of the term, an illusion.  If it is true to reality, it is true in the way an illusion can be true to the reality to which it corresponds, but from which it is forever separate.




[1] Frye, p. 163.


[2] La Valse des toréadors, farce en cinq actes (Paris:  La Table ronde, 1952), p. 21.


[3] Ibid., p. 197.


[4] Sombre comedy need not, of course, be metaphysical or existential as opposed to social. A Raisin in the Sun is a perfect example of social sombre comedy, while The Iceman Cometh and After the Fall both exemplify sombre comedy balanced equally between social and philosophical sombre comedy.


[5] Vos., p. 24.





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