Comedy in a New Mood
Comedy and 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
Our study of comedy and sombre comedy has led us to the unfortunate conclusion that there is no modern consensus as to the nature of either one. Behind the continuing debate is a fundamental argument whether genre should be defined in emotive or in formal terms. Throughout this study, we have argued for the superiority of formal definitions, for as we noted in Chapter 2, all emotive theories “direct themselves not toward the play itself, but toward its audience.” This line of argument was not meant to completely deny the validity of emotive definitions, but rather was meant to point to its all-too-frequent abuses. Indeed, throughout the history of comic criticism, we have seen a tendency, among the greatest critics to want to be in both camps, to propose both formal and emotive criteria for the definition of genre. Aristotle, after all, tried exactly that in his theory of tragedy. On the one hand, he proposed formal criteria like a protagonist greater than ourselves involved in serious action, while on the other, he proposed emotive criteria of pity, fear, and the purgation of these.
A number of modern theorists have made similarly concerted attempts to show that form and emotion (normally laughter) are not really antithetic criteria for comedy. Bergson argued that scenes and plots could have an inherently laughable form. Freud argued that the form of comedy is juxtaposed disparity and that the perception of such disparity is bodied forth in laughter. And Mrs. Langer argued that laughter is a varied response to the perception of vitality and that comedy creates forms calling up the vital rhythm of survival.
The dichotomy between emotive and formal theories, then, may not be as nearly complete as a superficial survey of the genre debate would make us believe. It is our first task in this chapter to demonstrate in what way formal and emotive formulations of comedy and sombre comedy may be combined.
We have argued that the emotive theories fail because they focus on the reactions of some supposedly real audience as a way of defining genre. We have denied that any such real normative audience indeed exists or that, if it did exist, that we could identify it as such. Yet, there is an ideal audience, an audience responding “appropriately” at every point to the play, which is a useful concept to have in mind as we attempt a genre definition. It is to just such an ideal audience that we refer when we say with Langer, for example, that comedy need not elicit laughter. Elicit laughter in whom? Obviously, we are referring to some ideal normative audience. But the defining characteristic of this ideal audience is that it responds exactly “as the play would have it respond”; it does not respond with the real-life reactions of an audience with specific ethnic, economic, social, or religious concerns.
Now what does it mean to say that an ideal audience responds “as the play would have us respond?” It means that there are markers of some sort within the play, markers within the work itself, which properly interpreted direct the response of the audience. If this is the proper response to an individual play, what, then, is the appropriate response to a genre as a whole. For an entire genre there must be some characteristic markers which rightly interpreted direct the audience’s response. And what element occurs in every play within a genre which might serve as its characteristic marker? The way the action of the play is formed. So we see that formal and emotive criteria for genre are really only two sides to the same coin. And, it is for that reason that in this chapter we will be careful to form both an emotive and a formal definition for both comedy and sombre comedy. These alternate definitions should be thought of as simply restatements of one another in different frames of reference. They are not in any sense “alternate” choices.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. If the first point we take from our study of modern comic criticism is that emotive and formal definitions may indeed be combined in a more general solution of the genre problem, our second insight from modern comic criticism is that comedy is a double-visioned genre. The psychologists seem to have been the first to realize that any adequate comic theory must take account of comedy’s vacillation between sympathetic heroes and unsavory villains. The idea seemed confined to that single school until it was taken up again by the Christian critics. Both schools recognize that comedy’s vision alternates between victor and victim figures. Though almost all other comic theories ignore this dual nature of comedy, as soon as it is mentioned it becomes impossible to deny. How else can we explain the simultaneous appearances in comic plays of Sir Toby Belch and Malvolio, Dorimant and Sir Foppling Flutter, Sir Anthony Absolute and Mrs. Malaprop, Horace Vandergelder and Cornelius Hackl, Lady Bracknell and Jack Worthing. How else can we explain the range of comedies from those which focus on a comic villain like Volpone to those that focus on a comic hero and heroine like The Way of the World?
And lastly, before stating our own theory of comedy, we recall the vitalistic tradition and particularly Mrs. Langer’s definition of comedy. While marred by an inability to explain the scourging side of comedy along with the heroic and triumphant side, Mrs. Langer’s theory seemed to sum up the insights of most theories previous to hers in saying that comedy recreates the rhythm of ever on-going life, the rhythms of the amoeboid cycle of rebalance, opportunism, and adaptation in a hostile universe. We are really only reformulating her idea when we define comedy in formal terms as drama which patterns its action to demonstrate man’s destined survival and the qualities or conditions which ensure that survival.
While lately the word has been debased by over-use, “viability” more than any other single term adequately describes the theme and direction of all comedy. All comedy is interested in proving, or if not proving, at least positing, that man can and will survive. In a way, that is not saying very much; in another way it is saying quite a lot. It is not saying very much to say that man will survive if we do not know which individual men will survive and which will perish along the way, nor is it saying very much that man will survive if we do not say how valuable that survival is. Of course, almost every individual comedy does answer these questions of who will survive and of how successful and valuable this survival is. But as a genre, comedy is satisfied simply to posit that survival. And after all, that is saying quite a bit, for what success is more permanent than survival and is not survival the only ultimate practical success?
From the outset, it must be understood that our definition of comedy, emphasizing survival and viability though it does, is not the equivalent of saying that happy endings are the criterion for comedy. Nor is simply the hero’s success or survival at the end of the play the criterion for comedy. To be comedy, a play must be patterned throughout to focus on practical success and survival; there must be some clear sense throughout the play that on-going life is what is really important in the dramatic presentation and that a confidence in the destined continuance of mankind is the climax toward which the play in every part builds.
Before seeing this comic pattern at work in several distinct sub-forms and modes, we would do well to discuss a natural corollary of our formal definition of comedy. If comedy celebrates the destined survival of humanity and the conditions placed on that survival, it necessarily anticipates a continuous future seen to occur after the final curtain has come down on the comic play. We might call this future beyond the final curtain the “virtual future of comedy.” In romantic comedy we see this capability of building a virtual future most clearly: hero meets heroine, woos heroine, wins heroine, and the curtain comes down on their embrace. The play is over, but there is a comic assurance of a very definite, though static virtual future to come which we traditionally call the “happy-ever-after ending.” Of course, in a great deal of traditional comedy, such an ending is a mere convenience, a simplified coda to the prior demonstration of man’s viability. Any serious comic artist who throughout his comedy has recognized that his hero is threatened or thwarted by wealth, power, station, and chance, is hardly likely to assume that once the heroine is won, all such threats are permanently banished. But the happy-ever-after ending is a way for the comic writer to say that his play has demonstrated man’s means of surviving and that, when new challenges to his viability arise, he will conquer them in somewhat analogous ways to those displayed during the play.
Virtual futures need not all be as romantically simplistic as that discussed above. Nor need they be produced in any one manner. In some plays, in fact, the virtual future is created by a variety of techniques. In The Way of the World, for example, we have a variation on the happy-ever-after ending. But we also have that very famous scene between Mirabell and Millamant in which they agree that they can find happiness and security in marriage without limiting their freedom to live unencumbered, amorous lives in London society. Since throughout the play Mirabell and Millamant have both been shown to be eminently in touch with the social reality in which they move, we see no reason to doubt that their agreed-upon version of the future indeed does take place beyond the final curtain. Their vision of the future is certainly over-simplified, failing to take account of death or illness or even aging, but as a comic audience we accept the oversimplification as a symbol of the viability the play has demonstrated in its hero and heroine. Also working in The Way of the World is the device of a character (Millamant) clearly indicating the only state of affairs he or she is willing to settle for. When, by the end of the play, we have been assured that the hero or heroine is talented enough to remake the world to his or her wishes, we are virtually assured of what future lies beyond the curtain.
Less common devices for creating a future in comedy are the inclusion of a figure who represents what the protagonist will be in future years or what he will avoid being. Whatever the device, in any good comedy, the future is not merely announced, no matter how sophisticated that announcement may be. In good comedy the audience is always led to piece together a future from elements of the action performed before it.
Within our general definition of comedy there are possibilities for several sub-forms. At a minimum, these sub-forms include hero-oriented, normally light comedy; butt-oriented comedy; villain-oriented, often scourging comedy; and societal comedy.
Hero-oriented comedy embodies an idealized set of virtues in a hero-figure. The hero stands for that part of mankind which is destined to survive. Typically, the hero is put in a situation which threatens him and exalts characteristics opposite to his own. The action of hero comedy centers on the reversal of this situation, the hero’s overcoming his inferior position, and, climactically, his achieving his goals, often symbolized by his winning the sexually attractive heroine. The progression of the action is patterned to show that the hero’s virtues are so powerful that they can withstand adverse conditions and triumph over them.
Speaking of the hero’s idealized virtues suggests a moral character in comedy. Indeed, comedy is often susceptible to just such moralizing. But essentially, comedy in all its forms is amoral. The virtues it elevates are what we might call “practical virtues.” That is to say, the virtues of comedy are virtues simply because they guarantee survival. Within any specific moral code such qualities may or may not be considered virtuous, and in some cases could easily be considered vices, Horner’s “virtues” in The Country Wife, for example. Each comic artist has his own perception of what guarantees survival, and he is entitled to elevate any quality or talent to the rank of a practical virtue within the pattern of his own play.
As Mrs. Langer, Scott, and Vos have all pointed out, practical virtue often seems of little importance compared to luck in securing the reversal of the hero’s situation and his attainment of his goals. This tendency of hero-oriented comedy toward deus ex machina denouement is responsible for its low ranking as a literary form among critics who demand of all drama the kind of necessity characteristic of most great tragedies. But this is to blame comedy for being itself. When hero-oriented comedy, at least good hero-oriented comedy, depends on luck and deus ex machina reversals, it is because that comedy has been patterned not to prove the hero’s prowess in reversing the situation for himself, but to suggest either that providence ultimately vindicates practical virtues or that, in a world where all depend upon the wheel of fortune, only the hero’s virtues can survive through both feast and famine.
Hero-oriented comedy often includes a buffoon-antagonist who is capable of seriously opposing the hero only by virtue of his inherited wealth, power, station, or some combination of these. The fops of Restoration comedy and the senex figures of Roman comedy fit this pattern of gratuitous influence wielded by unsympathetic characters. When such figures are included in hero comedy, they are used as a further proof that ability and character are the only ultimate guarantees of success and survival. Hero-oriented comedy has always been the democratic genre, par excellence.
In butt comedy, a figure often very like the buffoon-antagonist is made sympathetic and becomes the protagonist. The buffoon is sympathetic, but is also obviously fallible. This fallibility may be an intellectual or emotional blindness, or some physical inferiority, or perhaps an unwillingness to accept the grounds of his own finitude stressed by Vos and Hoy. Whatever the buffoon’s fault, the action of such comedy is patterned to expose both the butt’s foibles and the exuberance, perseverance, resilience or other practical virtue which ensures the butt’s survival or success despite his faults. Thus, the butt, like the comic hero, is presented as the image of man surviving. Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel and Hardy are out best modern exponents of this often farcical comedy whose antecedents include commedia dell’ arte, Falstaff (in The Merry Wives of Windsor), and Punch and Judy. However, butt-comedy need not always be as exuberant as these diverse examples of it would suggest. I take it that all the plays Hoy discusses as typical comedy, Love’s Labors Lost, for example, can be considered more sedate examples of this same comic sub-form.
Villain-oriented comedy always contains vestigial remains of hero-oriented and/or butt-oriented comedy, as for example, in Tartuffe we have Orgon and his family. The main interest of Tartuffe and of all villain comedy, however, lies not with sympathetic figures, but with a comic villain. While in hero and butt comedy humanity is equated simply with the protagonist and the protagonist’s success is viewed as a demonstration of the race’s viability, the situation is much more complex in villain comedy. The comic villain is normally a parody hero, in the sense that he is likely to have many of the pragmatic virtues. Molière’s Tartuffe, Jonson’s Volpone—these have an immense joie de vivre and exceptional talents for getting on in the world. Unfortunately they misdirect these talents, usually because they turn them against society—and traditional comedy with very few exceptions views society as one of man’s most important tools for survival and practical success. The dramatist behind villain comedy is engaged in the tricky business of controlling his audience, alternately forcing it to admire grudgingly the villain’s talents and pushing it into absolute abhorrence of the villain’s inhuman, utterly selfish, and sterile motivation. After suspending his audience between grudging admiration and open abhorrence for the better part of two hours, the dramatist contrives the villain’s downfall—again often as matter of luck. The world is left to the shadowy heroes or butts who are seen to have less spectacular, but more enduring qualities than the villain.
In villain-oriented comedy, then, we have a most complex situation, in which the survival of humanity is symbolized largely by the shadowy hero or butt, and also, though to a lesser extent, by the technical virtuosity of the villain. Man is seen to possess the talents necessary for survival, but it is also shown that certain societal talents which the villain always lacks—generosity, courtesy, and love—are the sine qua non of survival.
Finally, we come to societal comedy. As we have said, almost all traditional comedy sees society as an instrument in man’s survival. In this sense society easily becomes the hero of comedy. Society is the sum of humanity and it is the everlasting which survives all individual deaths. Social comedy brings together, in more or less equal perspective, heroes, butts, and villains, and social comedy is patterned to demonstrate society’s viability by showing that the strains produced by this mixing of types is not so great as to destroy society or its best members. As critics from Meredith on have noticed, social comedy is at least as interested in the reconciliation of villains and butts to society as it is in the repudiation and expulsion of unacceptable figures from the final comic society. The greatest comedies of the Western world seem to be in this social tradition, for example, Twelfth Night, The Way of the World, The Tempest, and As You Like It. But interestingly enough, none of these plays quite lives up to the social comic ideal of total reconciliation within society: there is always a Malvolio or Jacques who seems outside the comic society and who perhaps defines the worth of that society by his separation from it.
While hero, butt, villain, and societal comedy may not be the only way of subdividing comedy, it is these facets of comedy which have attracted the analysis, respectively, of Mrs. Langer, Hoy, Meredith, and Bergson. The important point in our review of them here is that they all fit the general pattern that we have devised for comedy in general, the pattern of destined survival emphasizing the conditions and qualities which ensure it.
We may also find it profitable to divide comedy into various modes, basic presentational manners in which any of the sub-forms of comedy previously mentioned may appear.
In farce, the physical aspects of man’s life are emphasized and exaggerated. Furthermore, the realistic laws of action and reaction, the physical capacities and endurance of men, and the strength, purity, and direction of their motives and responses are all falsified through exaggeration. The result is usually an intensely physical comedy, characterized by great energy and the absence of anything approaching real pain or suffering. But despite these falsifications and exaggerations, farce is still comedy, patterning its action to exemplify (though not to realistically prove) the value of pragmatic virtues.
Romantic comedy, like farce, is a non-realistic mode within the comic genre. Romantic comedy dwells on “poetic justice,” the rewarding of practical virtues, normally accomplished through spiritual and emotional transformations in character which could hardly be expected in real life. Romantic comedies are known for their instantaneous wooings (Goldoni’s The Venetian Twins), tyrants’ sudden relentings (As You Like It) and similar improbabilities which emphasize the providential aegis under which pragmatic virtue triumphs.
More complex than the farcical and romantic is the satiric mode. Satire is actually an overlapping genre with comedy, sometimes within the comic mold, sometimes a derivative from it. Volpone is satire within the comic mold. Here we have a play that asserts the viability of right-minded society at the same time that it satirizes the corruptions of society and the misuse of talent within the society. In Jonson’s Alchemist, with the removal of even the most shadowy heroes or butts, no longer is there any comic assertion of survival; there is only the satiric portrayal of ill-gotten gains passing from hand to hand and never returning to their rightful, duped owners. While obviously derived from and closely related to villain comedy, such satire is best thought of, for the terms of this study, as beyond comedy.
We also find several specialized modes overlapping with comedy that have normally been treated as entirely distinct genres. The traditional Western, for example, as we have said in our discussion of Mrs. Langer, often embraces the comic form and easily adapts comic conventions to its own purposes. The Western, of course, is not limited to comedy—it is possible to have a Western tragedy, for example—but it does seem to have a natural propensity for the comic form. Detective stories, spy thrillers, and adventure stories, as well as some forms of soap-opera and melodrama also overlap with comedy, though none of these seems as consistently comic or uses as many of the techniques and conventional of comedy as the traditional Western.
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Leaving formal considerations for the moment, we may want to rephrase our definition of comedy slightly in order to discuss it from an emotive point of view. If, from a formal viewpoint, comedy is drama patterned to demonstrate man’s destined survival and the conditions placed upon it, from an emotive point of view, comedy is a celebration of on-going life. But before discussing exactly what we mean here by “celebration,” let us first confront the idea that comedy depends upon the absence or suspension of emotion.
Does comedy engage the emotions? Of course it does! Putting our argument in simplest terms, whether Bergson was correct in asserting that laughter entails a temporary suspension of emotion is in no way relevant to the question whether comedy as a genre works on and through our emotions. When we watch a comedy, our sense of suspense, of “poetic justice,” and of “appropriate” laughter depend upon that comedy’s engaging our emotions. What kind of suspense or tension would The Beggar’s Opera engender if Macheath did not command our sympathy? Why do we laugh at Malvolio cross-gartered and not at Viola disguised, at all Restoration fops, but few Restoration beaux, unless our laughter is conditioned by our emotional involvement.
If we are determined to minimize the role of the emotions in comedy (which would be a great mistake), the most we could say is that the emotional responses demanded by most comedy are stock response. We respond, perhaps, very uncritically to the handsome comic hero, the voluptuous comic heroine, and the despicable comic villain. We may respond unimaginatively and unthinkingly to happy-ever-after endings, to sudden “lucky” reversals in favor of the hero, and the like. Nevertheless, however unintelligent, instinctive, or undiscriminating our responses to comedy may be, they are undeniably necessary factors of comedy. The idea that tragedy appeals to the heart and comedy appeals to the head is one of the most misleading clichés of the Great Tradition.
We return then to our emotive definition of comedy, the celebration of on-going life. What is meant by “celebration” and just what relation does it have to the emotional response of comedy?
These questions are best answered in the reverse order. Most emotive theories of comedy have espoused the idea that laughter is the emotional response to comedy, not recognizing that in most comedies laughter is a response not to the whole play but to some high points within it, and that in some comedies no laughter is expected at all. Emotive theories other than laughter theories have still claimed that there is a single response to comedy. This idea that there is a single response to comedy simply ignores the very real differences between, say, our response to Volpone, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Importance of Being Earnest. The truth of the matter is that comedy does not create a single emotional response at all, but rather a range of emotional responses. As a matter of fact, a single play does not produce a single emotional effect, or even a single appropriate effect. On different nights, in different productions, when our minds are drawn to certain facets and away from others, our impression and response to a play like Twelfth Night varies, and that variance can not be explained away in terms of simply one “appropriate” and many inappropriate responses. This truth is obvious to us in practical criticism where we hardly ever demand a single “right” interpretation of a play either from a critic or from a director and actors. Yet because it is simple, we continue to put up with the falsification in our more abstract genre theories.
Well, what then? Are we completely unable to discuss the response to comedy at all? No, we are not, but instead of looking for a single response to comedy we must look for something that all of the “appropriate” responses to comedy have in common. What all of these response have in common is not that they are all gay (what real gaiety pervades Volpone?) or that they are all vindictive (what real vindictiveness pervades Goldoni’s The Mistress of the Inn or The Comedy of Errors?) or, in Meredith’s terms, that they are all genteel without bitterness. What unites all the different moods of that patterned action which we call comedy is that they are all reactions to and are controlled by a recollection or remembrance called up by the patterned action of one of man’s most instinctive concepts, the idea of man’s destined survival as a race, despite any of the catastrophes experienced by individual men, despite man’s weaknesses, and even despite his self-destructive tendencies. This remembrance, not of a fact, but of an intuitive and instinctive faith, is what is meant by “celebration.”
Perhaps we can clarify the idea of comic celebration best by starting with a comparison between it and the celebration of tragedy. At bottom, the two represent, as Mrs. Langer suggests, two opposing basic ways of viewing man’s life. The celebration of tragedy, tragedy’s remembrance or restatement is the celebration of man’s ethical status. In tragedy, man recalls that he is a moral creature, that demands are made on him never made upon any of the creation’s other life forms. Tragedy’s celebration is a remembrance of that moral status and of the often irreconcilable antagonisms between such demands and the more mundane demands of survival. The emotional response called up by the celebration of tragedy may be any emotional responses man can have to a recognition of his moral or ethical reality.
What exactly are these emotional responses “man may have to recognition of his ethical reality?” Any cursory, yet moderately sensitive review of tragedy in the Western world reveals many more than Aristotle’s pity and fear. Aristotle’s pity and fear are at least roughly adequate as a description of the central emotions called forth by Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. But in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, if we refuse to be overawed by Aristotle, the greatest single emotional response may be something like triumph; a triumphant recollection of man’s ability to see and to render justice, a triumphant recollection of his role as both agent of divine retribution and as rational and impartial jury in a divinely-sanctioned court. In Macbeth, Shakespeare moved away from all these classic tragic emotions and substituted a horror for Macbeth’s slow, steady emotional, intellectual, and moral suicide. In more modern melodramatic tragedies like A Man for All Seasons and The Crucible, the tragic emotion may be a combination of pride in the unbending hero’s strict adherence to his conscience’s dictates combined with contempt for the immoral world in which he moves.
Just as in tragedy, in comedy the playwright has a great range of emotions upon which he may call, and the history of comedy, like the history of tragedy, is in some degree the history of the growing and changing emotions which playwrights have learned to call forth in response to a remembrance of our faith that man must survive. In plays like Plautus’ Menaechmi, the comic emotions seem by and large trivial and uncomplicated, simply joying in man’s vitality. Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, based on Menaechmi, has a very different emotional tone. The addition of Aegeon and a theme of lost identity to the Plautine plot alter the direction of the play enough so that our reaction at the close of the play is not so much high spirits that everything has worked out well as it is a sense of wholeness and fulfillment when each brother has found his full identity in the other and in his reunited family. A great deal of Shakespearean comedy—As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Tempest—creates in response to an affirmation of man’s necessary endurance similar emotions of the wholeness and value of existence, quiet, if still rejoicing emotions very different from the more boisterous responses encouraged either by Roman comedy or by Restoration comedy. Still later, many of George Bernard Shaw’s comedies were constructed to produce an emotional reaction of surprised delight that the life force was in fact at work, insuring man’s continuance, beneath all of man’s social, moral, and intellectual pretensions. We could go on and on with this catalogue of the various emotional responses to a patterned action of man’s survival which playwrights, particularly in the modern period, have learned to elicit. But the attempt here is simply to make the reader aware that in different comedies, different emotional responses are elicited from him. The description of any or all of the various emotions in the foregoing examples may well be argued—the emotions of comedy, more than the emotions of tragedy, are nameless and disturbingly vague. Yet, they do exist as unique entities, not as a single generalized emotion, and that has been our whole argument here.
Thus far we have been talking about the “emotional response to comedy” meaning an over-all response which the playgoer carries away from the theatre with him and which is his abiding impression of a particular play, and we have said that all such responses are reactions to the celebration of on-going life. But our abiding impression is certainly not our only concern in discussing the emotional response to comedy. Beyond the over-all response to a comedy experienced as a totality, we must also come to terms with the emotional reaction we have to the elements of the plot and to the characters in the play, reactions which change from moment to moment as the play progresses. Are these momentary emotional responses explainable only in terms of some theory of comedy? Or are they simply “human” reactions, totally explainable without reference to the kind of play in which they are elicited?
At first glance, it would seem that the moment by moment reactions of comedy are simply “human” reactions uninfluenced by the comic context in which they appear. From the moment the handsome hero or voluptuous heroine or ugly villain steps forth on the stage, we have emotional reactions to them which seem thoroughly in accord with our “natural” reactions to people.
While these reactions have the semblance of naturalness, however, they are neither “natural” nor “human” per se; they are conditioned by the comic perspective. While we feel that it is natural to have a favorable response to the comic hero, how many of us, on entering a room, are immediately attracted to, and most emotionally attuned to, the most handsome man in the room? How many of us, on the other hand, automatically distrust the motives of, and are ready to be ill-disposed toward, anyone ugly we happen to meet? Similar arguments apply for the way in which we are always willing to laugh at awkwardness, stupidity, and even deformity in comedy, while in real life we would at least do our best to be tolerant.
If the reactions we have from moment to moment in comedy are not strictly natural, what are they? It is not good enough to say that our reactions are “merely conventional.” Conventions do not last for literally millennia if they do not have some basic affinity for the type of literature in which they appear. These conventional responses of comic theatre have survived from Greek and Roman times because they reflect the basic preoccupations of all comedy. Whenever we have gained the comic perspective, we see everything within the context of our instinctive faith that man, as a life form, must survive. Everything we see is then perceived as either compatible with survival or detrimental to it, or, what is often saying the same thing, as either improving humanity or debasing it. Comedy thus becomes the comparative genre, constantly deciding what is viable and what is not, what is a threat to humanity and what is an insurance of its survival. Believing as we do that man will survive, we are led, at least in traditional comedy, consistently to favor the viable and to censure that which threatens man’s survival.
The moment-to-moment reactions in comedy, then, are primarily directed to favor that which insures life and its betterment and to disapprove that which threatens survival. This explains why in all forms of comedy the handsome hero has our sympathy before the author has him speak a word; why the beautiful heroine is the obvious prize for success before we know her background, personality, or worth; why the deformed or ugly villain is automatically despised. The modern theatre, particularly the modern sombre theatre, has experimented with undercutting these emotions—as, for example, Anouilh in Ardèle eventually makes the deformed characters sympathetic and the beautiful people villains—but these experiments only prove that in comedy and its offshoots, whatever seems to insure survival has our initial sympathy.
The basis for our reactions to the elements of comedy is simple; what is life-insuring has our sympathy and what is not has our disapproval. But, despite the lack of complexity in the principle, there is still a certain complexity in its actual functioning.
For example, it might easily be objected to our theory that there is nothing particularly “comic” about reacting favorably to beautiful women. Agreed. But then, comedy does not always demand our favorable reaction to beautiful women, at least not after our first impression. As a matter of fact, it often asks just the opposite by making them symbols of temptation, weakness, or even sterility. And when they become such symbols, they obviously demand our censure rather than our approval as a comic audience. The Way of the World provides an extreme example.
Millamant is, of course, the comic heroine, and we grant her all the sympathy reserved for the viable heroine. Obviously, Millamant’s physical charms have much to do with this sympathy. Opposed to Millamant, we find Mrs. Marwood. Is Mrs. Marwood physically attractive? She is often portrayed on stage as older than Millamant and crude or artificial in her make-up. But this is surely unnecessary prejudicing. After all, Mirabell is quite a gallant; he knows quality when he sees it; and he is handsome enough to get the genuine article. He has evidently gone to quite a bit of trouble for Mrs. Marwood, and we can therefore safely assume that she is quite attractive. Yet, made as physically attractive as costumes and make-up can, Mrs. Marwood need speak only a few lines on stage in order for any sympathy the audience has toward her to disappear. She may be as attractive as she is passionate, but her every word convinces us that her beauty is a trap and that her sexuality is totally sterile and self-seeking. Her attractiveness then brings down upon her an augmented censure, for the greater her attractiveness the more we judge her a threat to Mirabell’s best happiness (and thus, a threat to the success of mankind which he represents.)
We might engage in similar arguments to prove that all our “conventional” responses are modified and controlled when we act as audience to comedy. It may be conventional for us to admire wealth in most literature, or in some forms of literature to despise it. But in comedy, neither convention is absolute: our reaction to wealth in comedy is primarily a matter of whether that wealth seems to insure or to prevent man’s healthy survival. In Roman comedy, many Restoration comedies, and modern popular comedies like The Solid Gold Cadillac and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, the acquisition of permanent wealth at the denouement of the play is a signal for the audience to give its final and total emotional approval to the comic hero. Yet, wealth is also used as a symbol of the threat posed to young, lively, and procreative heroes and heroines by a corrupt, decadent, or sterile older established society. Roman comedy’s senex villains, Restoration comedy’s wealthy fops, Molière’s Miser and Jonson’s many villains in Volpone all exhibit the possibility of the comic censure of wealth. We might make an exactly analogous argument for the varying reaction to political power in comedy, citing The Tempest, Shaw’s The Millionairess, and, more ambiguously, Major Barbara as examples of political power granted comic approval, while on the other hand pointing to Measure for Measure and figures like Cibber’s Lord Foppington in The Careless Husband as instances where political power is seen as a threat to the best and destined progenitors of the race and which therefore comes in for comic censure.
We have, then, made discoveries about two distinct aspects of the emotional response to comedy. Within any particular comedy, our emotional response from moment to moment is largely controlled by our judgment of what is viable and what is not. As an entirely distinct phenomenon, our abiding emotional reaction to any comic play as a whole is not limited to a single emotional response which we might label “the comic emotion.” Rather, comedy may call forth any emotional reaction man can have to the remembrance of his instinctive faith that the race will survive. The playwrights of each age find their own reactions to that faith and lead us toward their reaction in their own new creations within the genre of comedy.
Yet, before we leave our discussion of the emotive response to comedy, we should pay some specific attention to the place and significance of laughter in comedy. Along with Mrs. Langer, and against the opinions of a great many theorists from antiquity through the present, we have assigned no significance to laughter per se in our theory of comedy. And with Mrs. Langer, we assert that laughter is not a single emotional response on which a theory of comedy can be based.
Smiles and laughter, like frowns and grimaces, are forms of bodily expression. There are actually very few general categories of facial or bodily expression as one can verify by trying to add to this list. Yet, these few general classifications of expression encompass all of man’s subtle variations in emotion. Each form of expression must, therefore, stand for many emotions, and which emotion it betokens is usually indicated by the context of circumstances in which it occurs rather than by the gesture itself. We laugh with joy when we see a new-born child; we laugh insanely in hysterics; we laugh superiorly when someone above us is humiliated. We laugh in many ways from an enigmatic smile to a belly-laugh and with many different emotional motives: to show we care at ease, to put others down, to show that we are pleased, to relieve our tensions.
Laughter then is not a single emotional response, much less “the comic response.” Nor need comedy rely on any of laughter’s forms. As Mrs. Langer has suggested, however, one form of laughter seems characteristic, if not of all comedy, then at least of a great deal of comedy. This laughter is the laughter of vitality, a recognition of power, energy, perseverance, sprightliness, and the like. As mentioned in our discussion of Mrs. Langer, vital humor explains why life in slow-motion strikes us simultaneously as beautiful and laughable. It also explains why we laugh at the unremitting perseverance of Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker and why her character is so essentially comic that it eventually predominates a new play, Hello, Dolly. Since all comedy portrays the conditions of man’s survival, vital humor is “natural” to comedy and is responsible for laughter’s steady prominence in comic art. But comedy does not necessitate laugher, nor does it demand any particular level of laughter response.
With our basic formal and emotive definitions of comedy, then we move on to a consideration of the nature of sombre comedy. But, immediately, we are stopped by the question, just what plays are we going to consider sombre comedy? Obviously, if we assume that Waiting for Godot and Rhinoceros are both sombre comedies, we will be forced toward some definitions of the genre and away from others, while if we accept The Wild Duck and The Caretaker as sombre comedies, our definition may be forced in a totally different direction.
This problem of deciding which plays to draw one’s formulations from is present, but less urgent, in the theory of comedy as well. Meredith’s theory, for example, was hopelessly limited when Meredith chose to accept as comedy only some works of only the very greatest dramatists as truly comic. The theory of comedy delineated above would seem to run little risk of drawing from an inadequate sample of comedy. Our examples have covered classical drama (admittedly omitting satiric Old Comedy), Renaissance drama, Jonsonian comedy, Restoration comedy and eighteenth century sentimental comedy, Molière, nineteenth century social comedy, and the lighter strains of modern comedy. Before our discussion has ended, it will account for the darker comedies of the twentieth century as well. A few of our examples may have fallen into disputed territory: particularly Shakespeare’s romances and Volpone. These plays were used, however, not because the theory depends upon them, but because they exemplify solutions to some of the knottier problems that arise when other comic theories are applied to a wide range of plays. In any case, the problem of identifying the plays which must be satisfactorily explained by any respectable theory of comedy is easily solved, for we have long traditions which identify plays from every period as definitely within the comic genre.
But this problem of identifying a corpus of plays which are definitely within the genre is much less easily solved for sombre comedy. “Dark comedy,” “black comedy,” and the like have been in use for little more than two decades, and we have no firm traditions identifying which plays belong under such labels. A critic addressing himself to defining these terms may, of course, decide arbitrarily which plays he hopes to unite in a common critical perspective under a single genre title. While there is nothing inherently wrong with such a course, we will adopt an essentially different method. Instead of choosing plays and then asking what they have in common, we will ask what plays with a dark or sombre tone conform to our definition of comedy and might, therefore, be classified as a sombre sub-genre of comedy.
Once we have clearly in mind the question we are asking, the definition of sombre comedy seems inevitable and almost self-evident: sombre comedy is comedy in which man is proved to be viable, but within the patterned action there is also a clear attempt to demonstrate that man’s destined survival is achieved only at some continuous cost.
Our definition of sombre comedy suggests that the border between comedy and sombre comedy will not always be clear-cut and that many sombre comedies will make only slight adjustments in the traditional patterning of comedy. For example, in light comedy, the threats of the world which heroes and butts face normally seem unreal and are often minimized in a happy-ever-after ending. Even in villain comedy like Tartuffe, the sense of real injury to the villain himself is minimized. The hostile world of traditional comedy is only hostile enough to create obstacles for the hero to overcome and not hostile enough to be seen as a continuous threat throughout the virtual future created by the play. Thus, one of the simplest resources at the playwright’s disposal for moving from the realm of comedy to sombre comedy is to make it obvious throughout the action of the play that the world’s hostility is serious and that to counter its very real threats, the comic hero must be forever paying some real price.
Two American sombre comedies are excellent examples here. In William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, we find a number of characters sharing the sympathetic center of our attention—Joe, Tom, and Kitty Duval. All three succeed and survive, and all three do so through the traditional comic societally-practical virtues of generosity, love, and faith in one’s fellow-man. But, despite the optimism which is so uniquely Saroyan’s, this play is sombre comedy because the pattern of the action makes clear that each of these sympathetic characters is paying a continuing price: Kitty Duval is paying the price of a harlot past, of a false name, and of never being able to go home again; Tom is paying the price of being only partially able to ease Kitty’s pain, or being only partially a man, and of being only partially able to create a new home for Kitty: Joe is paying the price of being cut off from Tom in order to help him, of being a rich man self-condemned, and of having once been in love—and never having fully recovered.
Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun is a more complex example, for on the surface it would seem that the Youngers
have simply succeeded—they have fought their way out of the ghetto, achieved a common purpose, and found in Walter a newly-legitimate leader. In the closing lines of the play, Mama’s poetic analysis of Walter’s sudden advent into manhood:
He finally come into his manhood today, didn’t he? Kind of like a rainbow after the rain. . . .
seems to end a play of hardship on a completely triumphant note.
Such an analysis of the play, however, is too myopically centered on the final scene. If we look at the pattern of the whole play instead, we find that all kinds of hidden installment payments on the Youngers’ success have been carefully planted, payments the Youngers will have to make throughout an indefinite future. True, they have escaped the ghetto, but they have only opened themselves to the more overt prejudice and the repression of a newly integrated neighborhood. True, they have moved up in the world, but Beneatha’s dream of becoming a doctor has been thoroughly crushed. True, Walter has taken charge of the family, but he has lost his father’s insurance and made himself a fool in the pursuit of the white man’s value of business success. All of this, the good and the bad, follows the Youngers from the ghetto, and for whatever good comes of their success, there will be a continual price to pay.
Another of the simplest means of moving from pure comedy to sombre comedy is to stress that success and survival are really not identical and that man does much more surviving than succeeding. In our discussion of the theory of comedy, geared as it was primarily to more orthodox forms of comedy, we have used success and survival almost interchangeably as the goals of comic man. For traditional comedy, the equation makes a great deal of sense, for, in the final analysis, as we have suggested, no success but survival is enduring and survival is always a success of life over matter. Sombre comedy is likely, however, to use this comic identity ironically and to achieve a dark tone by suggesting that success is only survival and that survival is a very tenuous success.
Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot makes just such an ironic point. The Countess succeeds in “saving” the world, Pierre and Irma kiss and are about to marry, but has anything really been accomplished? The world has been rid of the money-hungry, power-driven men of position, but the countess is sure that a new group of them will arise, that the world will have to be recleansed, probably not tomorrow, but very soon. Pierre and Irma are romantically bound to one another, but they are warned that the slightest break between them will grow and destroy their love. And the Countess lives on—human, humane, but also mad, surrounded by other madwomen and by deformed humanity of every description. Yes, Giraudoux asserts, man succeeds, yet what has he really gained except the survival of the worthy but deformed remnant of his society?
The opposite tack—suggesting that survival is at very best a tenuous success—is exemplified in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Beckett’s buffoons, Didi and Gogo (who are only philosophic exaggerations of the buffoon figures portrayed by Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy) survive and in that sense they succeed in overcoming themselves and in overcoming the barrenness of the cosmos which they confront. But what sort of success is it to live in the knowledge that you don’t know why you are living; what sort of success is it to know that everything you are told as well as everything you say and everything you perceive is nonsense? Beckett perhaps defines the furthest extreme of comic vision in his portrait of meaningless survival; yet survival it most definitely is, and beyond that, survival toward which the pattern of the entire play has been moving.
Another technique exemplified in Waiting for Godot for moving from comedy to sombre comedy is to move the world in which the sympathetic characters struggle from the drawing room, the family or some other small and “insignificant” society up to the status of the “universe” itself. Metaphysical comedy of this kind moves easily into a consideration of the basic paradoxes and ambivalences of human nature discussed by both pessimistic playwrights and the Christian critics. And these paradoxes—“the good I would I do not,” and the like—become themselves the continuing price man pays for his survival.
Still another technique for crossing the border between comedy and sombre comedy is to make the stock characters of comedy seemingly more complex. This technique accounts for Styan and Guthke’s insistence that dark comedy and tragicomedy are more true to the nature of reality than comedy. While it is true that a great deal of traditional comedy has subsisted on shadow heroes and a properly convoluted romantic stock plot, such hack writing should never be taken to epitomize a genre as a whole. Rosalind of As You Like It, Kate and Petruchio of The Taming of the Shrew are as fully delineated and as “real” as the characters of any sombre comedy and are at an opposite extreme from the purposefully unrealistic and fragmentary characters of Ionesco or Beckett.
But to return to the initial point, a great many modern plays become sombre comedies by making their characters more complex, less stereotyped, and, in the case of heroes, less one-dimensionally “good-guys” than most traditional comedy. The recent motion pictures—Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Graduate—show both this technique and the recent popularization the sombre comic genre.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is right out of the oldest comic traditions: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, finds that the wooing will not be easy, perseveres, and in the end wins girl. What darkens Breakfast at Tiffany’s is that its heroine is not a stock figure, but Holly Golightly, a call-girl, and its hero, Paul, is a male prostitute, both not so much out of necessity as out of a complete lack of direction. Man finding himself is, of course, one of the great success themes of traditional comedy—Love’s Labors Lost, for example, or The Taming of the Shrew. But in the resolution of Breakfast at Tiffany’s Paul and Holly have not found themselves, they have found each other. That discovery is a success which makes it possible for them to go on, but the future beyond the curtain will holds their agonized search for their self-identities, hindered, it seems safe to add without being moralistic, by the memory of the depths in which they have tried to drown those identities.
It is interesting that the continual payments demanded of the sombre comic heroes in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and in The Time of Your Life are symbolized by a past of sexual deviation. We see the same pattern repeated in The Graduate. Again we find ourselves with a “lost” hero without a sense of purpose wandering into sexual aberration. Almost too late, he finds someone he knows he needs and is almost destroyed by the irreconcilable nature of his present desires and his past aberrations. This time, of course, the aberration is an adulterous affair with the heroine’s mother, a suggestion of the dangerous psychological territory sombre comedy so often invades. But Benjy’s good qualities—his introspection, honesty, open-handedness, candor—outweigh the bad and, though thoroughly a modern anti-hero, he is still successful in winning his heroine at the close. But as a sombre comedy, The Graduate has used the deeper psychological portrait of its anti-hero to assert that the future beyond the final curtain is still a blank of general meaninglessness and lack of direction, complicated by the memory of the breaking of one of man’s more profound taboos.
The plays we have mentioned thus far generally use one or at most two of these simple devices to move across the border from comedy to sombre comedy. Simple alterations though these devices are, when several of them are combined in the same play, the comic nature of the whole is almost entirely concealed. Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, for example, is likely to strike almost anyone as more tragic than comic, really a new form of theatre altogether. Yet, despite the experimentalism of the play, it is still comedy, comedy in a very sombre mood. We still find the comic sense of man’s final victory over the world in which he moves. But After the Fall has been darkened first by the extreme complexity of the hero role, next by the grotesque presentation of his and mankind’s sufferings, next by the insistence within the play that the hero is moving not simply in a physical world, but also in a world of metaphysical significance, and finally by the suggestion that his “success” at the final curtain, on which the patterned action of the whole play centers, is uncertain beyond simple survival.
As with comedy, we can define sombre comedy in emotive terms as well as the formal terms we have been using thus far. In emotive terms, sombre comedy is comedy whose celebration recognizes some continual cost attendant upon man’s destined survival. The abiding emotional impressions “appropriate” to sombre comic plays may be any emotional responses man can have to an instinctive faith that humanity is destined to survive at some continuous cost.
This idea of “celebrating” a continual cost placed on man’s survival may seem at best irrational and at worst syntactically nonsensical. Again as in discussing the celebration of comedy, the celebration of sombre comedy may be best understood if we start with an analogy somewhat removed from our basic argument.
While religious celebrations are only partially analogous to the celebrations of theatre, they perhaps provide us with our most completely understood celebrations and are, therefore, a useful preliminary model for us to examine. We have defined “celebration” as a remembrance (normally enacted or ritualized) not of a fact, but of a faith. Such a definition is broader than our normal conception of religious celebrations. By celebration we normally mean not simply a remembrance, but rather a remembrance with joy, satisfaction, or thanksgiving. Celebration in this sense often takes on the meaning of a “feast” or “holiday” (as distinct from a “Holy Day”). We celebrate only the things that have a “positive” significance for us, as for example, we celebrate Christmas as a remembrance of Christ’s birth or Hanukkah as a remembrance of deliverance.
But “celebration” used as such a simple concept has suffered the same vulgarization as “faith” when it is used to mean only a faith in good things. Just as one can have a faith in bad things, so too there are other celebrations than those of unmitigated joy and thanksgiving, the Mass, requiem, and Good Friday vigils being prime examples. The Mass is a joyous celebration of the communion of the saints, of God’s love for man, and of Christ’s promise to return again. It is also a remembrance of man’s betrayal of God, of God’s agony, and of the sins for which God allowed himself to suffer. Requiems are both remembrances of sinful mortality and remembrances of God’s power to transcend both sin and death. Good Friday vigils are remembrances of most of the paradoxes of the Mass and of the scriptural paradox, “Since by Man came death; by Man came also the resurrection of the dead.” All these more complex celebrations are ironic in the sense that a single remembrance evokes opposing emotional responses, the contemplation of one leading to the contemplation of its complement in a theoretically endless cycle.
Moving back, then, from religious celebrations to theatrical ones, we have said that the celebrations of comedy are many; that is, the remembrance of our instinctive faith in man’s survival may call forth a great variety of emotional response. But traditional comedy almost invariably calls forth a narrower range of “positive” emotions, analogous to the emotions of religious celebrations of simple joy and thanksgiving. Such religious and theatric celebrations often evoke a sense of oneness with the metaphysical universe (as, for example, The Comedy of Errors), or a sense of the ultimate goodness of the crated universe (Roman and restoration comedy, for example), or a sense of man’s purpose or raison d’etre (Shaw’s The Millionairess) and the like.
But sombre comedy, by definition, creates more complex celebrations. On the one hand, it creates a comic celebration of mankind as indestructible, forever moving on. On the other hand, sombre comedy creates a subdued remembrance of the qualifications and costs (always emphasized or seen as “real” or portrayed as exceptionally menacing) which accompany this life-success. The sense that man will survive, then, leads naturally to a contemplation of the qualifications on that survival while the qualifications themselves lead back to a wondering contemplation of the survival they qualify.
As we have insisted for comedy, many different emotional responses to sombre comedy are possible. But since these responses, which often correspond to philosophic outlooks on life in general, are one of our best ways of defining the domain of sombre comedy and the limits of that domain, we leave further consideration of these abiding emotional reactions to sombre comedy for our next chapter.
As in comedy too, we must confront not only the abiding emotional impression which sombre comedies make upon their audiences, but also the emotional reactions of the audience from moment to moment within the play. Again, we find the situation much more complex than it is for comedy in general.
Since sombre comedy is still a form of comedy, we must expect to find in it the same difference between real-life emotions and emotional reactions to theatre which we found for comedy as a whole. And, indeed, in sombre comedy as well as traditional comedy, our emotions are altered so as to grant approval to man’s survival (or, which is saying the same things, what-is-best-in-man’s survival) and so as to disapprove what is detrimental to that destined survival. But in sombre comedy, we are aware that what guarantees man’s survival also guarantees that a continuous price will be extorted from him. This creates an ambivalence in our reactions, varying in intensity from play to play according to how great a price each play suggests mankind must pay. And it is this ambivalence that explains Styan and Guthke’s insistence that the audience of sombre comedy is under a constant tension of not knowing how to react to the play presented before it and of being unsure what the rest of the audience is feeling. It is not really that a member of a sombre comic audience does not know what emotions the rest of the audience is feeling: he knows that they are struggling with the same ambivalence between approval and disapproval of man’s destined survival that he is. What is perhaps in doubt in the individual spectator’s mind is whether the rest of the audience will dissolve this ambivalence before he does, or if the rest of the audience refuses to dissolve the ambivalence and remains contemplating it, which half of their ambivalent response is uppermost in their minds. In The Wild Duck, for example, when Hjalmar is reconciled to Gina after their daughter’s death and when he has launched into his monologue on a future life of unstinting labor, any individual in the audience is torn between a recognition that Hjalmar and Gina are thereby saved from Greger’s inhuman ideal of an absolutely pure life and a recognition that Dr. Relling is right, that this noble gesturing is but a poor pretense, a shabby means by which mediocre men make the pain of life bearable. What is likely to disconcert the individual spectator at such a point is that he may be quite uncertain which of these is uppermost in the minds of his fellow spectators or which will be their final impression of this moment in the play.
We have now essentially completed our definitions of both comedy and sombre comedy. As we have noted, defining sombre comedy is as arbitrary a process as is its title. There are certainly other methods for defining such a term, and if such methods were used, the definition of the genre would be greatly altered. The advantage to our method and our definition is that they answer the question, “How can a modern play be sombre and truly comic—in, say, the sense that Twelfth Night, or Tartuffe, or Man and Superman are comic—at one and the same time?” Along the way, we have noted that formal and emotive definitions of genre are not polar opposites, but opposite sides of the same coin. We have noted too that the emotive nature of a dramatic genre naturally divides into two distinct parts: the abiding emotional response which we have to the play as a whole and the general attitude by which we react to the moment-by-moment action of the play itself.
In subsequent chapters, we will attempt to gain a broader understanding of the implications and uses of our definition of sombre comedy and of the diversity of dramatic experience which it includes. More specifically, in Chapter 11, we shall attempt to demonstrate how wide a range of modern dramatic experience falls within our definition of sombre comedy and to set boundaries on sombre comedy which can be used to differentiate the genre from other plays. In Chapter 12, we shall explore more fully the techniques and conventions of sombre comedy beyond those which most readily transform traditional comedy into more sombre variants. And in Chapter 13, we shall ask what insight the title sombre comedy can bring to the explication of a particular play within the genre.
 In tragedy we never have this same sense that the villain is entitled to a major share of our attention. We would hardly rename Othello to call attention to Iago, but we might easily rename The Rivals to call attention to Mrs. Malaprop. And conversely, Etherege’s Man of Mode might as easily have been Dorimant.
 Note the hero slaves of Roman comedy as an extreme example of this ideological bias.