Comedy in a New Mood
Sombre Comedy: Comedy in a New Mood
"Sombre Comedy: Comedy in a New Mood”
By Paul H. Grawe
Douglas Cole, Advisor
The period since the Second World War has seen an amazing growth of terms like “dark comedy,” “black comedy,” “absurd comedy,” and “comedy of menace” to describe those plays of the modern period with serious, pessimistic, or despairing overtones which seem nevertheless to have something comic about the. But these terms have only the vaguest denotations because the basic idea of dramatic comedy itself has never been adequately defined. In the two millennia between Aristotle’s first sketched attempt to define comedy and our own century, comedy has been taken to mean anything from a funny, often satiric play to a realistic play presenting the foibles and concerns of the everyday life of the non-aristocratic classes. With the meaning of “comedy” complete up in the air, the meaning of “dark comedy” or “absurd comedy” can hardly be self-apparent.
This dissertation attempts to define “sombre comedy”—that is, to define the modern play which is at once truly comic and which is also obviously less gay, simplistic, and unphilosophic than most traditional comedy. To that end, the dissertation first considers major theories of comedy in the modern period including those of Meredith, Bergson, Freud, some later psychologists, and Susanne Langer. This study arrives at a pair of vitalistic definitions of comedy in the tradition of Bergson, Shaw, and Langer. From a formal perspective, it defines comedy as drama which patterns its action throughout to demonstrate man’s destined survival and the qualities or conditions which ensure that survival. From an emotive perspective, the dissertation defines comedy as a celebration of on-going life. It is argued that no one emotion characterized all comedy—what similar emotion pervades Volpone, The Tempest and Man and Superman, for example?—but rather that all the many emotional responses playwrights have learned to elicit through comedy are similar in being responses to a recognition that man or his representative on stage will survive.
The dissertation continues with a review of major attempts to identify and analyze modern sombre comedies, including studies by J. L. Styan, Karl S. Guthke, Cyrus Hoy, and Nelvin Vos, as well as comments by such playwrights as Pirandello, Ionesco, and Fry and such critics as Nathan Scott, Jr. and Father William Lynch. This review concludes with a double definition of sombre comedy. From a formal perspective, sombre comedy is comedy in which survival is achieved at a continuing cost paid throughout an indefinite future beyond the final curtain. From an emotive perspective, sombre comedy is a celebration of on-going life at continuing cost. Such a definition suggests not only that sombre comedy does not create a single dominant emotional response, but also that sombre comedy need not limit itself to the severe forms of pessimism valued by sombre comedy’s most obvious exponents, playwrights like Beckett and Ionesco.
In the final section, the dissertation explores further consequences of its definition. Here the range and limits of sombre comedy are fixed, its conventions analyzed, its intrinsic merit vis-à-vis comedy and other dramatic genres considered. And in a final chapter, the entire theory is brought to bear on the practical criticism of a single play, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Through all these considerations, a final conclusion is reached: that sombre comedy, through still a recent innovation in theory, is an exceedingly diverse phenomenon, sometimes, as in The Skin of Our Teeth, The Time of Your Life, or A Raisin in the Sun almost indistinguishable from traditional comedy, and yet capable of as great divergences from traditional comedy as Waiting for Godot and The Bald Soprano.