I’ve known — and liked — Terry Teachout for a number of years now, though I haven’t seen the man in some time, and despite our vastly differing tastes and backgrounds. I tend to worship at the altar of High Modernism; Terry prefers a more traditionalist, representational and figurative art. I am an East Coast, even European, urbanite through and through; he appreciates the splendors of the pastoral view and sees life in these United States far more brightly than I do. Musically I am more drawn to Webern and Cecil Taylor; Terry to Mozart and Louis Armstrong. I say po-tay-to; Terry says po-tah-to. But that hasn’t proven an obstacle to a decent respect, even affection; to borrow a comparison from one of Terry’s favorite living American playwrights, I am Felix and he is Oscar.
As a critic I have usually had my eye narrowly set on the tragic consciousness, however; it was the subject of my first book, which was itself drawn from entries on this blog (which celebrates its ninth anniversary in October). So when Terry says, as he does today in the Wall Street Journal, that “comedy is truer to life than tragedy,” I must take up my cudgel, and I imagine that Terry knew I would. He is not a man to be drawn into online debate, and I don’t really want to start one with him, especially since his essay describes his own perspective rather than prescribes a Procrustean vision of theatre and drama. But it is a provocative leap from the assertion of personal taste to the critical dictum that “comedy is truer to life than tragedy, not just onstage but in all the narrative art forms,” as Terry is growing “more firmly convinced,” and it is in the arc of that leap that I find my misgivings. (It won’t be the first time that I’ve expressed similar misgivings, either, as this 2007 exchange between David Cote, Alison Croggon, Isaac Butler, and myself attests. Remember those halcyon pre-Facebook and pre-Twitter days of debate, when everyone was invited to join in?)
The eve of the Labor Day weekend isn’t the time for a longer response, but I will offer one next Tuesday. In the meantime, enjoy Terry’s essay and your own well-deserved break from the summer.