The big tent of great American plays is broad enough to contain works of both tragic and comic sensibilities: The Iceman Cometh, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Death of a Salesman among the first; The Front Page, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and The Odd Couple among the second. I don’t think anybody would want to be without any of these great plays. The post-Godot era cautions us that it’s increasingly difficult to navigate the thorny path of strict generic definition: there are plays, yes, though few comedies and tragedies as such. We can still identify comic or tragic strains in each though, and consider whether a play primarily falls upon one side of that fence or the other. But abandon all hope, ye who venture further. It’s enough to say, maybe, that a healthy dramatic culture — and a healthy dramatic criticism — has room for both, as did the ancient Greek and Elizabethan theatrical eras, and all their possible admixtures.
For decades an anti-comic prejudice prevailed, however. Great plays were necessarily “serious” — it was the serious plays, the “dramas,” that were awarded best play prizes, while comedies and farces were dismissed as inconsequential entertainments. Two minutes’ thought demolishes such a prejudice and characterization (the plays of Peter Barnes, Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders, and even Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue put the lie to it — all of which are ripe for revival, by the way, given the times), but now the argument has swung round, according to two major New York theatre critics. In two examples from five years apart, an anti-tragic prejudice can be identified — and these examples indicate the dangers of positing personal taste as critical dicta.
Exhibit A: Last week in the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout offered a few thoughts on “Why Comedy is Truer to Life Than Tragedy.” (Terry’s most recent work for the theatre is a play about Louis Armstrong.) It is not just that Terry likes to laugh more than he likes to cry; that’s fine. But he bases his critical vision of theatre and drama on that preference. “As I grow older, I grow more firmly convinced that comedy is truer to life than tragedy, not just onstage but in all the narrative art forms,” he says, and he goes on to compare Shakespeare’s greatest comedy, Twelfth Night, with his greatest tragedy, King Lear (an assessment with which, by the way, I agree). The problem with Lear, Terry says, is that, at bottom, it is less true than Twelfth Night, it is less “real”: “Yes, King Lear is charged with universal feelings — but it isn’t real. Not only is it set in a far-off fairyland of kings and queens, but it ends, like most of Shakespeare’s tragedies, with a mile-high stack of corpses, a horrific spectacle that precious few of us have had the misfortune to behold.”
Well, not if you’ve seen news photographs from the Middle East over the past ten years or so, from the political prisons of Iraq to the streets of Syria, let alone elsewhere. When I read Terry’s pronouncement that “comedy is truer to life than tragedy” to my wife, she immediately got to the heart of the matter: “That depends on whose life you’re talking about, doesn’t it?” she said.
The critical as well as the aesthetic eye requires a certain amount of imagination and compassion, especially when confronting those forms or plays which may have a different conception of life than your own. There’s a political and ideological side to this as well, which I won’t go into here. It’s not that Terry is as conservative in his politics as he is in his critical perspective — I don’t know that that’s true, because we’ve never discussed politics, and he’s never written about it. The fact that he writes for the Wall Street Journal doesn’t tell us anything. After all, Hugh Kenner regularly wrote for the National Review under William F. Buckley’s editorship, and that didn’t make Kenner a raging reactionary or traditionalist: quite the opposite.
My Exhibit B drives this point home: Time Out New York theatre editor David Cote’s assertion that “I don’t think there are any more tragedies,” he wrote in a 2007 blog post (his emphasis), and though this is rather a different construction than Terry’s, it’s a distinction without a difference, regardless of his own politically progressive stance. (David’s most recent work for the theatre is an opera about a dominatrix.) “We’re no longer so primitive as a people to enshrine the concept of tragedy the way we might, say, human sacrifice or other pathetic early religious rituals,” he wrote. “To me, embracing this neo-tragedy is just inviting pretension and bathos. Misery, gloom, morbidity, sorrow, pain and grief are modes. Laughable in extreme forms, and ultimately too great a reliance on them obviates humor and desensitizes the viewer.” In a comment to his post, David further thanks evolution for obviating the need for tragedy: “How can I square progressive optimism, a distrust of human animal instinct and a profoundly atheist worldview? Evolution, simply. We do awful things to each other, yet our morals and methods evolve towards greater kindness and complexity.” And I look at those news photographs again and ask that Charles Darwin call his office, please.
Like Terry’s observation, David’s admission of personal taste (“to me”) rapidly crosses into a critical dictum. As far apart as they may be in other respects, they come to an odd agreement that the tragic mode or the tragic consciousness is less real or true for contemporary times — for contemporary drama and theatre as well — than the comic. Whether it’s Terry’s view that tragedy is less real or David’s view that tragedy is less relevant, both speak to a critical anti-tragic prejudice every bit as damaging to the health of a dramatic culture as an anti-comic prejudice. As my wife suggested, it excludes an entire swathe of human experience as somehow invalid, or at least inferior to comedy, as a mode of or subject for dramatic and theatrical representation — and makes for a much poorer dramatic and theatrical culture precisely because of this exclusion.
The dramatist who explores the possibility of tragedy in contemporary times — as well as the audience seeking it, or the critic who wants to write about it — should certainly take note of this critical atmosphere. I don’t know if Terry, or any given “audience” in general, shares David’s reasons as to why he goes to the theatre at all: “I go to the theater, generally, for rhetoric, visual stimulation and emotional manipulation,” he said in 2007. It’s not why I go, and I’m not alone. (People don’t go to the theatre not only because of what they know is there, but also because of what they know isn’t there.) And though I don’t know the positions of Ben Brantley, Michael Feingold, or other major American critics on the matter (something may be inferred from their reviews, perhaps), I know at least Terry’s and David’s. But if we’re to have a theatre and drama that are central to American experience and aesthetic expression, and not a mere amusing and self-congratulatory ornament in a post-capitalist culture, we need to do better than this.