Between Mirth and Melancholy:
The Development of Tragicomedy
Between the two rigid definitions that Aristotle outlined in The Poetics for tragedy and comedy, a hybrid and rather controversial third category formed: tragicomedy. This third - but not lesser - genre of theatre has been hotly debated by thespians, authors, and others of varying professions ever since it was first introduced to the dramatic world. Among the topics of debate, two of the most significant are the true origins of tragicomedy and what the definition of tragicomedy entails, if it can be adequately categorized by one set of guidelines. Tragicomedy is unique because it does not have the same firm qualifications as tragedy and comedy do, and it is sometimes hard to determine if a play has the right mixture of both calamity and pleasantry in order to be classified as a tragicomedy. As Giambattista Guarini said, "he who writes a tragicomedy does not intend to compose separately either a tragedy or a comedy, but from the two a third thing that will be perfect of its kind" (Hogan 331). This perfection comes from an ideal blend of the two parent' genres, one which makes a play that delivers laughter with its tears, smiles with its sadness. Beginning at the time of Greek theatre, tragicomedy has developed from a brief passing reference into one of the most intriguing art forms of present day.
The first introduction of the word tragicomedy occurs shortly after Thespis stepped out of the chorus and became the first actor, and the genre has been constantly evolving since. The Roman playwright Plautus is "credited with having coined the term [tragicomedy] in the well-known prologue to the Amphitruo'" (Ristine 6). In this prologue, Plautus outlines his reasoning for making his play a tragicomedy. He has both gods and servants onstage, and the term tragicomedy was used to cover up his violation of using tragic figures (i.e. gods) in a play with a mostly comedic plot. Nowhere else in the prologue nor the play itself adequately discusses or exhibits the ideas that "later came to be associated with the word tragicomedy" (Ristine 7) and Amphitruo' is considered a tragicomedy mainly by title alone, though the play is credited with being the first to introduce the term. However, the first tragicomedies actually occurred before Plautus, owing their origins "to the Greek comic poets, whose plays-dating from an era preceding Plautus-survive only in fragments or titles" (Ristine 8). The era of Middle Comedy is the time period credited as the first to produce tragicomedies of some form. Lexicographers' records from this period indicate that at least two separate plays titled Comoedotragoedia' were penned, as well as several other plays speculated to be tragicomic in nature. While the exact character of these lost plays is not known, it is believed that they mixed tragedy and comedy to some degree. Whether they were defined as tragicomic because of script content or simply to cover the playwright's indiscretion' of blending genres-as doing so at that time was seen as committing a grave travesty-nobody knows for certain. This is part of the reason for speculation about the origin of tragicomedy; different groups have different definitions of what it entails. Depending on which school of thought one ascribes to, its origin is believed to lie in either the Greek comic poets, in Plautus, the early Renaissance, or even the last hundred years. There is even one school of thought which refuses to "recognize any legitimate mixture of the two [genres: tragedy and comedy]" (Herrick 3). In other words, these critics wholly deny the existence of tragicomedy (but this last claim will be ignored for the purpose of this text.)
Theatre itself was denied freedom for several hundred years after the decline of the Roman Empire and almost died completely, but it began anew during the Middle Ages and tragicomedy developed with it. Hrosvitha of Gandersheim, "the first dramatist afterclassic times" (Haight 2) and the first known female playwright, penned several plays in the 10th century that were loosely based on the style of Terence. Her works "definitely suggest tragicomedy" (Herrick 18) in that they have a serious tone-often dealing with the s0alvation of sinners-but they are also highly comedic at times. One example of this humour occurs when the title character in Dulcitius' accidentally makes love to several pots and pans, mistakenly believing them to be three young virgins. Like Hrosvitha's works, the mystery and morality plays often combined comedy with more serious concepts. The earlier mystery plays were less secular and consequently left less room for satire, but as they evolved they became more humorous and sometimes even bawdy. The portrayal of Noah's wife as a nagging, overbearing shrew in Noah's Flood' is one such example. At first she scorns her husband for his work on the Ark, but soon changes her tune when the rains begin to come. However, this cycle play-like many other mystery and morality plays from this period-does not quite fit the definition of tragicomic. Even so, lot of plays from this epoch contain "the rudiments of tragicomedy: freedom, contrast, and irony" (Hogan 334), such as is shown in the preceding example.
This same sense of ironic humour continues through many of the morality plays, right into the tragicomedies of the Renaissance. One form that tragicomedy took during this time was pastoral verse. Most pastoral poetry was thought to be comedic, but during the Renaissance writers began to delve into serious sentiments along with the comedic ones. Pastorals evoked sentiments of "pathos as well as ethosand the development of pastoral drama in the sixteenth century naturally produced some tragicomedies" (Herrick 125). On the English stage many of Shakespeare's works-especially those written in 1608 and beyond-contained tragicomic aspects, such as the porter scene in Macbeth'. Some plays such as The Tempest' were considered to be full-fledged "romantic tragicomedies" (Pressley) in that they exhibited something close to that perfect blend of tragedy and comedy that we identify with modern tragicomedy. After 1642, however, tragicomedy declined in popularity in England, and it gave way to the traditional forms of theatre. In France, tragicomedy became reputed as "tragedy with a happy ending[and developed] from a drame libre to a rather strict neoclassical form" (Herrick 173). This change was due to the Acadmie and its insistence that all plays must observe Aristotle's unities (Hirst 48). This strict structure actually allowed tragicomedy to develop further than it had in England, and it consequently became more refined. Corneille's The Cid' was named "the first of this type [French tragicomedy] worth reckoning" (Herrick 319) though it was not recognised as such until the next century.
From the eighteenth century and beyond, tragicomedy made its final developments into the theatre form that we are presently acquainted with. In the nineteenth century, French theatre "dominated the European stage" (Herrick 320) and its influences on tragicomedy spread throughout the continent. One of the most significant contributions of French theatre was that of melodrama, a branch of theatre that "has much in common withromantic tragicomedy" (Hirst 66). Melodramatic elements were found in many Victorian tragicomedies such as Black Eyd Susan', and several contemporary writers such as George Bernard Shaw "refined melodramatic structures and made them basic [to their tragicomedies]" (Hirst 66). Today, tragedy and comedy combine to achieve a perfect blend, making tragicomic plays bittersweet. The comic aspects of tragicomedy are not used to provide contrast, but rather to increase the audience's awareness of the tragic circumstances. True modern tragicomedy is comprised of "several equal plots" (Hogan 337) that are completely interwoven with one another; this structure helps tragicomedy to achieve its subtle yet profound emotional effect on the audience. One thing that modern tragicomedy is not, however, is merely "between tragedy and comedy and rarely, if ever, touching the extremes of comedy and tragedy" (Guthke 20). If that were true, our history of theatre would be known as the history of tragicomedy as most plays are somewhere between' tragedy and comedy. Tragicomedies do extend to the extremes of both comedy and tragedy; as previously stated, they do not sit between the two but blend them to create a third form of its own structure. Some modern masters of tragicomedy include Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, and Samuel Beckett, who dexterously illustrate that underneath the surface of a comedic scene lays an acute sense of tragedy. The modern tragicomedy is powerful, exploring existential philosophies and often leaving the audience with a sense of loneliness and alienation as the curtains close.
Tragicomedy "has always been the backbone of modern drama" (Herrick 321). It provides a clever compromise between pure tragedy and comedy; it illustrates both the both the positive and negative experiences of humanity. The ending of a tragicomedy often comes not from the pages of a fairy tale, but from the canvas of daily existence. To speak figuratively, Cinderella is more likely to be left in the ashes than to be carried away on the steed by Prince Charming - but such is reality. Everyone may not agree on how and where tragicomedy started or how to define it, but the impact of tragicomedy on the theatre world-from that of Ancient Greece up until the present day-cannot be denied.
Guthke, Karl S. Modern Tragicomedy. New York: Random House, 1966.
Haight, Anne Lyon . Hroswitha of Gandersheim. New York: The Hroswitha Club, 1965.
Herrick, Marvin T. Tragicomedy. 1955. Urbana: Illinois UP, 1962.
Hirst, David L. Tragicomedy. New York: Methuen, 1984.
Hogan, Robert and Sven Eric Molin. Drama: The Major Genres. New York: Dodd, 1962.
Pressley, J. M. "An Encapsulated Biography." Shakespeare Resource Center. January 12,
2004. March 11, 2004
Ristine, Frank Humphrey. English Tragicomedy. 1910. New York: Russell, 1963.