Monday, June 04, 2007

The Comedy of Tragedy and the Tragedy of Comedy

I have at last got round to reading Julian Gough's stimulating article in Prospect (expertly critiqued by Daniel Green at The Reading Experience), in which he considers how the European literary tradition, underpinned by Christianity, has to its detriment spurned comedy and embraced the tragic.
The comic point of view—the gods'-eye view—is much more uncomfortable for a believer in one all-powerful God than it was for the polytheistic Greeks. To have the gods laughing at us through our fictions is acceptable if the gods are multiple, and flawed like us, laughing in recognition and sympathy: if they are Greek gods. But to have the single omnipotent, omniscient God who made us laughing at us is a very different thing: sadistic, and almost unbearable. We do not wish to hear the sound of one God laughing.
We think of tragedy as major, he says, and comedy as minor... Brilliant comedies never win the Oscar. The Booker prize leans towards the tragic.

And, you could add, we are drowning in misery memoirs. Yet how does this sort with publishers' current allergy to novels which are 'too dark'? And how does Gough's complaint that we are stuck in the tragic fit with Mark Ravenhill's complaint in last Monday's Guardian that we are overly obsessed with 'fun'?:
News wants to be fun. Documentaries want to be fun. The neologism "info-tainment" may sound ridiculous but it is a real concept. And it has changed our broadcast and print media over the last decade. But can we honestly say that any of the greatest achievements of western culture are "fun"? King Lear or Anna Karenina, the Ring cycle or Crime and Punishment - it is not possible to describe them as "enjoyable" in any simple sense of the word. They are stern, uncompromising, engrossing. In places, they are hard work.
Ravenhill is right, there is a retreat from seriousness. But this doesn't undercut Gough's argument. As Gough says, true comedy is deeply serious, and can be more subversively so than tragedy.

Once upon a time I wrote darkly comic radio plays. When the 'marketing' ethos took over BBC Radio Drama Production I was asked to 'drop the irony' because what were required now were 'heart-warming' plays.
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