Tragicomedy: Definition and Explanation

Also Read

      Tragicomedy is such dramatic genre which contains both tragic and comedic elements. It blends both elements to lighten an overall mood of the play. Tragicomedy is a serious play and often ends happily. There is no complete formal definition of tragicomedy from the classical age. It appears that the Greek philosopher Aristotle had something like the Renaissance meaning of the term that it is a serious action with a happy-ending. In Poetics, he discusses tragedy with a dual ending. In this respect, several Greek and Roman plays, for instance, Alcestis, may be called tragicomedies. The word itself originates with the Roman comic playwright Plautus, who coined the term somewhat facetiously in the prologue to his play Amphitryon. Plautus in his Amphitryon comments — “I will make it a mixture: let it be a tragicomedy. I don’t think it would be appropriate to make it consistently a comedy, when there are kings and gods in it. What do you think? Since a slave also has a part in the play, I’ll make it a tragicomedy...”

      Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot is another classic example of this genre. Shakespeare’s last plays may well be called tragicomedies as well as romances. In England, where practice ran ahead of theory, the situation was quite different. In the 16 th century, tragi-comedy meant the native sort of romantic play that violated the unities of time, place, and action, that glibly mixed high and low-born characters, and that presented fantastic actions. By the early Stuart period, some English playwrights had absorbed the lessons of the Guar in controversy. John Fletcher’s in his The Faithful Shepherdess (1608), an adaptation of Guarini’s play, offered an interesting definition of the term, worth quoting at length:

“A tragi-comedy is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect, it wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some neere it, which is enough to make it no comedie.”

      Fletcher’s definition focuses primarily on events that a play’s genre is determined by whether or not people die in it, and in a secondary way on how close the action comes to a death. But, as Eugene Waith showed, the tragi-comedy Fletcher developed in the next decade also had unifying stylistic features: sudden and unexpected revelations, outre plots, distant locales, and a persistent focus on elaborate, artificial rhetoric.

      Some of Fletcher’s contemporaries, notably Philip Massinger and James Shirley, wrote successful and popular tragic-comedies. Richard Brome also essayed the form, but with less success. And many of their contemporary writers, ranging from John Ford to Lodowick Carlell and Sir Aston Cockayne, made attempts in the genre. Tragicomedy remained fairly popular up to the closing of the theaters in 1642, and Fletcher’s works were popular in the Restoration as well. The old styles were of course cast aside as tastes changed in the 18th century; the “tragedy with a happy ending” eventually developed into melodrama, in which form it still grows and develops.

Previous Post Next Post