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Spherical Tragedies and Comedies with Corpses: Witkacian Tragicomedy BERNARD F. DUKORE • IN AN ESSAY ON TOLSTOY, Bernard Shaw concisely contrasts the major distinctions frequently made between tragedy and comedy: "The popular definition of tragedy is heavy drama in which everyone is killed in the last act, comedy being light drama in which everyone is married in the last act. The classical definition is, of tragedy, drama that purges the soul by pity and terror, and, of comedy, drama that chastens morals by ridicule . These classical definitions ... are still much the best the critic can work with."l But Shaw's observation notwithstanding, the several antitheses are really not mutually exclusive. In the same essay, Shaw admits that English tragedy "has always scandalized classic scholarship and French taste by defying them: nothing will prevent the English playwright from mixing comedy, and even tomfoolery, with tragedy .... We are incorrigible in this respect, and may as well make a merit ofit." Although Polonius fails to include tragicomedy in his famous catalogue of generic combinations, the mixture of comedy and tragedy has been recognized at least as far back as Plato's Symposium, where Socrates refers to spectators who smile through their tears during a tragedy and who experience pain with their pleasure during a comedy. Unlike Plato, who seems clear enough as to which of the two is to dominate, the twentieth-century playwright Garcia Lorca does not: "If in certain scenes [of The House of Bernarda Alba] the audience doesn't know ... whether to laugh or to cry, that will be a success for me."2 Such 291 292 BERNARD F. DUKORE ambiguity reveals the distinctively modern blend of tragedy and comedy - the "chemical combination," as Shaw felicitously puts it, "which [makes] the spectator laugh with one side of his mouth and cry with the other."3 Before dramatic chemists began to mix and fuse tragic and comic elements (Ibsen was the first great chemist, Shaw adds), tragicomedy usually meant a serious action among noble personages, as in tragedy, with a happy ending, as in comedy; and/or an alternation of tragic and comic scenes; and/or an alternation in such scenes of tragic and comic characters, who might meet at the end.4 In the modern theatre , generic distinctions based on social classes are infrequent; although predominantly tragic and predominantly comic scenes still alternate, a serious action with a happy end is replaced by the tragicomic chemical combination that is a partial result of the perception that, to quote one of Shaw's characters this time, "Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh" (The Doctor's Dilemna, V). To Eugene lonesco, the links coexist rather than chemically fuse, for they repel and reveal each other, criticize and deny each other.5 Chemical fusion or highlighting coexistence: I see no need to choose between them, for both apply, in different combinations, to different works. One of the essential characteristics of modern tragicomedy is, as Karl Guthke asserts, "the reciprocity of the interaction of the tragic and the comic."6 In their reciprocal relationship, they make us aware of both their opposition to and their interconnection with each other. In the plays of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz - or Witkacy, as he called himself - tragic and comic elements reciprocate and interact; at various times, and in the same play, they both coexist and chemically fuse and this union of apparent opposites makes us aware of their opposition as well as their interconnection. First, I should like to discuss Witkacy 's deployment of tragic and comic elements, sometimes alternately, sometimes simultaneously. Generic references occasionally dot the Witkacian dramatic landscape . "Can't you see there's been a tragedy in this house?" asks Leon in the second act of The Mother (1924). To this question, Lucina Beer responds , "When I appear, tragedy disappears."7 This dialogue illustrates one of Witkacy's methods of combining tragic and comic. Apart from mocking the notion that the events are tragic, he employs comedy to undercut any potential tragedy that may have been latent in the preceding action. In this instance, in addition to undercutting Leon's...


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pp. 291-315
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