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Comedy, tragedy, sex and death — the key to it all

ART TIMES March, 2005

If you ever did grad work in drama, you undoubtedly had to do hard time on the old issue of comedy and tragedy. You read Aristotle on tragedy, and you read the other Greek guy who might be Aristotle on comedy. You read essay after vapid essay by clueless mediaeval and Renaissance writers who proved one thing very clearly: they had no idea what they were talking about. (In the case of some of the mediaeval writers, that’s literally true: they didn’t know what theater was, let alone what comedy was, because they’d never seen it; in their times, it didn’t exist, at least not as the ancients knew it.) You read more essays, some rather less vapid, some actually pretty bright — Georgie Santayana comes to mind as a pretty bright guy — and kept on trying to make sense of it all. And all that time, you were being led down the primrose path. It’s simple. It’s really, really, really, simple. And this is the simplest explanation of all.

Classical theater only has two subjects: Sex and death.

            If they have sex and die, it’s a tragedy.

            If they die without having sex, it’s a tragedy.

            If they have sex and don’t die, it’s a comedy.

If they don’t do either one, it’s probably a modern movie, and you need to take it back to the rental store before they charge you late fees.

This actually works better than you might think. Consider Romeo and Juliet. You know, that nice young Italian couple who have sex and die. Tragic, right? But if you can somehow manage to take in the play without remembering how it ends — what powers of self-persuasion you must have to do that!  — you’ll be absolutely convinced, right up until Romeo, Tybalt and Mercutio demonstrate how to foul up a swordfight, that you’re watching a comedy. Two young people in love, Daddy’s picked the wrong guy for her, conniving servants, accommodating priests, this is Plautus, not Seneca, this is comedy, they’re gonna have sex and they’ aren’t gonna die — and then Shakespeare rips the living heart right out of your body by killing the lovers. Tragedy. That’s Shakespeare’s great innovation in this play: take the comedy structure, kill the lovers. Instant tragedy.

Consider Oedipus. He’s in great shape at the start of the play. He’s having sex, how good we don’t know, but older women can be pretty skillful and he does have four kids by her, so it can’t be that bad. No hint of a trophy mistress. So Jokester must be treating him pretty well. Problem is she’s his mom. Oopsies! He has sex and dies. Tragedy.

Remember Agamemnon? Who celebrates coming home after ten years away from his wife by bringing home another woman? “Hi, dear, I’d like you to meet Cassandra, she’s really nice, went to UCLA, has credibility issues, don’t mind what she says, she’s a little off her rocker sometimes. Hey, who’s that handsome younger fellow who just came out of the bedroom? Does he work here? Where’s the shampoo? Hey, what’s with the sword?” The guy’s had sex. So has she. He dies. Tragedy.

Consider Antigone. She’d like to have sex; she’s doing her best to get married to Haemon so she can have sex, but Dad’s got this thing about not burying people and she has to take care of it. Turns out Dad doesn’t like to bury dead people, but he enjoys burying live ones; he has a habit of doing that with people who disagree with him. Down she goes! No sex down there. She dies. Tragedy.

Or take Measure for Measure. Angelo wants to have sex. Claudio is having all the sex he can. So is Lucio, Mariana (despite obstacles), Mistress Overdone, hell, I bet even Escalus has some old lady somewhere. Ah, the exception: Isabella. Or is she? She wises up when it turns out the Duke wants to have sex with her. Of course, he means to marry her too, but would any other approach work? We’ve already seen how she reacts to less honorable approaches. So the guy who wants to have sex more than anybody else, but has the biggest hang-ups about it, gets put to stud with his former woman, and serves him right, too. And nobody dies! Voila! Comedy! Pretty dark comedy at times — but unmistakable nonetheless.

So there you have it. A millennium or two of drama theory turns out to boil down to tragedy, comedy, sex and death. So, what’s on the syllabus for the next millennium?

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