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Tragedy, Comedy, and Doors

Rima M. Yazbeck as ³Silvia² in the Michigan Classical Repertory Theatre production of Marivaux¹s ³The Game of Love and Chance.²


Jun 2003

Tragedy is one of the great mysteries in the world of drama. Ever since Aristotle, people have been trying to figure out why it is that witnessing a drama in which people experience great sorrow and suffering can be such a profound pleasure. Are we sadists who enjoy seeing the characters suffer? Are we masochists who enjoy suffering along with the characters? Is there something about such sorrow and pain that somehow, as Aristotle thought, effects a purgation in us? Nobody really knows, but the mystery won’t go away.

One of the things you notice after seeing a few tragedies is that the end of a tragedy is often a moment of perfect stasis, a condition of the world in which it seems impossible for anything further to occur. Finality is the keyword. Oedipus will forevermore be blind. Hamlet and his family will forevermore be dead. Cordelia is dead, and Lear has gone where he will suffer no more. Willy Loman will never again hold a job. The iceman will never, ever come.

Comedies, however, don’t leave the world that way. You can foresee a future for the world in a comedy. If Falstaff and Mrs. Ford didn’t hook up, there are plenty of other men’s wives in the world. Lysistrata and her hubby will go on and bring up a whole bunch of kids and keep the farm going after the war is tricked into a solution. Mirabell and Millament will go on enjoying each other’s wit and company until they both grow old.

In Le Jeu de l’Amour et du Hasard, a wonderfully light-hearted Parisian play from the 1730’s, the French playwright Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux brings one of his two pairs of lovers to a point of bitter parting. Dorante, convinced that nothing good can come of his love for Silvia, makes up his mind to leave her forever. "What! Be serious! Are you really going?" she asks. "Your only worry is that I might change my mind," he answers. "If only you would be so kind as to do just that!" she says. "Aren’t you being a little naïve? Adieu," is his reply. And out he goes. And the door shuts behind him.

Silvia watches him go. She goes to the door, disconsolate. She turns away, angry. She turns back, distraught. She turns away again, but comes back still again. She longs for his return. She thinks she hears him, but then she knows she will never hear him again. Hope dies out in her like a candle slowly flickering out, her heart going cold as the dying flame.

The door is shut. The lovers have parted. Two lives will now be separate, cold and uncomforted that could have been together, warm, and full of kindness. If the play ends at that moment, we have a tragedy, a tale of wasted love and unrequited devotion.

The door opens. Dorante returns. Silvia lights up like a Roman candle. They argue, fret, make up, flirt, quarrel again, and finally come to terms with each other. It’s a comedy after all.

And there you have it. It doesn’t do justice to the problem of tragedy, of course. Great minds will continue to grapple with the mysteries of that ancient art. But for an immediate understanding, you can do far worse than this:

Tragedy is when the door slams shut. Comedy is when it opens up again.

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