Comedy in a New Mood
Genre Definition: A Logical Exercise
[N.B.: The following selection was a summation of the dissertation at the end of Chapter 13. For this volume, it provides a useful introduction to the exercise and purpose of genre definition.]
Sombre Comedy: Comedy in a New Mood
From Chapter 13
The application of the theory of sombre comedy to The Cherry Orchard completes our study of sombre comedy. In this study, we have tried not only to create a definition of sombre comedy, but also to suggest what possible value a genre definition might have and what kind of validity it may be said to possess. We have tried to make clear that a genre definition is always arbitrary in the sense that it decides to unite some works in a common perspective while ignoring others which might profitably be seen as related to some or all of the works within the genre. In this sense, genre definition is not engaged in seeking the truth. Genre titles are constructs, not ideal truths. And thus, genre definition becomes a logical exercise almost analogous to geometry. Like geometry, genre definition starts with certain basic premises and axioms. And like geometry, it then proceeds, observing certain postulates or rules, until the final outcome seems both a necessary and obvious outgrowth of axioms and postulates combined. In our study, the basic axiom has been that sombre comedy is a form of comedy and that our definition of it must therefore subsume a definition of comedy. Our postulates have been basically reformulations of Weitz’ criticisms of traditional genre studies. We have postulated first that our definition of comedy must explain a large number of very different plays which have, nevertheless, all been called comedies. By this, we did not mean that every play ever called comedy by any critic or even any play more or less universally accepted as comedy must be explained within our theory. But we did mean that we rejected Meredith’s approach of identifying a handful of “great” comedies to be the only models for a definition of the genre. And, similarly, we rejected approaches like Bergson’s and Hoy’s which focused on a single facet of a multi-faceted genre.
Our second postulate has been that a genre definition not only defines what is within the genre, but also creates definite boundaries by which it is possible to identify works which are definitely outside the genre. In satisfying this postulate, we were eventually forced to make distinctions between sombre comedy and other, often very closely-related plays like Rhinoceros and Endgame. These distinctions emphasized a third postulate, namely that, since all genre definitions are arbitrary collections of plays within common perspectives, there is nothing inherently superior or inferior about a play simply because it does or does not fit a certain definition of a certain genre. Genre definitions are not prescriptive; they are merely analytic constructs.
This point brings up yet another postulate, the postulate that, since genre definitions are merely analytic constructs, their worth is entirely a matter of their usefulness in refining and enlarging our critical perceptions. Our definitions of comedy and sombre comedy have been successful in their own terms if they have clarified ideas like “tears and laughter” which have too long dominated the discussion of sombre comedy. They have been successful if they have pointed to real similarities between optimistic and pessimistic playwrights’ techniques in writing experimental plays in the twentieth century, similarities which have been obscured by studies of dark comedy which focus solely on pessimistic plays. Our definitions have been successful if they have proved that sombre comedy works largely with old theatrical conventions, instead of being the exceptionally untheatrical and unconventional genre some of the its most fervid exponents have made it out to be.
Being successful in one’s own terms is not, however, the same things as being objectively successful, and no genre definition can claim objective success. In order to define comedy so as to include both hero-oriented comedy and villain-oriented comedy, our own theory has been forced to use such relatively vague terms as “viability” and “on-going life.” Such terms offer us no clear distinction between comedy and many Westerns, detective stories, adventure series, and melodramas. While the author feels that this is something of a discovery—that it is valuable to be able to see Sancho Panza of Don Quixote and Poncho of The Cisco Kid, for all their differences, as derived from the same basic stock character type—he recognizes that many of his readers will see it instead as a place where the theory falls to pieces, a prime reason for rejecting his theory in favor of others. Similarly, readers may feel that the place accorded to satire within this theory—sometimes comic, sometimes sombre comic, but sometimes neither—is inadequate. And a great many readers will be dissatisfied with the idea, already suggested by the psychologists and Mrs. Langer, that comedy is something more than a literary genre; it is also a basic way of perceiving the world.
Again, it seems to the author that whether these are faults in the theory or virtues depends entirely on what use one can make of them. The author finds it useful to be able to explain to himself why we say that some people have a “comic outlook on life.” He also finds it useful to be able to explain why comedy has been throughout dramatic history one of the basic genre forms, why comedy seems to be forever renewing itself with the oldest material, why comedy is always in demand, the most consistently lucrative genre in drama. In answering all of these, the idea that comedy is a basic psychological and possibly quasi-religious stance is very useful.
But certainly, there are other useful ways to look at both comedy and the plays we have united under the title of “sombre comedy.” Our study suggests, in fact, the possible value of a perspective like “satiric comedy” or “existential comedy” or even “skeptic comedy.” Theories of genre, including our own, do not thrive by themselves. They are most successful when they work together to illuminate various facets of individual plays and to organize our sense of the whole tradition of theatre. Thus, the appropriate hope in closing a genre study is not that it will remain a unique monument to the truth for all time, but the hope that it will engender a wider discussion of and understanding of the interrelationship between artistic achievements.