Sunday, March 22, 2009


Kathleen Parker has stumped me with her latest column. What does this mean?

Tragicomedy, in which gods and men reverse roles, may be an honored dramatic genre, but is this any way to live?

I have no idea what she is saying. Here is the complete paragraph, in case the context helps makes sense of this sentence.

Obama's appearance on Jay Leno's show Thursday night -- joking lamely that his bowling is "like Special Olympics or something" -- is symptomatic of a broader blending of the serious and the comic that makes sane people feel slightly displaced. Infotainment isn't a new topic, but the lines are becoming increasingly blurred. Tragicomedy, in which gods and men reverse roles, may be an honored dramatic genre, but is this any way to live?

Tragicomedy, was first defined by the playwright John Fletcher, whose early plays with Beaumont, such as Philaster, were popular hits that brought tragicomedies in vogue on the London stage.

(Shakespeare's last plays, called romances, follow the tragicomedy fad. This is one of the better reasons that the Earl of Oxford could not have written the plays, as he was dead when all this happened. For us to believe Oxford wrote Shakespeare's plays, we would have to accept that he wrote tragicomedies years before anyone else did, and the King's Men did not happen to produce these plays until after 1608, when Beaumont and Fletcher happened to make the genre profitable.)

Where was I? Oh, yes. Tragicomedy. Fletcher's definition:

"A tragicomedy is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants [i.e., lacks] deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy; yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy."

I don't what Parker means about men and gods reversing roles. If anyone can explain that, please do. For extra credit, explain what all this has to do with President Obama.


Chuck said...

"There is no complete formal definition of tragicomedy from the classical age. It appears that Aristotle had something like the Renaissance meaning of the term (that is, a serious action with a happy ending) in mind when, in Poetics, he discusses tragedy with a dual ending. In this respect, a number of Greek and Roman plays, for instance Alcestis, may be called tragicomedies, though without any definite attributes outside of plot. The term itself originates with Plautus: the prologue to Amphitryon uses the term to justify the play's bringing gods into a predominantly bourgeois play."

That's from Wikipedia. So, evidently, she is using Plautus' definition. How does that relate to Obama on late night tv? I would guess that the left views Obama as a God, and yet here he is acting like a clown.

Perhaps they need to revise their opinion of Obama. Maybe he's just a satyr.

Tenure said...

I thought it was pretty much like - and I know Obama is no Rearden - what Lillian was always trying to do with Rearden. She wanted him to just get drunk, once, so that she could see him degraded from his usual noble position.
I think the point she's making is that, more and more, high and mighty characters in society (whether or not that height or might is earned) are making fools of themselves, trying to convince everyone that "Hey, I'm just like you!"

Myrhaf said...

Thanks for clearing that up.

Boog said...

Concerning the prevalence of tragicomedy in Elizabethan times, Philip Sidney wrote this, in his APLOLOGY FOR POETRY, around 1580:

"For where the stage should always represent but one place; and the uttermost time presupposed in it, should be, both by Aristotle's precept, and common reason, but one day; there is both many days and many places inartificially imagined. . . . Now you shall have three ladies walk to gather flowers, and then we must believe the stage to be a garden. By and by we hear news of a shipwreck in the same place, then we are to blame if we accept it not for a rock. But, besides these gross absurdities, how all their plays be neither right tragedies nor right comedies, mingling kings and clowns, not because the matter so carrieth it, but thrust the clown in by head and shoulders to play a part in majestical matters, with neither decency nor discretion. . . . I know Apuleius did somewhat so . . . and the ancients have one of two examples of tragi-comedies as Plautus hath Amphytrio . . . [but] we have . . . some extreme show of doltishness, indeed fit to lift up loud laughter and nothing else."

Clearly Sidney was criticizing what we'd call tragi-comedy, and equally clearly he wasn't criticizing something that was merely theoretical. Note the date, c.1580. So if you want to prove that the Earl didn't write Shakespeare you'll have to look elsewhere.

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