So tragic it’s laughable

In Absurdlandia, Hautvoir, Theater on June 11, 2016 at 8:06 am

Next Friday, the boy will sit down to a four-hour exam. The main topic will be theater, poetry, fiction or essay. Within one of those fields, he’ll find a selection of three excerpts. The first question (worth 4 points) will deal with the overall genre and why these three excerpts illustrate/exemplify it.

For 16 of the remaining points, he will choose to answer in commentary mode, in dissertation or in invention (a take-off on the excerpts illustrating his own imaginary understanding of what happened before or after a particular scene).

I doubt he’ll get a passing grade. Math is his thing. He doesn’t care a whit about literature but the course was compulsory. Yesterday morning, he struggled to understand the difference between tragedy and comedy. I think he caught on at the conceptual level but this didn’t improve his ability at conveying his thoughts in writing.

Of the three tragic scenes he’d been asked to analyze, one dealt with Racine’s Berenice (written in the sixteen hundreds) when the Queen of Palestine does her monologue for the benefit of the Roman Emperor Titus (her true and impossible love) and Antiochus (her insistent but unloved suitor). Noble sentiments and lofty ideals abound – sacrifice in the name of the ideal.

The second was part of the final scene in Cyrano de Bergerac, when Roxane discovers Cyrano was the one who penned the love letters she received from Christian. Alas, too late, Cyrano dies a few twelve syllable poetical meters later.

The last was also a final scene, this time from Wajdi Mouawad’s Forêts – a sterile woman attempts to save the life of her Résistance friend, a Jewish mother, by switching their identities. Alas, too late.

Unrequited or forbidden love, truth discovered too late, the forces of evil triumphant. Nothing much to laugh about, clearly. The boy understood that much. Where it all became confusing for him (and not only): when he started to grasp that comedy dealt with…a lot of the same subject matter. Except that in comedy, the lofty often received a pin prick at an unexpected moment, the little man and his witty girlfriend often triumphed over the old moralists, and whatever sting there is in death got the finger from those dancing on the edge of the crumbling cliff.

Which, in my opinion, explains why comedy is so much harder to get right than tragedy. The absurdities – allowing them to speak for themselves. Like the boy, I “get” it as a concept. “Getting” it right in the writing is another matter.


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