Definitions are tricky things. There is so much that is more easily recognised than defined. For instance, we all know that a “tragedy” is a play (or a film or a novel or an opera or whatever) where everyone – or, at least, the main character – dies at the end; but even so, we recognise Oedipus the King as a tragedy even though Oedipus remains at the end very much alive. Fair enough – the mood at the end isn’t exactly upbeat – but then, what about The Oresteia? Not only does no-one die at the end, the whole thing culminates with a triumphant hymn of joy! Such inconvenient disregard for the rules of tragedy has led theoreticians to come up with all sorts of alternative definitions. The intricacies of these definitions need not concern us now, but they can – as far as I’ve read – be boiled down to “Tragedy focuses on the darker aspects of the human experience”. That really is sufficiently broad-brush to cover everything we recognise as tragic.
But what about comedy? We’re on safer ground here, surely? Comedy is whatever makes us laugh. (Or, if we want to include such stuff as Absolutely Fabulous, it is whatever is at least intended to make us laugh, even if it doesn’t.) But there are objections here as well. There are many works that are undeniably tragic in nature, but which do nonetheless contain incidental humour. So we may modify our definition with the adjective “primarily”: a comedy is a work the intention of which is primarily to make one laugh. No problem with that one, one might think. But a few weeks ago, I found myself at the Royal Albert Hall, at the Proms, listening to the Welsh National Opera perform Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Throughout the four and a half hours or so of the music (six hours including the intervals), I don’t think I laughed once. I don’t even think I smiled, or chuckled. I knew all the jokes already, and, to be entirely honest, they weren’t that funny the first time round either. There are more laughs in any two minutes picked out at random from an episode of Fawlty Towers. And yet, I recognised the world presented in that opera as essentially comic. And what’s more, I found it elating. Walking back from the Royal Albert Hall to the South Kensington tube station, I seemed to be in another world.
So what was it in that work I responded to? What was it I recognised as being comic, even though it didn’t make me laugh? And it’s not just Die Meistersinger: I fail to laugh at other much loved comic operas – Verdi’s Falstaff, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, say; or Shakespeare’s comedies – As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; or even much loved episodes of Dad’s Army or Fawlty Towers: I have seen all of these so often I know all the jokes backwards, and the element of surprise that is so essential to raise a laugh is no longer there. And yet, for all that, I enjoy entering into these worlds which, despite the lack of laughs, I recognise as comic. Some of them even leave me feeling elated.
I suppose if the term “tragedy” can be defined as works that focus primarily on the darker elements of the human experience, then, conversely, “comedy” can be reserved for those works that do the opposite, i.e. as works that focus primarily on all those elements that enhance life, that make it worth living – all those things that tell us there is more, much more, to life than merely the death that ends it. Before Wagner composed Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, he had composed Tristan und Isolde (a concert performance of which this September, incidentally, I have tickets for), and there, the two protagonists, having given up on all that this world has to offer, long only for death. That I can recognise as tragic. But comedy tells us something very different. In Die Meistersinger, Hans Sachs too renounces, and the renunciation is not easy: but the renunciation does not lead to a longing for death. Sachs even refers to the story of Tristan & Isolde (Wagner allows the orchestra to play a strain from his earlier work at this point), but tells us he does not want to end like King Marke: that tragic world is referred to, and is rejected. There is more to long for than merely death.
Viewed in this light, it is surprising how rare true comedy is in the modern world. Much that is ostensibly comedy has these days a dark edge: sometimes the darkness becomes dominant. There’s satire, there’s black humour: indeed, some even tell us that comedy is necessarily dark, and that comic works that do not address this darkness are not worth the candle. I have personally felt very uncomfortable with this. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate darkness in comedy: I can respond to the desperation at the heart of Steptoe and Son, the savagery of the satire in Till Death Us Do Part. But is this true comedy? Are not such dark drama and such vicious satire really aspects of the tragic?
The pilot episode of Steptoe and Son had ended in one of the most powerful and affecting of all tragic scenes: the son, Harold, desperate to get away from his father, had, quite insanely, attempted to draw the cart on his own (and yes, I’d guess the reference to Mother Courage here is entirely deliberate); and, unable, naturally, to do this, he had broken down in tears. And his father, bringing him back home and telling him sympathetically that he’ll make him “a nice cup of tea” somehow accentuates the tragedy: it rubs in the terrible truth that for Harold, there can be no escape, that he is doomed for ever to “nice cups of tea” with his father, whom he loves and hates at the same time. How many serious, tragic dramas have achieved scenes of such tragic intensity, I wonder? Yes, there are belly-laughs in Steptoe and Son, but belly-laughs alone do not a comedy make: the heart of Steptoe and Son remains a dark one.
For true comedy, one has to go to the likes of Sgt Bilko, Dad’s Army, The Morecambe and Wise Show. We have to go to the idyllic fictional world of P. G. Wodehouse (that Eden from which we are all exiled, as Evelyn Waugh once said), to the charm of Pickwick Papers. Or to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, or to Verdi’s Falstaff. Not that these worlds are entirely untroubled, of course: Wodehouse’s world, admittedly, is of sunny, cloudless skies, where the worst danger to be faced is that of Bertie being hitched up to Madeleine Bassett; but Pickwick Papers is darkened by those extraordinary chapters of the debtors’ prison; Hans Sachs does not find it easy to acknowledge his advancing years, and to renounce that one hope of happiness he had cherished; and even Falstaff, at one point, threatens to descend into those dark regions of Otello, as Ford is overcome by an insane jealousy. We know of course that there is no real danger of the darkness overwhelming the light: the very fact that these works are all set out as comedies reassures us. The presence of the darkness can be and often is acknowledged. But that darkness is, in one way or another, overcome: unlike in Tristan & Isolde, there is more to look forward to here than merely death.
But works such as this – works that affirm – seem to me these days to be increasingly rare. It is almost as if writers can no longer believe in affirmation. Or that they consider it trivial, or self-deluding. Have we, I wonder, lost the ability to affirm in the face of it all? I’d guess we haven’t lost the ability to respond to it, to judge from my response (and not merely my response) to Die Meistersinger; or to judge by the continuing popularity of Wodehouse, or the re-runs of Dad’s Army. But possibly we no longer believe in it strongly enough to create it.
“There are dark shadows on the earth,” writes Dickens towards the end of Pickwick Papers, “but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light.” But, he continues “we … have no such powers”. Dickens’ eyesight, admittedly, did change later in his literary career: it became more bat-like, more owl-like. But I for one remain grateful that before this change in his eyesight, he gave us Pickwick Papers. And one can be equally grateful that Verdi, after a career of composing tragic operas, signed off with that miraculous work of true comedy, Falstaff; or that Wagner, in between composing operas about lovers longing for death or about the end of the world gave us Die Meistersinger. The comic vision is one that enhances our lives, and to lose it would be tragic.