Tragicomedy (tragi-comedy)

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Tragicomedy (tragi-comedy)

Tragicomedy (tragi-comedy): A play that encompasses elements from both tragedy and comedy. The term was coined by Plautus (Titus Maccius Plautus), a Roman dramatist from the third—second century B.C., in his play Amphitryon to refer to a “blend” of tragedy and comedy, a play in which “kings and gods appear on stage. / But then, … slaves have parts to play as well.” As a genre, however, tragicomedy is generally said to have developed in the sixteenth century and to have reached its height in the seventeenth. Early examples include French playwright Robert Garnier’s Bradamante (1582) and Italian playwright Battista Guarini’s Il pastor fido (The Faithful Shepherd) (c. 1583). Collaborative dramatists Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher are often credited with establishing the genre in English, though earlier works such as William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596—97) have also been called tragicomedies. Fletcher defined tragicomedy in The Faithful Shepherdess (1608), an adaptation of Guarini’s play, as follows: “a tragie-comedie is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants deaths, which is inough to make it no tragedie, yet brings some neere it, which is inough to make it no comedie.”

Renaissance and neoclassical tragicomedies are generally characterized by a romantic, action-oriented plot; an impending catastrophe that is happily avoided in the end through a surprising (and often improbable) reversal of fortune; and a cast of characters that cuts across the social classes. Beaumont and Fletcher, for instance, wrote dramatic, fast-paced plays featuring love, jealousy, intrigue, and the narrow avoidance of disaster, as exemplified by Philaster: Or, Love Lies a-Bleeding (c. 1608—09). Others, such as John Dryden in The Spanish Fryar (1680), made use of “double plots,” switching between tragic and comic actions.

Tragicomedy essentially disappeared by the eighteenth century, giving way to melodrama, but reemerged in the late nineteenth century in serious, realistic works that incorporate comic elements, such as Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck (1884) and Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1904). Today, the term is also often applied to darkly comic modern works such as the theater of the absurd, and even to novels. Indeed, Samuel Beckett subtitled his Absurdist play Waiting for Godot (1952) “A Tragicomedy in Two Acts,” and Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard’s Absurdist plays are often called tragicomic. For further critical discussion of the genre, see, e.g., Verna Foster’s The Name and Nature of Tragicomedy (2004).

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (1610), Dryden’s The Rival Ladies (1664), Aphra Behn’s The Widow Ranter (1689), J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (1907). Tragicomic novels include David Foster Wallace’s postmodernist Infinite Jest (1996) and J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy (2012; adapted to television 2015).