Sep 4, 2012
David Rakoff, 2010 (Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
I had no intention of wading into the tragedy-vs.-comedy mini-debate that Terry Teachout started last week with his Wall Street Journal column, which had the relatively self-explanatory headline, “Why Comedy is Truer to Life Than Tragedy,” and the inevitable response from tragedy's self-appointed defender, George Hunka. I tweeted a few thoughts about how reductively binary I found Terry's initial piece, which held up Twelfth Night over King Lear in part because, as Terry put it, Lear "ends, like most of Shakespeare's tragedies, with a mile-high stack of corpses, a horrific spectacle that precious few of us have had the misfortune to behold"—a somewhat provocative statement in an age of smartphone atrocity videos, not to mention a century of well-documented genocides (are tragedies intended only for those suffering from PTSD, I wonder?). Along these lines, Marilyn Nonken's comment, as George records it, does indeed cut to the heart of the matter: "When I read Terry’s pronouncement that 'comedy is truer to life than tragedy' to my wife, she immediately got to the heart of the matter: 'That depends on whose life you’re talking about, doesn’t it?' she said."
I know that a lot of this boils down taste and temperament, as Terry freely admits; for my money, as much as I love both Twelfth Night and King Lear, I dread strenuously unfunny renditions of the former nearly as much or more than I dread self-importantly harrowing productions of the latter.
Then I happened to belatedly catch This American Life's tribute to the late writer David Rakoff, and the replaying of several of his bleakest, funniest stories sparked a few related thoughts. If Rakoff's view of life's randomness and cruelty wasn't essentially tragic, I'm not sure what would qualify; and the fact that his stories were nevertheless unfailingly entertaining doesn't mean that he somehow softened their core horror or sprinkled some one-liners over the despair to let us off the hook. Rakoff was true to his own sense of both the ridiculous absurdity and the punishing terrors of life and death, but he was always terrifically, mordantly funny. One did not feel that he was buttonholing us or hectoring us, trying self-consciously to shake us out of our complacency and see how much life sucks. In many cases, that would indeed be the takeaway, as in this chilling, clarifying interview with Terry Gross, but Rakoff had the saving grace and sense of proportion as a storyteller to see and render a hopeless world with as much humor as horror.
Truthfully, to keep this theatrical, I feel the same way about the best work of John Guare or Tracy Letts or August Wilson or Tony Kushner or Chris Durang or Annie Baker or a name Terry mentions but brushes past all too quickly, Chekhov. Looking back, indeed, I think this is also true of earlier 20th century titans: Beckett, Pinter, Albee, Williams, Brecht, Ionesco. I'll admit that Arthur Miller may stand apart in his self-appointed task of making Greek-worthy tragedy out of the American experience (and, in another medium, David Simon made an entirely worthy effort to do something similar). But by and large, I think the observation holds that a truly tragic view of the world often finds its best and truest expression in forms and modes we might think of as essentially or at least outwardly comic.
Ultimately, what I'm trying to say is that as much as I resist the binary comedy/tragedy argument, I'd like to align myself with a more nuanced version of Terry's case for a comic view of the tragedies and indignities, small and huge, that life visits on us all, or, as the evangelist had it, on the just and the unjust.
If nothing else, George has done us the service of digging up this extremely entertaining comment-palooza on David Cote's blog from 2007.
Posted by Rob Weinert-Kendt at 10:41 AM