Say, pals, whaddya call a play not funny enough to be a comedy, not sad enough to be a tragedy?
A history play!
Just kidding. Mostly.* But really, you can put that old idea of tragicomedy in your pipe, because Beaumont and Fletcher fine-tuned a genre that deserves a better name.
To get a sense of the revolutionary generic shift Beaumont and Fletcher created together, we need to revisit some Theatre History 101. Since Aristotle’s Poetics, we have identified comedy and tragedy primarily by the way the depict people – in comedy worse, in tragedy better – compared to real life (Poetics Pt. II). This extends to the status of characters: tragedies dealing with persons of worth, and comedies with the commoners. Some 2,000 years later, Britain’s first Poet Laureate and leading Restoration thinker, John Dryden, compared Fletcher and Shakespeare’s tragic styles, he agreed: Tragedy ‘ought to be great, and to consist of great persons, to distinguish it from Comedy, where the action is trivial, and the persons of inferior rank’ (209).
In terms of form, tragedy shows characters falling from heights both literal and figurative, the disintegration of socio-political structures, and bloody resolution. Sometimes gruesome death. Comedy moves in the opposite direction: tangled cords are unraveled and neatly spooled, distresses are calmed, and those separated are united.
And tragicomedy? Tragicomedy ignores generic middle ground. Tragicomedy, especially as written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, does something else altogether, and that’s because of the particular skills each playwright brought to the writing desk. Beaumont and Fletcher entered into partnership each with his own record of box office duds.
Fletcher’s foray into Englishing an Italian pastoral tragicomedy in The Faithful Shepherdess was ‘damd’ [sic] (Q 1629, A3r) by its audiences, and ‘was never liked’ (Q 1610, ¶r) by non-poet friends of the author.
The satirical wit of Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle was ‘utterly rejected’ (Q1613 A2r) by its audiences.
Because they ‘shared a taste for exploring the comic potential of emphatically theatricalized emotion. Each liked dramatic experiment, especially the innovative mixing of genres and dramatic conventions’ (Bliss 13), collaboration resulted in a series of increasingly well-received plays: Cupid’s Revenge, Philaster, The Maid’s Tragedy, and A King and No King.
They developed a generic style which includes realistic dialogue and realistic representation of emotion set in a world ever-so-slightly removed from our own; intricate plots so sensational and unusual they might be described as ‘improbably hypothetical’ situations; an atmosphere of evil that never fully manifests; protean characters more prone to extremes and inconsistencies than pretense and disguise; passions which sometimes seem more real than the characters feeling them; verse employed not to understand the intricacies of life, but to elicit maximum emotional response (Waith 37-40). Tragicomedy depends on emotional revelation, plot reversals, and paradoxes taken at face value. Contradictions serve the emotional realism, even if they engineer plots with less extreme resolutions than tragedies and comedies.
Its generic conventions ‘enable the reversal and retraction of what appear initially to be established situations and accepted principles’ (Clark 117), allowing us to enjoy as tensions events that might otherwise feel like inconsistencies. Mardonius describes Arbaces as ‘vainglorious and humble, and angry and patient, and merry and dull, and joyful and sorrowful, in extremeties in an hour’ (BST script, 1.1.56-58), and Arbaces displays every one of these passions in his first scene onstage. Spaconia rails at and curses her love Tigranes for 23 lines only to launch into a full retraction and apology in the middle of a verse line.
Beaumont and Fletcher aren’t second-guessing the needs of the play; they aren’t shying away from the bloodbath required to solve this moral quandary; they haven’t mismatched the resolution and antecedant chaos. Instead, they set up a story using the markers of tragedy in order to use its Aristotelian reversal to undercut the very same generic signals. ‘Like the writers of detective fiction’ (Waith 22), the authors deliberately mislead the audience when most dramaturgically opportune. The result is tragicomedy, a genre of the most ingenious paradoxes.
– Cassie Ash, Resident Dramaturg
*We here at Brave Spirits rather like the histories, which are often actually tragedies with one good crack at a comedic subplot to keep things moving.
nb It’s worth mentioning that Renaissance tragicomedy is not the same as modern and postmodern dark comedies, though gallows humor can be a component. In dramatic genres of the 16th and 17th centuries, form trumps content. Hamlet‘s Gravedigger can clown all he likes and no one will mistake the play for a comedy. Bergetto and Poggio are comedic counterweights to more serious wooers in ‘Tis Pity, but their plot’s sudden end portends an event mirrored later in the play. Arbaces and Panthea find legal settlement to their tragic-leaning desires without the shared celebration given to the likes of, say, Olivia, Sebastian, Orsino, and Viola.
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S.H. Butcher, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.1.1.html.
Beaumont, Francis and John Fletcher. A King and No King, ed. Lee Bliss, The Revels Plays, Manchester UP, 2004.
Clark, Sandra. The Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher. Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994.
Dryden, John. ‘Preface to Troilus and Cressida‘, Essays of John Dryden, W. P. Ker, ed., Clarendon Press, 1900.
Waith, Eugene M. The Pattern of Tragicomedy in Beaumont and Fletcher, Yale Studies in English, Vol. 120, Yale U Press, 1952.