I came across a wonderful quote from Northrop Frye a few days ago – in the reading guide to a novel by Salley Vickers called Mr Golightly’s Holiday. It’s basically about the difference between comedy and tragedy:
“I owe to the critic Northrop Frye the brilliant observation that, temperamentally, we tend to favour the tragic or the comic outlook. It was his contention that Dante, Shakespeare and the authors behind the New Testament were, in essence, finally comedians – hence The Divine Comedy – by which he meant not that they were a fund of belly laughs but that ultimately they saw life as more powerful than the forces which conspire against it: that the canon of their works – for all their equivocation and deep ambiguity – evolves towards “happy” ends. Happy ends are not fashionable nowadays, but a happy end does not necessarily imply Pollyanna or Panglossism, that an author believes all of life is agreeable, or that everything is moving inevitably towards the best possible conclusion. It merely implies a particular slant of vision, one which sees the potential, deep in the core of human affairs, for misfortune’s alternative – a view which may in fact encourage and replicate just that possibility. For, while art can never replicate life itself, it does affect and influence it. It is arguable, therefore, that there is a responsibility at least not to overlook the comic as a component of the real.”
As a student of Shakespeare, I think a lot about genre. What makes comedy comedy and tragedy tragedy? When you read the first act of Othello you realise how easily it could have been a comedy – all the tropes are there – rebellious daughter, furious father, runaway bride, and so forth. Shakespeare offers us several studies of sexual jealousy – some comic, one incredibly tragic and a strange one that switches gear completely halfway through (The Winter’s Tale).
Comedy does not necessarily end happily. I write this straight after seeing a performance of Twelfth Night at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and the last images were of the left-over people who didn’t do well out of the game of love – Malvolio, Maria and Sir Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek. All to the tune of a rather wistful litle song about how the rain it raineth every day. But the point is the tone. Feste, the clown, sings the song, and there’s a wry acceptance of human life in all its fulfilment and frustration, its silliness and occasional glory. You don’t come away feeling gutted and depressed, though you might well argue about whether the gulling of Malvolio is cruel or funny, or whether it’s a good idea to marry a chap who threatened to kill you a few minutes ago out of sheer spite when he found out his lady-love had married someone else. It’s not a case of everyone living happily ever after – but it is hopeful.
Even tragedy isn’t necessarily hopeless. Hamlet learns about himself before he dies, Lear discovers Cordelia’s love was the real thing, Emilia finds the strength to defy her husband and defend Desdemona, and she dies for it but is believed. There’s courage and heroism and hope even in the darkest places.
Comedy is actually very difficult to write. It’s much easier to be cynical and keep banging the same old anvil. And I think old Northrop is right – some people just think the world sucks, basically. They can’t reach that point of acceptance – which is not necessarily the same thing as stoicism.
In the middle of my weekend on Shakespeare, I watched Ten in Sarah Jane. It left me with little enthusiasm for the Specials. I know this was just a kids’ show but it was hollow and depressing. Marriage, we learned, prevents you from being your true self. Why does Sarah Jane have to sacrifice so much to defend the Earth? Why isn’t the Doctor helping her – not by saving the day when it suits him but by nurturing mentoring relationships with the others who could help her on Earth? If he hadn’t been a douche after Journey’s End, there’d be people who could hold the fort while she went on her honeymoon. And don’t get me started, please, on why Sarah Jane deserves to have her wedding crashed when Jack got dumped on Satellite Five.
I hate what Ten has become. I hate the way he says kids are briliant and then watches stony-faced while they’re in the TARDIS. Where has his sense of wonder gone? Why does he have to be so paranoid about getting hurt that he couldn’t even have a cup of tea with Sarah Jane and these kids he says are brilliant (including one that got badly hurt saving the day?) What did Ten actually do, compared to Clyde who put his life on the line to face the Trickster? I can’t respect him any more. I hate what RTD has made him into – someone pathologically afraid of any kind of human contact. No wonder Tennant left – he must be bored to tears with such a static character. He certainly looks it. Every gesture, look and soundbite is familiar.
I don’t want to spend Christmas watching the Trickster torture Ten all over again by showing him he could have been happy with Rose. That’s easy to write. It’s called angst and anyone can wallow fashionably in it. I can only really see one way out now – that Ten flips, goes bad and grabs the happiness he’s denied himself for so long. Then at least we’ll see the terrible consequences of him not being noble, and we’ll feel there’s some kind of point.
I read Moffatt the other day saying that in S5 there’ll be some joyful moments among the heartbreak. I’m not great fan of Moff and I’m lukewarm about Eleven, but I did wonder if he was making a bit of a comment on what the show’s turned into there.
Anybody can make me cry like a bitch, particularly if David Tennant’s acting and Murray Gold’s writing the music. On Christmas Night, I want someone that can challenge me and make me feel the human race is infinitely interesting and marvellous, that people can embrace their destiny, do the right thing, change and grow and become bigger, not smaller in the process. I think Hamlet may be a better bet..