Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Dark Comedy

I was recently reading The Dark Comedy, the Development of Modern Comic Tragedy by J. L. Styan and felt that his point of view on the modern conception of dark comedy aka black comedy aka tragicomedy would do well both to establish a particular conception of black comedy for potential discussions on the topic as well as to provide a basis for including certain upcoming films whose comic elements are often protested. Styan is speaking of theater, primarily, but the applications to film are essentially identical.

To begin with, Styan provides a simple definition of the comic which he derives in part from the struggles of others:
A sense of incongruity, with a resulting release of tension, is felt within the mind.

This description will be essential to establish a basis for comedy which invites both that which provokes laughter and that which mimics the experience but does not generate a laugh. This seems sensible, as it is not merely laughter that makes something comic, otherwise we would have to admit that men and women who tell awful jokes but elicit faked laughter on the basis of their attractiveness or wealth are successful comics and not merely unwitting directors of fictional performances. The painful buildup of tension after being subjected to a painfully unfunny joke reveals the key difference between a comic sense of incongruity and a less satisfying one. Even a joke which does not produce a laugh or to which the laugh is successfully stifled may still be considered comic if the uplifting relief of tension is experienced. The painfully unfunny joke may actually have a closer relationship to black comedy than the purely comic under the definition provided by Styan. To what extent intentionally unfunny jokes were in vogue at the time of Styan's writing I cannot say, but I will infer that the following usage refers less to painfully unfunny jokes and more to a deliberate stifling of the comic release of tension:
[L]arge numbers of plays today merely use the mechanism of laughter without granting its expected release of tension.
That agonizing pain that comes from a failed joke is similar to the contentious feeling that accompanies those situations where a comic tension is created but a release is unattainable due to ambivalence or uncertainty or some other factor. Interestingly, a terrible joke often brings unusual attention onto the teller, whether it is a function of curiosity in attempting to comprehend how something could so completely fail to achieve the desired comic release or perhaps a sense of pity for the joke's teller or even a comic appreciation of just how unusually bad the joke was. Of course this impulse need not point merely toward pity or comedy, states where the matter is settled and clear. By creating tension through the comic impulse and holding the release in indefinite check the method of creating black comedy is also a method of constant engagement with the incongruities raised and the opposing elements which stymie the comic release:
The kind of play we are growing more accustomed to prohibits easy solutions of the problems of ‘involving’ the audience. In order to recreate the effects of ambivalent life, in order to make us more aware of our minds working through our feelings, the good modern dramatist will insist, by refreshingly questioning illusion and convention in the theater, that we remain aloof although implicated. There can be no comforting sense of ‘belonging to a side’ in the experience of his theatre. There can be no relaxation in a play that acquits us by laughter at one moment and then convicts us the next. To place us in this unhappy limbo, the playwright will be busy measuring, expanding and contracting that vital gap between the world of his actors and the world of his audience, between art and life. The characters stand there on the stage – how are we to regard them? As next of kin or as distant poor relations? What if we are unsure? That is the uncomfortable state of mind the writer of dark comedy aims to create. He must control our infinite little decisions of heart and head. We are ready poised to cast our vote, but repeatedly we hesitate. The detachment of comedy is not allowed us, or the sympathy of tragedy. All the instinctive psychology of the man of the theatre is needed to achieve this particular tension: he must mix sufficient reality to hold our belief, with sufficient unreality to have us accept the pain of others. At the point of balance, we are in pain ourselves, and the play is meaningful.

This incarnation of black comedy can take many forms, but at its roots it is a form carried by continuously maintained oppositions, as if walking a tight rope. A black comedy may often follow a plot of some sort, but each shift or undulation simply presents a new set of balanced contrasts:
As Shaw wrote in his preface to Three Plays by Brieux in 1911, you do not leave a modern play with the feeling that the affair is finished or the problem solved for you by the dramatist: ’the curtain no longer comes down on a hero slain or married: it comes down when the audience has seen enough of the life presented to it to draw the moral, and must either leave the theatre or miss its last train.’
I think by considering this tragicomic definition in contrast with the other definition of black comedy, morbid humor, we can draw out a distinct picture of both. Styan makes the point that tragedy comes from an emotional closeness to a subject whereas comedy comes from an intellectual distance. Morbid comedy makes this clear, as the morbid topic tends to be one which is emotionally bleak or repellent and, through intellectualizing the subject in one form or another, its content or treatment appears incongruous and hence comic. The tragicomic seems to come from the opposite direction: a topic is presented as incongruous but is contextualized in a way that is too sobering to merely forget. The tragic and comic impulse seem opposed to one another, with tragedy forcing one to feel the weight of a subject while comedy allows one to forget its weight, and the tragicomic seems straddled in between - realizing the comic implications but being unable to forget the tragic implications. In this way the tragicomic almost functions as a litmus test: if a topic is presented comically and transposed against its emotional content, those subjects which are substantial will maintain the tragicomic equilibrium and those subjects which are insubstantial will be laughed off. In this way black comedy could perhaps be described as a method of turning the world into a  bad joke, but a joke told by the truth. Its function is the same, but its personage can no longer be pitied or dismissed. When reality is depicted as blackly humorous it tends to point to some factor as a bad joke, be it the government, certain moral precepts, or a person. Black comedy in both its forms becomes dependent in both its forms on the capability of a chosen topic to emotionally ground the apparent incongruity. With respect to morbid humor, that which stays emotionally grounded never becomes humorous, while comic situations whose tragic elements do not hold any weight will never achieve tragicomedy. I see no contradiction in a tragic subject becoming tragicomic, but it may be difficult to provoke a comic impulse in someone when they are already closely attuned to tragic impulse due to some element of emotional inertia. It becomes clear, though, that both originating methods of black comedy can converge at a similarly tragicomic function which seems accurately described by Styan's stifled comic impulse.

Laughter is known to be tied to the comic impulse, but how does it relate to the tragicomic? My experience with black comedy is that it provokes laughter even when a subject is not truly comic. The laughter in this situation is markedly different from a truly comic laugh - instead of the head tilting back and the mouth opening wide, a tragicomic laugh tends to be paired with all of the elements of a cringe, thus resulting in an expression more of the sudden buildup of tension than a release of it. As to why a thrill often elicits a gasp upon sudden gains in tension and a black comedy elicits a cringing laugh I can only assume that it relates to black comedy's origins in intellectual distance while a thrill is an expression of a sudden shift in emotion. This distinction seems to corroborate Styan's description of a tragicomic reaction as stemming from the comic impulse but not identical to it. With this in mind, I see nothing wrong with laughing at a black comedy.

Given that there seems a real distinction between tragedy, comedy, and the tragicomic, Styan's earlier analysis points toward the innumerable merits of black comedy: it is able to both provoke and weigh intellectual and emotional reactions to material; its effects are constant, continuous, and cumulative; it allows for the inevitable occurrence of ambivalence in human affairs. Styan also points out several interesting features of black comedy: it does not require any artificial propulsion in terms of a plot because its effects begin immediately and are compounded by detail rather than scope; it favors realistic and imperfect characters because paradoxical and contradictory details do not in any way impinge upon the tragicomic impulse; it is enhanced by addition and its effects linger in their entirety. Black comedy is built on tension and a focus on real and potentially unpleasant details, but I think it is the most honest method of wrestling with life's messy details - and laugh at them, as pained as the laugh may be.
Affairs in dark comedy rarely conclude: they persist, and their repercussions may be felt to be unlimited. This drama does not make decisions for us, but at the most suggests likelihoods, depicts chanciness and stresses both sides. It stimulates us by implications, and it does not pass judgments - only the spectator may do that, if he feels he has the courage: but, as in life, he may never dare to commit himself so far. In dark comedy we are specifically asked not to be fanatics. 


  1. JeanRZEJ, good to discover your blog. I've subscribed to the RSS feed and look forward to following it.

  2. This is great reading, JeanRZEJ. Very well written. Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. Thanks for stopping by, the both of you. I had never seen the issue of black comedy approached in this way, defining both the features of the content and the features of the reaction, although the both seem essential given the differences in what people find funny. When he was able to translate this fundamentally comic mechanism into a conception of the tragicomic response I thought it was essential for any nebulous conversations that will be sure to arise in some of the upcoming films which are at times fervently denied to be black comedy. It's nice to be able to say, "I think they are - and here's why." Not that I can't blow hot air, mind you, but it's nice.

    If you have any comments, recommendations, tangents, or anything else feel free. I'm writing these posts more as a jumping off point more than a comprehensive analysis, so there will always be a lot left to say.