Finding Humour in the Horrific: Tragicomedy & We Are Proud to Present…

We describe We Are Proud to Present… as a play that tackles the first genocide of the 20th Century while also being irreverently funny (The Guardian agreed: ‘witty and ingenious’ was their verdict). But is it possible to find humour in a play about a horrendous historical event? Here we look back at the history of tragedy and comedy on the stage and at our very human need to find humour in the most horrific of events.

When Aristotle first laid down two rigid definitions for tragedy and comedy he probably didn’t bank on the creation of a third hybrid category: tragicomedy.

It was Plautus who first used the term, mainly as an excuse for creating a play where typically tragic characters (gods) featured in an otherwise comedic plot. Since then, tragicomedy has repeatedly been utilised to fulfil our artistic and emotional need to poke fun at and find light in the tragic, to boost morale in the face of hopelessness, and to critique societies’ oppressors.

Really emerging as a recognisable genre in the Renaissance, tragicomedy has tended to fall into two main categories: those in which a potentially tragic series of events is somehow resolved with a fairy tale-esque happy ending and those in which the comedy has dark or bitter overtones throughout.

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale fits into the first category: after two gloomy acts of unremitting tragedy, its hero the King of Sicilia is saved at the last minute and his daughter too, the fairy-tale heroine Perdita, gets her own prince and happily ever after.

Skipping forward a few centuries, with the end of WW2, happy endings seemed less possible and tragicomedy really came into its own in British theatre. Interlaced with black comedy, gallows humour and absurdism by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, it became a means to face the hopelessness of the era and find laughter in the horrific. Tom Stoppard’s 1967Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a highlight. As the title gives away, we know that this one isn’t going to have a happy ending. Yet, the play is full of comic elements – while the protagonists’ fate is predetermined they sure have fun goofing around on their way to it.

While tragicomedy is often borne out of our need for a light release in the face of real life and stage tragedy, humour can also make the tragic on stage more affecting and hard-hitting. It is through moving an audience to laughter that many directors, playwrights and actors have been able to move that same audience to tears and horror.

The politically charged apartheid-era play Sizwe Banzi Is Dead by Athol Fugard was recently re-staged at the Young Vic and opens with laughter before swiftly turning into something more complex. Audiences were lulled in with a clowning scene of protagonist Sizwe/ Robert posing with pipe in mouth and a paper (that he couldn’t actually read) in hand for a photo to send to his wife. Yet, as the play slips into darker territory and this same character faces the decision of returning to his village with no prospect of work or taking on the identity of a dead man (who unlike himself has a work permit), laughter dries up. Suddenly the idea of reinventing oneself, be it for camera or the authorities, holds a much more tragic resonance.

Finding light in the familiarity of everyday tragedies has also become central to contemporary family dramas. It was through Rory Kinnear’s family drama The Herdthat tragicomedy found its way into the Bush in our 2013 Season. Comic family dynamics exposed the family’s personal tragedy and tensions were built to tipping point.

It is for you to decide what you think of the blending of humour and tragedy in We Are Proud to Present…‘ Does laughter make this weighty topic more accessible? Does it threaten to make light of a horrific series of very real events? Or, does it end up implicating the audience by getting them laughing before that laughter dries up and turns into something far more disconcerting?

Written by Chloe Davies, Marketing and Development Intern