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Thinking Through Tragedy and Comedy A Symposium on Performance Philosophy and the Future of Genre

Freddie Rokem


At the very end of Plato's Symposium, depicting the celebration of Agathon's victory in the Lenaean tragedy competition (416 B.C.), where among others Aristophanes also participated, Socrates is carrying on a conversation with the two playwrights in which he was "trying to prove to them that authors should be able to write both comedy and tragedy; the skillful tragic dramatist should also be a comic poet." (223d) But, as Apollodorus, who is Plato's story-teller adds the two playwrights as well as Aristodemos (who was present at the party and has told Apollodorus about it) were too tired to follow Socrates' argumentation and fell asleep.
Since Plato's text intentionally does not provide the details of Socrates' argument we have to conjecture. One possibility (which, following previous readers I developed at great length in Philosophers and Thespians) is that the philosopher/philosophy, i.e. Socrates, is able to unify the two genres, just as Eros brings the two different halves of the 'complete' human beings together, as presented by Aristophanes in his speech about the four-legged creatures who Zeus cut in half. Another possibility, which I will briefly explore in my presentation at the Berlin Symposium, is that Socrates considers tragedy and comedy to be very similar maybe even the two sides of the same coin which can easily be flipped, quickly changing from one to the other.
The 'screen scene', where one of the characters in the play eavesdrops or spies on one or several of the other characters (usually with the knowledge of at least one of them) will serve as my point of departure for exploring this hypothesis. The eavesdropper is a spectator inside the fictional world who because of what he (and most frequently it is a male) learns by eavesdropping or just by carrying out this act of transgression is transformed into a victim. I will exemplify with Polonius (in Hamlet, III, 4) and Orgon (in Tartuffe, IV, 5), arguing that these two characters are physically situated in a focal (liminal) point with metaphysical allusions (related to the deus ex machina) where they are extremely vulnerable and can quickly be transformed from tragic to comic figures and vice versa, transgressing the generic borderlines between tragedy, melodrama, comedy and farce.
Such situations are also of interest for examining the 'role' of the spectator, who of course is also an eavesdropper, but is usually not 'punished' or victimized for it in the same way as the eavesdropper himself. However, since there is an 'exchange' between the two eavesdropping positions (in and outside of the fictional world) it will (eventually) also be possible to present some ideas concerning the 'sacrificial', scapegoating processes of tragedy and comedy.

Freddie Rokem is the Emanuel Herzikowitz Professor for 19th and 20th Century Art at Tel Aviv University where he is emeritus from the Department of Theatre. Among his many publications are Jews and the Making of Modern German Theatre (2010, co-edited with Jeanette Malkin); Strindberg's Secret Codes (2004), Philosophers and Thespians: Thinking Performance (2010) and the prize-winning Performing History: Theatrical Representations of the Past in Contemporary Theatre (2000). He was the editor of Theatre Research International from 2006-2009, and is now one of the editors for the series Performance Philosophy (Palgrave Macmillan). He has been a visiting Professor at universities in the United States, Germany, Sweden and Finland, and is also a translator and a dramaturg.