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

John Morreall

The Tragic Vision and the Comic Vision

Tragedy and comedy started out as forms of drama, but we now call operas, films, and novels ‘tragedies’ and ‘comedies’ too. We also view events in real life as tragic or comic. We think of the lives of certain people, and even human life in general, as tragic or as comic. In The Tragic Sense of Life, Miguel de Unamuno spoke of tragedy as embodying ‘a whole conception of life itself and of the universe’, and since then many critics have called this worldview the ‘tragic vision’. A few others and I have written about a corresponding ‘comic vision’. Comedy and tragedy ‘make the world’ by providing ways to understand and evaluate our place in the universe and the events in our lives. They embody worldviews similar to those of religions. I briefly contrast twenty features of tragedy with twenty features of comedy to show how they make quite different worlds. A major difference is that the tragic vision encourages emotional engagement with events in our lives, while the comic vision, like Buddhism, encourages emotional disengagement. I close with the suggestion that the comic vision is more suited to our postmodern age.

John Morreall is Professor of Religious Studies at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. His books include Taking Laughter Seriously; The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor; Humor Works; Comedy, Tragedy, and Religion; and Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor.