Modernism and Tragicomedy

  • John Orr
Part of the Edinburgh Studies in Culture and Society book series (ESCS)


This book is concerned with tragicomedy as part of the modernist turn in the twentieth century. The word ‘tragicomedy’ is used consciously and deliberately by Beckett as a description of Waiting for Godot. But definition of it is elusive. In its modern context it signals the final breakdown of the classical separation of high and low styles. In Godot the comic waiting of Didi and Gogo is just as important as Pozzo’s tragic reversal of fortune. Equally tragicomedy is a departure from the realist dramas of bourgeois conscience. It is, by contrast, a drama which is short, frail, explosive and bewildering. It balances comic repetition against tragic downfall. It demonstrates the coexistence of amusement and pity, terror and laughter. But it also delineates a new dramatic form which, from Pirandello onwards, calls into question the conventions of the theatre itself. The modernist turn and the admixture of tragic and comic elements, the sudden switch from darkness to laughter, or vice versa, come together in a twofold challenge. We are confronted with a world in which there appears to be little continuity of character or of action. We are never sure whether people or events referred to in dramatic speech have any objective validity. We never know as an audience how we are meant to identify physical landmarks or characters with peremptory names. Things just happen. Other things may never have happened at all.


Consumer Culture Contemporary Culture Corporate Capitalism Sudden Switch Final Breakdown 
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  1. 2.
    Peter Szondi, Theory of the Modern Drama (trans. Michael Hays) (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987) p. 63.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    W. E. Haug, Critique of Commodity Aesthetics: Appearance, Sexuality and Advertising in Capitalist Society (trans. Robert Bock) (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1986), p. 57 f. For a study which advocates the postmodern embrace of performative culture and tries to find an inconoclastic role for the now-commodified subject, see Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (trans. Michael Eldred) (London: Verso, 1988). Drawing on Bakhtin, Sloterdijk puts forward carnivalisation as a conscious alternative to Adorno’s ‘melancholy science’.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© John Orr 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Orr
    • 1
  1. 1.University of EdinburghUK

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