Lynette Abel  / Aesthetic Realism & Life

"Words Are Everywhere: Comedy and Tragedy Are Two of These"
Report of an Aesthetic Realism class
by Lynette Abel

     Eli Siegel began the lecture of March 24, 1971 titled, "Words Are Everywhere: Comedy and Tragedy Are Two of These,"  by saying:

 The unconscious of man has always tried to put together these everyday opposites: Why do I feel so bad and why do I want to be so cheerful?   It hasn't been done but I think there are events in the world that show there's more interest in that.
To  place this subject culturally, Mr. Siegel gave examples of how in the history of drama the relation of comedy and tragedy has changed.   "In Greek drama," he said "the two were kept pretty much apart."   Later, French critics, "including Voltaire, were appalled that in Shakespeare's Hamlet the gravedigger towards the end of the play could make jokes and sing.   That was the first saying in a tragedy" he continued, "that deeply there is a oneness between the tragic and the cheerful."  And he explained:
This matter of comedy and tragedy  they are two words as important as any because they are about every person's life.   My purpose is to show that poetry begins with words and that words fully seen tell what comedy and tragedy are about and how they are close.
As powerful, moving evidence for this, Mr. Siegel read the first act of the 1924  play Juno and the Paycock by the Irish playwright, Sean O'Casey, which he said "can be considered as well as any to show how the unconscious of man wants to put his laugh and his sob together as two opposites of the world.”   To show some of the critical thought Sean O'Casey gave this subject, Mr. Siegel read from the book Drama: The Major Genres edited by Robert Hogan and Sven Eric Molin.    They quote O'Casey saying:
As for blending "Comedy with Tragedy," it's no new practice. ... And, indeed, Life is always doing it, doing it, doing it.   Even where one lies dead, laughter is often heard in the next room.   There's no tragedy that isn't tinged with humour, no comedy that hasn't its share of tragedy  if one has eyes to see, ears to hear.   Sorrow and Joy are sisters .... 
"And these of course" said Mr. Siegel, "are the opposites that affect people most: joy and sorrow."  And he asked "What relation do they have?"  Turning to the play, he said "The way in Juno and the Paycock the shoddy and the tawdry mingle with the grand, and the laughable with the unendurable is notable."    In this lecture he showed something completely new about the relation between these opposites when he explained "It is not just comic relief--it is too inherent in the play."

     Juno and the Paycock takes place in 1922, in the Boyle family living room in a poor tenement house in Dublin, at the time of the civil war in Ireland.    I love how Mr. Siegel described the characters, getting to their essence in a few sentences  showing how the comic and tragic are in them.   For instance, about the father, Captain Jack Boyle, the paycock (meaning peacock), Mr. Siegel said: 

He is ridiculous and he is sad.   He is a person who quite sanely doesn't want to work; he would rather make speeches.   He says he has a pain in his legs which is possible.... There is also something likably exuberant about him.   (His wife,] Juno is steady and strong.... She is the one who bears [things], though she does give it to her husband.
Johnny, their son, who is in the Irish Republican Army, was wounded badly in the war, losing an arm and having a leg crippled.    He, we learn later, has helped to end the life of another young man by telling on him, betraying him.   Johnny is described by O'Casey as: having a tremulous look of indefinite fear in his eyes.”   Mr. Siegel commented:
He is so selfish and so incapacitated.  This is something people have endured…. 
The Boyles also have a daughter, Mary, who O'Casey describes:
as a good looking girl of 22.   Two forces are working in her mind  one, through the circumstances of her life, pulling her back; the other, through the influence of books she has read, pushing her forward
The factory she works at is on strike.   Her father, Jack Boyle, has been out of work for a long time.   Mr. Siegel said compassionately, “Casey says the thing that history teaches  and I agree with him  is that people haven't been given a chance.”

      Early in Act I, Mrs. Boyle, waiting to give her husband breakfast, says impatiently to her daughter Mary:

Isn't it terrible to have to be waitin' this way! You'd think he was bringin' twenty poun'd a week into the house the way he's going on. He wore out the Health Insurance long ago, he's afther wearin' out the unemployment dole, an', now, he's thrying' to wear out me! An' constantly singin', no less, when he ought always to be on his knees offerin' up a Novena for a job!
Click here for Part 2 
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