Reprinted from Poetics 10: 195-211. Copyright 1981. With permission from Elsevier Science.

A dozen or so typographical errors have been corrected. Parallel arguments can be found in Chapters 2 and 3 of Paul Hernadi, Interpreting Events: Tragicomedies of History on the Modern Stage (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), esp. pp. 39-52 and 70-76.

Author's present address (July 2000):
Paul Hernadi, Dept. of English, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106






This paper amplifies and modifies Northrop Frye's "theory of myths" (Chapter Three of Anatomy of Criticism) from the vantage point of an esthetics of reception. Two dozen well-known plays serve to illustrate the various combinations of four basic "moods" conveyed by texts and performances to their implied readers and spectators. Comedy combines farcical derision (laugh at) with festive joy (laugh with); tragedy combines melodramatic pity (weep for) with the awe or fear aroused by religious and secular martyr plays (weep along); romance combines fear and joy as it makes us admire the unity of opposites in nature; satire combines derision and pity as it promotes indignation over unresolved contradictions in culture. All texts may, however, be also seen as providing occasions for various combinations of entertainment and commitment. As a useful way of genre-alizing about literature, we may consider a particular work "tragic" or "comic" to the extent that it affords us entertainment through thrill or gratification, and we may consider the same work "satirical" or "romantic" to the extent that it fills us with indignation or admiration, thereby committing us either to change the world or to change ourselves. Far from being generically "pure", worthwhile texts tend to move their responsive readers in more than one direction; some of them may in fact be described as tragicomedies. But zero degree of entertainment and commitment (that is, boredom and indifference) can result from poor literature as well as poor reception.


Pace Croce (1969: 35-38), every piece of literary criticism entails some consideration of genre. There are, of course, more and less explicit ways of genre-alizing about individual texts. The lawyer friend who told me at a picnic that he had liked a best-selling, slightly pornographic novel better than the same author's earlier volume of humorous poems would hardly think of himself as a genre critic. Yet his casual remark did indicate that he thinks about his reading experience in such generic terms as novel, poem, pornographic, humorous, best-seller, and their various combinations. Indeed, I seriously doubt whether an asserter of the unclassifiable uniqueness of some or all works of literature could prove his point without simultaneously disproving it. After all, in explaining why certain texts strike him as unclassifiable he must say or imply what they, as a class, have in common. This being the case, the real question is not whether one can classify literary works but whether (and if so, for what purpose) one should classify them.

My own thinking about genre and beyond is guided by the conviction that "genre concepts should be employed and transcended rather than ignored, codified, or rejected" (Hernadi 1972: viii). They should be employed for the following reason: if you refuse to frame or adopt articulate generic concepts, the implicit definitions of the terms you use are likely to restrict or blur your vision more perniciously than any articulated definition might. But they should also be transcended, since any new insight gained with the help of a particular set of generic concepts will in turn yield new principles for the framing or adopting of sharpened generic concepts.

This version of the hermeneutic circle is, of course, operative both within and beyond the confines of literary criticism. It reveals that all knowledge is "genre-bound" in both senses of the word: it is tied up with and directed toward conceptual classification (Hernadi 1978b: 27). While perception, as well as thought, treats each of its cognitive targets as "a thing of a certain sort" (Richards 1965: 30), all such "sorting" is geared to one from among many available categories, and our initial selection of a particular generic perspective need not preclude later recourse to other classificatory principles. Metaphorically speaking, the sculptor's block out of which human knowledge is being carved is not so much the predicated extensive infinity of space and time as it is the world's intensive generic infinity of predicable properties.

Since personal or historical shifts in cognitive purpose may lead to noticeable change in the prevalent sorts and their hierarchy, no classification can, in the abstract, be considered more natural than any other. It is true that "genre", the French and English cognate of Latin genus and Greek genos meaning "birth", is etymologically related to kin, kind, generation, genesis, gender, gene, genital, and so on. Yet the notion that lineage yields the only privileged -- "natural" or "scientific" -- principle of classification ought to be challenged even as regards plants and animals. Take a rather commonplace example: a rabid dog and a rattlesnake have at least as much in common as a rabid dog and a healthy dog have from the "natural" point of view of a bitten person or the "scientific" point of view of his physician. While many instances of this kind could be cited from the realms of fauna and flora, the cultural contexts of the classifier and the classified play an even more conspicuous role in any supposedly natural classification of human beings and man-made objects (including literary works).

In short, the superabundance of potential knowledge and the corresponding generic overdetermination of all particulars demand polycentric rather than monolithic classifications in literary criticism and other fields of inquiry alike (Hernadi 1978b: 27). Consider Aristotle's coordinated distinctions according to the means, objects, and manner of mimesis (1968: 3-6) or Northrop Frye's interrelated views about mythoi, modes, and radicals of presentation (1957). Both theorists avoid the summary division of all literature into such "basic" categories as poetry, fiction, and drama. That broad classification, sometimes supplemented by the fourth category of the essay, may provide the rationale for scheduling a manageable triad or tetrad of Freshman English courses. Yet works like Plato's Symposium, Eliot's Waste Land, Joyce's Ulysses, or Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun clearly defy unequivocal placement within any of those categories. And I see no reason why we should try to pigeonhole such larger birds as Ibsen's Wild Duck or Chekhov's Seagull into the subclass "tragicomedy" of the class "drama" or into the sub-class "drama" of the class "tragicomic literature". Instead, we may explore each play's predominantly dramatic mode of verbal evocation, as well as its implied reader's or spectator's predominantly tragicomic mood, within a polycentric framework which, in this case, would involve two coordinated systems of generic classification.

In the present paper I will reconsider Northrop Frye's discussion of mythoi (1957: 158-239) from the vantage point of an esthetics of reception. Frye, of course, derives the typical plot structures of tragedy, comedy, satire, and romance from the archetypal segmentation by early cultures of such "natural cycles" as the recurrent change between day and night or summer and winter. Since our postmythic age may be better served by a view of literature as providing institutional frameworks for different combinations of entertainment and commitment, I will amplify and modify Northrop Frye's map of the literary landscape, using Thrill, Gratification, Indignation, and Admiration as the four principal compass points. What I suggest is this: a particular work can be seen as "tragic" or "comic" to the extent that it affords us entertainment through thrill or gratification; and it can be seen as "satirical" or "romantic" to the extent that it fills us with indignation or admiration, thereby committing us either to change the world or to change ourselves [1]. Far from being generically "pure", some of the greatest works of literature have sufficient energy to move their responsive readers in more than one direction -- toward tragic thrill, comic gratification, satirical indignation, or romantic admiration. But zero degree of entertainment and commitment, that is, boredom and indifference, may result from very poor art as well as very poor response.

I will try to illustrate the usefulness of such an approach to literary classification by discussing different kinds of drama from the point of view of their reception [2]. To be sure, responsible critics will always try to justify the generic categories emerging from their reading experience as relying on a legitimate response to a given sequence of words. Yet I feel justified in stressing the importance of reception because, clearly, we must study how a work works before we can tell in what way its form or subject matters. How, indeed, can I tell whether Molière's Miser, for example, portrays the "tragic" downfall of Harpagon or the "comic" rise to pleasure and power of his children's generation? Only by examining the play's impact on responsive readers or spectators -- at first and particularly on myself. In the last analysis, I will have to explore whether the play strikes me as portraying the frustration or the fulfillment of aspirations with which it makes me identify. Thus my "anatomy" of plot structure cannot help being based on the "physiology" of a response to the text in question.

Perhaps because our public reaction to performed plays is more observable and less idiosyncratic than our private reaction to printed or written texts, drama criticism has always been very concerned with the effect of works on an audience. Long before the rise of behaviorism, drama critics managed to sort the great variety of response" elicited by the "stimulus" of plays and performances into just two basic, physiologically distinct types: crying and laughing. It was, of course recognized that a reader's or spectator's disposition to cry or to laugh need not reach its audible and visible extreme in order to count as an index of tragic or comic experience. Yet the different kinds and degrees of the two contrary moods have served as a basis for some of the most influential discussions of the "kinds" or "types" of dramatic literature.

Very early in the history of criticism, Aristotle (1968: 21f. et passim) distinguished two combinable effects of serious drama as pity and fear [3]. Some penetrating studies of the audience response to comic works in turn differentiate between a derisive and a joyful inclination toward laughter [4]. The various kinds of potential or actual crying and laughing may thus be seen as polarized around two types. While the first maintains distance between the suffering or ridiculous person and the person who cries for or laughs at what he observes, the second tends to de-emphasize that distance by making us empathize with other people rather than merely observe or at best sympathize with them. To put it simply, we chiefly cry for or cry along, laugh at or laugh with some of the dramatic characters; and scrutinizing our response may help us to establish what kind of play we have been responding to.

The accompanying fig. 1 is designed to correlate some typical responses to drama. My necessarily compressed commentary on the chart may not lead to general agreement concerning the appropriateness of each illustrative example. Moreover, a skillful director whose view of a given script is substantially different from mine will succeed in affecting the audience according to his or her intentions, and individual performances even of the same production can further modify the potential set of moods from which individual spectators derive their actual response to the play. In view of the diversity of productions, performances, and spectators, one might despair of tying any typology of audience response to particular textual or theatrical occasions. But in the interest of anchoring theory in dramatic and critical practice, I offer the following genre-alizations and hope that they will be perceived as based on widely shared or at least sharable reactions to the cited plays and to most of their responsible productions.


Fig. 1

Fig. 1


Plays like Oedipus the King or Macbeth convey to us the complex tragic mood of pity and fear; plays like Lysistrata or The Miser convey to us the complex comic mood of joy and derision. By contrast, the same pairs of elementary moods barely combine, let alone interpenetrate, in our polarized response to other types of drama. Take the typical impact of Richard III or Oedipus at Colonus on congenial readers and spectators. In the first case the violent sob of melodrama, in the second case the pensive sigh of the cultic martyr play precludes the dynamic interaction of pity and fear elicited by tragedy. Likewise, Twelfth Night and The Would-be Gentleman gravitate, respectively, toward festive cheer and farcical jeer instead of achieving the integration of joy and derision into the sublimated aggression of comic laughter.

Pity, fear, joy, and derision thus emerge as the main ingredients of our typical response to various kinds of drama. Those "kinds" as well as the moods conveyed by them are, however, capable of subtly merging into each other. For example, comedy progresses through farce to satire by making us laugh at some people more and more and, at the same time, by making us laugh with others less and less; the opposite applies to the transition from comedy through festivity to romance. As the position of Lysistrata and The Miser on the chart indicates, the most characteristic comedies remain at about the same distance from the festive and the farcical pole of the genre. But even such "festive" comedies as Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night's Dream are not devoid of jeer, and some cheer is present even in such punitive, farcical comedies as Molière's Would be Gentleman, where the young lovers have more and more fun as M. Jourdain's funniness is increasingly exposed to a laughing audience. Without sufficient playful emphasis on at least a few characters in genuine fun, the clouds of satire begin to gather (Threepenny Opera), scorn almost completely replaces derision (Tartuffe) and, soon enough, the atmospheric conditions become ripe for the hailstorm of incipient or outright melodrama as exemplified in A Doll's House or in Dumas fils' Camille, best known as the textual basis of Verdi's La Traviata.

As we turn to the southern hemisphere of the chart, pity and fear --our reactions to contingent and to necessary suffering - emerge as capable of entering the Aristotelian combination of pity and fear characteristic of fully-fledged tragedy. In the thirteenth chapter of the Poetics, Aristotle defines the two controversial terms as follows: "pity is aroused by someone who undeservedly falls into misfortune, and fear is evoked by our recognizing that it is someone like ourselves who encounters this misfortune" (1968: 21f.). When Aristotle demands of tragedy that it arouse both eleos and phobos in this sense of the two words, he in fact implies the possibility that some plays arouse only, or at any rate mainly, one or the other of the two emotions. They can do so by focusing either on the undeserved misfortune of pitiable characters such as most victims in Richard III or else on the willingly accepted -- if not self-induced -- fate of heroes like the aged Oedipus at Colonus, with whom we fearfully identify. Symmetrically enough, just as comedy proper combines the

characteristic moods of farce and festivity, namely, the ridiculous and the joyful, tragedy proper combines the characteristic moods of melodrama and the martyr play, namely, the pitiable and the fearful. In A Portrait, James Joyce has young Stephen Dedalus put it very well: "The tragic emotion is a face looking two ways, towards terror and towards pity. ( ... ) Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering and unites it with the secret cause" (1916: 239f., my italics). In this manner, reminiscent of Hegel's (1962: 46-51 or 1965: 11, 547-551), Joyce succeeds in illuminating why we feel elated rather than depressed by great tragedy which, like melodrama, crushes piteous individuals but, unlike melodrama, celebrates rather than ignores or begrudges the fearsome cosmic order that cannot help but crush them. Plays like Oedipus the King or Macbeth powerfully suggest that some "secret cause" is ready to crush any individual; hence, an important element of tragic fear was circumscribed in the 75th piece of G.E. Lessing's Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767-1768) as "pity applied to ourselves" (das auf uns selbst bezogene Mitleid). But as we move on fig. 1 from tragedy through the martyr play to romance, horror and even fear (Joyce's "terror") turns through awe to marvel, and grief or pity hardly colors our acquiescence to the suffering portrayed in Goethe's Egmont (a secular martyr play about self-fulfillment through self-sacrifice) or Calderon's Great Theater of the World.

Inclining their respective audience to sob or sigh, melodrama and the martyr play stress opposed but complementary aspects of the thrill of deathbound selfhood: the personal injustice and the cosmic justice involved in the frustration of all finite individuals. The corresponding categories under the North Star of gratification stress two voluntary ways of transcending the self. Moving from comedy toward satire, we find farce based on the acceptance of cultural -- more frequently sub-cultural -- norms and the concomitant jeering at people who fail to live up -- or down -- to them. Moving from comedy toward romance, we find festivity: the cheerful merging of individuals into what they experience as their natural or supernatural background. Indeed, as a play places more emphasis on departures from selfhood than on fulfilled or frustrated attempts to preserve the self, its comic or tragic qualities will be outweighed by romantic or satirical ones.

As fig. 1 indicates, the audience response to romance and satire involves interaction between different pairs of the same four basic moods. Fear combines with joy as we contemplate the dreamlike worlds of two types or romance: redemptive if the joy is stressed (wunschtraum as in The Tempest), vindictive if the emphasis is on awe (the angsttraum of The Great Theater of the World). Various combinations of pity and derision in turn result from satire's analyses of culture: a corrective "problem play" mainly makes us weep for victims; an invective lampoon mainly makes us laugh at would-be tormentors whose projects tend to be thwarted in the last minute. Through its characteristic moods, derision and pity, satire thus makes the reader or spectator react to others: he will laugh at or weep for certain dramatic characters. Even as the "romantic" moods, joy and fear, dispose the reader to laugh or weep along with some characters, they also cause him to react to himself. This is evidenced by morality plays which make congenial readers and spectators fear their own deathward advance instead of just making them pity a hero for his. Likewise, the festive spirit emanating from the stage or pages of miracle plays can give the audience a joyous sense of belonging to a world in which the harsh laws of both nature and society may on occasion be gracefully suspended. (This holds, needless to say, for secular "miracle plays" like The Tempest or Midsummer Night's Dream as well.)

But there is another reason why romance and satire are intimately linked to tragedy and comedy. Tragedy highlights great and unique individuals who cannot avoid running up against their restrictive natural and social confines. By contrast, comedy tends to show ways and means whereby relatively "little" people adjust to the circumstances imposed upon them by nature and society. The ultimate sources of the tragic frustration or comic fulfillment of human aspirations may thus be termed nature and culture if by nature we mean all non-human forces perceived as operating in the universe, and if by culture we refer to the order (or disorder) of human societies. On such a view -- to which I subscribe -- nature is what has made man; culture, what man has made. But this dichotomy is far from clear-cut. Our sense of what is natural is a product of our culture, and it seems to lie in the nature of man as a symbol-using animal to develop certain forms (and not others) of culture. Thus nature and culture are to some degree in the eye of the beholder. What matters is how individuals, groups, or entire societies look upon a certain force or institution, whether they see it as man-making or man-made. In this qualified sense of the two concepts, nature and culture suggest two principal directions in which tragedy and comedy can approach each other. On the one hand, tragedy can treat frustration and comedy can treat fulfilment as natural phenomena -- things that must and in a sense should be. On the other hand, they can treat frustration and fulfilment as cultural phenomena -- things that tend to but need not and often should not be. To the extent that a play stresses either nature or culture as the general framework of all fulfilment and frustration, either the acquiescent marvel of romance or the indignant analysis of satire will eclipse comic humor or tragic pathos in it.

Admiration for nature, indignation over culture: I may appear to have endorsed a pair of unqualified proto-Romantic attitudes of the kind that make us describe the granting of citizenship to foreign-born persons as "naturalization". Yet I am just as sympathetic toward a contrary, proto-Classicist argument whose gist is contained in the following three assertions: culture, in the best sense of the word, is a constructive elaboration of "raw" nature; almost any mask is preferable to the apelike grin of uncultivated man's demasked face; the cure for cultural evils is more, not less, culture. On balance, I find myself sharing the hope of Friedrich Schiller and other "romantic classics" that it is possible to mediate between the two extreme positions. In his long essays On the Aesthetic Education of Man and On Naive and Sentimental Poetry, Schiller seems to assume that culture ideally is and should actually become man's second nature. At a hypothesized future stage of social and literary history, Schiller's satire and elegy -- those "sentimental", self-conscious responses to the perceived contradiction between the Real and the Ideal -- may well be superseded by a form of romance: the newly attained idyll of the Realized Ideal. Until then, however, satire -- which in Schiller's scheme is closely related to tragedy and comedy (1967b: 120-123) -- will do better justice than idyllic romance to our everyday experience; hence our uneasiness about the mandatory happy end rewarding virtue, both in eighteenth-century bourgeois comedy and in its allegedly proletarian relative with the fancy stage name "Socialist Realism". Eventual happiness in a green Shakespearean forest or in the evergreen world of the City of God proves more acceptable, since it overtly transcends, rather than claims to mirror, ordinary social reality. But in its most profound literary manifestations, even romance will retain both aspects of the sublime expressed in the twofold meaning of the Greek words deinos: wonderful and terrible.

Once we realize that even the supposedly "simple" genres tragedy, comedy, satire, and romance are interrelated and composite categories, the "mixed" status of tragicomedy need not strike us as a particularly difficult problem [5]. Mindful of Plato's insight into the "mixed feeling of pleasure and pain" elicited by both tragedy and comedy (Philebus 48-50), we may even say that the tragicomic mood is a complex Urphänomen from which simpler responses to life or drama must be distilled, so to speak, by philosophical abstraction or artistic stylization [6]. By placing tragicomedy in the center of my graphic representation, I have tried to indicate why it is such a protean, hard-to-define phenomenon: a particular tragicomedy may be "closer" to farce, for example, than to another tragicomedy which approximates martyr plays. Furthermore, most tragicomedies defy attempts to approximate their mood by just one of such neatly opposed terms as Thrill and Gratification, Admiration and Indignation, Nature and Culture, Fulfilment and Frustration. Almost always, one reader will find that the main thrust of a particular tragicomedy goes in one direction, while another reader will find that it goes in another. Little conceptual disagreement should occur about The Wild Duck as a play about our need for, and humiliation by, life-supporting illusions; yet the gamut of moods elicited by it includes those typical of half a dozen simpler genres ranging from farce through satire, melodrama, and tragedy to martyr play. Critical opinion is, of course, much more varied concerning the degree to which the festive finale of Measure for Measure manages to cancel out Shakespeare's melodramatic satire against Angelo and other pseudo-angelic manifestations of human nature and culture. In the case of Ionesco's Rhinoceros and some other plays of the absurd, it is easier to miss the tragic than the farcical aspects. Conversely, the somber tones of Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral may make some readers overlook how the martyrdom of Thomas Becket merges into a tragicomic background whose elaborate pattern is established by the melodrama of the Chorus ("living and partly living"), the indecorous farce of the shortsighted Priests dragging Becket into presumed safety by his feet, the ironic satire of the self-vindication of the Four Knights, and the festivity of the Martyr's imitatio Christi.

While the contemporaries of Shakespeare and those of Molière probably approached Timon of Athens as a tragedy and The Misanthrope as a comedy, many modern readers appreciate the tragicomic implications of what the two plays have in common: the representation of a more or less justified, yet grotesquely exaggerated hatred of mankind advocated by (and dehumanizing) a human being. Of course, the shared characteristics of Shakespeare's Timon and Molière's Alceste ought not to blur our view of significant differences between them -- differences which in fact highlight an intriguing problem of drama criticism. Why does the single-minded rigidity of one character strike us as a predominantly tragic trait and that of another as a predominantly comic one? According to a traditional distinction, the tragic hero gradually succumbs to an overwhelming "passion" while the comic character is under the irresistible influence of a preponderant "humor" [7]. To be sure, the postulated links between tragedy and moral struggle and between comedy and quasi-medical affliction raise as many questions as they propose to answer, the most troubling of which concerns our presumed propensity to laugh at a hopelessly afflicted fellow human being; after all, no one laughs at terminal cancer patients as such. But if we integrate two additional observations, one by Aristotle and one by Bergson, to the "humor" theory of comedy, we may be able to understand and justify our different responses to tragedy's "passionate" monomaniac and to his comic, "humorous" counterpart. According to Chapter Five of the Poetics (1968: 9), the character's rigidity ought not to be harmful to himself or to others and, according to Bergson (1956: 150-159), his intransigence ought not to spread across an entire, fully delineated personality if he is to become the object of our ridicule. If either of those "oughts" is violated, fear and pity rather than derision are likely to be aroused, and we approach the realm of tragedy rather than comedy. Clearly, Shakespeare's misanthrope is more harmful to himself and to others than Molière's; and since we know why and how he has acquired his intransigent hatred of humanity, his rigidity will not strike us as a foreign body in a "round" character, nor as the single determinant of a "flat" one [8]. To stay within the medical analogy, Alceste's misanthropy is more amusing and less pitiable and fearful than Timon's insofar as it seems less like a malignant tumor spreading to the afflicted man's vital organs and more like bad breath or missing front teeth expected to remain unperceived in polite society.

Needless to say, many plays cannot be "triangulated" with the conceptual aid of just two polar moods and the corresponding genres. Furthermore, those very categories are not as neatly distinguishable as their simplifying graphic representation seems to indicate. As I have repeatedly suggested, a high degree of generic purity is quite uncharacteristic of the most mature representatives of any of our briefly discussed genres. "Unadulterated" tragedy and comedy would especially tempt us not to exert the effort required for multiple vision but to look at dramatic characters -- and, through identification with them, at ourselves - either from within or from the outside only [9]. In contrast, our human (and humane) gift of "seeing it both ways" is especially exercised by plays whose tragicomic import reminds us that man trying to be all he can and more is equally fulfilled and frustrated by complete alienation from his world and by total integration with it. When perceived through the bifocal lens of tragicomic vision, both the dogged manifestation and the unconditional surrender of selfhood highlight the predicament of a finite being who is a distinct self and yet also part of several larger, natural as well as cultural contexts. It seems to me that playwrights can proceed in two directions as they combine the characteristic visions of the potentially tragic isolation of the self and its potentially comic insufficience. They can make as frown upon the ways in which frustration and fulfilment as well as nature and culture appear grotesquely intertwined; or else they can elicit our astonished gaze into a universe where frustration and fulfilment as well as nature and culture seem paradoxically identical. The first method relates tragicomedy to the world as we feel it should not be; it stresses strife and incongruity; it tends toward satire. The second method relates tragicomedy to the world as we feel it should be; it stresses pattern and reconciliation; it tends toward romance.

Fig. 1 places Saint Joan between the unoccupied center of tragicomedy and the extreme of satire. In the preface to the play, Shaw claims that his Joan was burned "by normally innocent people in the energy of their righteousness'." Her execution, therefore, was one of those "pious murders" whose inherent contradiction "brings an element of comedy into the tragedy: the angels may weep at the murder, but the gods laugh at the murderers" (1951: 44). Of course, Shaw's risible divinities can amuse themselves not only at the expense of Joan's antagonists, whose attempt to stay the progress of history was doomed to eventual failure. The "law of God", which Shaw's Preface defines as "a law of change" (1951: 34), prompts its apostles always to engage in uphill battles against the social establishment of their day and, as a friend points out to Joan, "God is no man's daily drudge and no maid's either. For he has to be fair to your enemy too --- don't forget that" (1951: 107). In this most tragicomic of his tragicomedies, Shaw seems to be implying that the frustration. of "progressive" saints entails, as a corollary, the temporary fulfilment of some of mankind's more conservative, less inspiring, but by no means less human aspirations.

Turning on fig. 1 from the mideast to the midwest, we find Goethe's Faust between the center of tragicomedy and the extreme of romance. Interpreters of Faust tend to overlook Goethe's subtitles: "The First Part of the Tragedy" (1808) and "The Second Part of the Tragedy" (1832). As a designation for the play which ends, against the tradition of the Faust legend, with the reception of Faust's "immortal part" in a quasi-Christian heaven, the term "tragedy" is surely puzzling. Yet there is an important sense in which we can, I think, speak of Faust's tragedy. With the diabolic aid of Mephisto, he has set out to actualize the entire human potential for experience within his own self: hence his insatiable desire for more and more knowledge, pleasure, and power, hence his dissatisfaction with each past or present achievement. But after Faust's last visitor, a grey woman by the name of Sorge (Care or Concern), blinds the aged visionary, he can by an inner light perceive the only way in which he may hope to complete himself: through his liberating effect on the undetermined future of other people [10]. This is the tragedy of Faust, the great individual and the great individualist: he cannot rise above a certain level, cannot grow out of his incomplete, fragmentary existence, unless he is willing to transcend the limits of his very self through a form of Care -- his new concern for the freedom of others. The tragic self-consummation of Faust as an individual thus merges into the divine comedy of the self-preservation of a transpersonal universe in which there is no distinction between the Self and the Other. In my reading of the play, Goethe unfolds the meta-Christian tragicomedy which is implied, within a Christian framework, by the paradox of felix culpa -- Adam's necessary and fortunate fall into oppositional selfhood as a prerequisite for greater goods than simple innocence: striving, atonement, mercy, and redemption [11]. To juxtapose Saint Joan and Faust in a single sentence: While Shaw's shrewd grimace divulges the complementary character of fulfilment and frustration in (satirized) society, Goethe's profound smile reveals their ambivalent interaction in a (romantically spiritualized) natural universe.

My present attempt to exemplify a typology of literary response has relied on plays, and there are indeed good reasons why drama had always been a favorite ground for affective criticism. Since most plays focus on a "change of fortune" (Aristotle 1968: 15) and contrast a happy or unhappy end to an initially very different situation, the moods conveyed even by their unperformed texts tend to be particularly pervasive. Moreover, a congenial performance can impose additional "unity" on the represented action, and live audiences further homogenize the response of individual spectators: who would not be somewhat embarrassed to laugh when most others are on the verge of crying and vice versa? But poems, novels, or even proverbs and works of expository writing including historiography (cf. White 1973: 7-13; and Hernadi forthcoming b) may well elicit some of the same basic moods. To be sure, worthwhile works - whether dramatic or nondramatic - will not convey exactly the same mood to us from their beginning to their end. In most instances, however, one mood - usually the last - can serve as our point of critical orientation throughout a diversified text or performance just as one key - usually the first and/or the last - characterizes a tonal piece of music as being, for example, in G major despite possibly frequent harmonic alterations and modulations.

By adding further moods to fig. 1, we could refine our critical framework and make it correspond more closely to the musicologist's Circle of Fifths, twelve in number. Consider the outer circle on fig. 2.


Fig. 2

Fig. 2


Moving clockwise and starting (at the usual curtain time of about 8 o'clock) with fear, we would return to it via awe, marvel, joy, delight, triumph, derision, scorn, concern, pity, grief, and horror. I must grant that the pie of moods - just like the musical octave - could be sliced differently. But the musical analogy should in any event restrain rather than fortify the drama critic's urge to pigeonhole entire works as belonging to a given genre. It can serve to remind us that the initial assignment to plays of a generic "key" like tragedy or comedy is less important than the subsequent effort to establish whether the congenial reception of a particular work "modulates" within adjacent categories or jumps back and forth across the map of moods and thus demands discussion in terms of tragicomedy. And we may note an additional parallel. Just as twelve-tone and post-twelve-tone music must employ elaborate systems to counter our tendency of interpreting tonality into random sequences of musical notes, the mere negative intention of not writing, say, a comedy or tragedy will not automatically lead to a tragicomic dramatization of life "like it really is." Indeed, the complex mood of tragicomedy results when a text or performance accentuates several distinct moods evoked by other types of plays; not when an author or director permits different principles of dramatic stylization to cancel out each other.

The musical analogy aside, fig. 2 places tragedy, comedy, romance and satire, along with some of their simpler and one of their more complex relatives, within a twofold context of entertainment and commitment. Let me briefly explain why I propose to square the circle of moods and genres in just this fashion. As the figure suggests, the proto-romantic genres of morality play and miracle play harken to drama's religious origin, while the proto-satirical genres of the lampoon and the problem play signal drama's political potential. Without formally worshipping a cosmic power or being mortified by it, romance tends to dispense unearned grace beyond "poetic justice". As a result, it conveys marvel and/or awe to congenial readers and spectators. Without propagandizing particular acts of charity and violence, satire deplores or attacks redressable incongruities of society. As a result, it tends to impart concern for victims and/or scorn for victimizers to a responsive audience.

The chart also suggests that cultured drama's embarrassing second cousins, spawned by the entertainment industry of all times, display a good deal of family resemblance with comedy and tragedy. Consider glamorous burlesk, violent slapstick, blood-curdling whodunit, tear-jerking soap opera, and the corresponding instruments of easy gratification and cheap thrill in other cultures. Each titillates one of four impulses whose thrust comedy and tragedy attempt to domesticate. In their different ways, however, the more and the less dignified genres attest to the power of the same set of ultimately dehumanizing tendencies in the human psyche. To give relatively recent names to those gray eminences of show business, both ancient and modern, we may call them voyeurism, sadism, masochism, and Schadenfreude - one man's -gloating over another's misfortune. The four tendencies may reach psychotic and anti-social extremes when they operate outside the cultural realms of thrilling or gratifying entertainment. They can even provide forceful motivation for pursuing a cosmic or social commitment to its psychotic and antisocial extreme. Indeed, the arrows pointing toward the comers of the figure should call attention to the voyeuristic and masochistic aspects of certain forms of religious adoration and mortification, as well as to the element of sadism or self-congratulatory condescension in some of our violent or charitable dealings with the evils of society.

Texts and performances conveying one or more than one of the discussed moods appeal to our desires for self-assertive entertainment and self-transcending commitment with different degrees of single-minded intensity. The twelve genres in the second circle of the figure tend to promote coarser varieties of thrill or gratification and more radical versions of the cosmic or social disparagement of individual life. The willing self-exposure of their respective devotees to excessive levels of endurance, indulgence, indignation, or admiration could even be seen as corresponding to the ancient pathological tetrad of melancholic, sanguine, choleric, and phlegmatic humors or temperaments. In contrast, tragedy and comedy offer more complex versions of thrilling or gratifying entertainment as they affect us in the respective ways described by Edmund Burke in 1757 as The Sublime and the Beautiful; and neither romance nor satire needs to lure its creators and audiences to the "ultraviolet" or "infra-red" extremes of the spectrum of commitment allegorized by Arthur Koestler as The Yogi and the Commissar (1945: 3-14). Yet only tragicomic (or "satiromantic") works are likely to lead to a dynamic equilibrium of two or more of the following attitudes in their reader's or spectator's psyche: the tragic endurance of the frightfully limiting, the comic indulgence in the amusingly manageable, the satirical indignation over the disgustingly incongruous, and the romantic admiration for the inexhaustibly splendid aspects of the human condition.

The preceding exercise in conceptual cartography may well require some apology for its radical systematization of our literary experience. Yes, I have been sketching maps rather than taking photographs; yes, my chief concern was with general directions and proportions rather than unique shape and local color. Even so, I have tried to delineate the emotive framework within which twentieth-century occidental readers and spectators respond to their experience of drama - and of life as drama - in the library, at the theater, and beyond the confines of art. To facilitate communication, I have used substantive terms like "tragedy" or "romance" and discussed individual plays as if they more or less "belonged" to some such category. It should be clear, however, that I was chiefly interested in various types of experience, which are best designated in adjectival form (say "tragic" or "romantic") and apparently yield a coherent pattern of moods. That pattern, traced here on the basis of typical audience reactions to drama, shows interesting areas of correspondence with certain behavioristic (e.g., Plutchik 1962) and phenomenological (e.g., Solomon 1976) "systems" of the emotions or passions.

But instead of presenting further claims or disclaimers, I hereby invite the persevering reader to embark with me on an imaginary cruise in time and space to the Primal Scene of Western drama theory, described at the end of Plato's Symposium (223c and d). As we arrive, most guests lie about sound asleep while Socrates is forcing two drowsy fellow revelers, the playwrights Aristophanes and Agathon, to admit "that the same man ought to understand how to compose both comedy and tragedy, and that he who has skill as a tragic poet has skill for a comic poet". Remarkably enough, not even Aristophanes and Agathon, a comic and a tragic poet, are kept awake for long by the philosopher's discourse concerning the identical essence of their art. Fortunately for both, however, kindly Socrates does not go off to the Lyceum to have a wash without first "making them comfortable". Consider for a moment: the alert critic finds a cozy nook for the authors representing comic and tragic drama as their creative slumber continues to turn shared private drives and shared public experience into separate dreams. Plato's attention to such a curious and seemingly insignificant detail may not directly corroborate my own attempt to place that odd couple, tragedy and comedy, at close quarters within a comfortable conceptual design. But the events reported at the end of Plato's Symposium greatly extenuate my guilt feelings for having possibly done to some of my readers what even Socrates could not avoid doing when his discourse on the same topic - the relationship between tragedy and comedy - put his listeners to sleep.


[1] In the Introduction to What is literature? (1978a), I link the ideas of entertainment and commitment to Horace's advice to combine delectare and prodesse or dulce and utile. In "The erotics of retrospection: historytelling, audience response, and the strategies of desire" (forthcoming), I suggest that our combinable desires for entertainment and commitment are humanized manifestations of two animal instincts of survival: the self-assertive drive for the preservation of the existing, organism and the self-transcending drive for the perpetuation of the evolving species.

[2] My paper, "Dramatic genres and the esthetics of reception" (forthcoming), is a much briefer attempt along these lines.

[3] For alternative views concerning the twin moods, affects, or emotions aroused by tragedy, see James Vincent Cunningham (1951) and Wolfgang Schadewaldt (1956). 1 retain "pity" and "fear" as the most familiar English translations of eleos and phobos, but "concern" and "awe" could also serve my purpose (see fig. 2 below).

[4] Cf. esp. three modem critics indebted to but going beyond Freud: Max Eastman (1936); Charles Mauron (1964); and Hans Robert Jauss (1976).

[5] For modern perspectives on tragicomedy, cf. esp. Eric Bentley (1964: 316-353); Karl S. Guthke (1966); and William G. McCollom (1971: 44-46).

[61 Relatively recent attempts to describe tragedy and comedy as offering contrary and thus partial views of reality juxtapose the biological "rhythms" of self-consummation and self-preservation (Langer 1953: 326-366), the linear and the cyclical time of different myths (Watts 1955: 154-170), or even entropy and thermodynamic equilibrium (Holtz 1971: 203-216) as analogous to the tragic-comic dichotomy.

[ 7 ] The two terms, "humor" and "passion", are repeatedly juxtaposed, e.g., in John Dryden's Essay of Dramatic Poesy (166 8).

[81 Concerning "flat" and "round" characters in prose fiction see Forster (1927: 103-118).

[9] Elsewhere I have discussed the related issue of the historian's dual perspective on human actions (Hernadi 1976a and 1976b) and the implications of multiple vision for the staging of both tragicomic and modem historical drama (Hernadi 1976c).

[10] The change from the ruthless, tyrannical achieverdom of the first three scenes of Part Two, Act Five, to the communal concern of the final speech (esp. lines 11563-80) is briefly yet powerfully signaled by Faust's announcement of a new type of project: the salutary draining of the noxious marshland rather than further expansion of his territory (lines 11559-62).

[11] Murray Krieger (1971: 155f.) also connects Faust's grandiose Romantic subjectivity to the notion of felix culpa. Cf. Arthur 0. Lovejoy (1960: 277-295).




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Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. 1965. Aesthetik. Berlin: Aufbau.

Hernadi, Paul. 1972. Beyond genre: new directions in literary classification. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Hernadi, Paul. 1976a. "Clio's cousins: historiography as translation, fiction, and criticism." New Literary History 7: 247-257.

Hernadi, Paul. 1976b. "Re-presenting the past: a note on narrative historiography and historical drama." History and Theory 15: 45-51.

Hernadi, Paul. 1976c. "The actor's face as the author's mask: on the paradox of Brechtian staging." In: Joseph P. Strelka, ed., Yearbook of comparative criticism 7: literary criticism and psychology. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. pp. 125-136.

Hernadi, Paul, ed. 1978a. What is literature? Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Hernadi, Paul. 1978b. "Why we can't help genre-alizing and how not to go about it: two theses with commentary." Centrum 6: 27-31.

Hernadi, Paul. Forthcoming a. "Dramatic genres and the esthetics of reception." Proceedings of the 9th Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, Vol. 2: Literary Communication and Reception, ed. Zoran Konstantinovic, Hans Robert Jauss, and Manfred Naumann (Innsbruck: 1980), pp. 65-70.

Hernadi, Paul. Forthcoming b. "The erotics of retrospection: historytelling, audience response, and the strategies of desire." New Literary History 12 (1981): 243-252.

Holtz, William. 1971. "Thermodynamics and the comic and tragic modes." Western Humanities Review 25: 203-216.

Jauss, Hans Robert. 1976. "Über den Grund des Vergnugens am komischen Helden." In: Wolfgang Preisendanz and Rainer Warning, eds., Das Komische. Munich: Fink. pp. 103-132.

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McCollom, William G. 1971. The divine average: a view of comedy. Cleveland: The Press of Case Western Reserve University.

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Born in Hungary (1936), Paul Hernadi received doctorates from the University of Vienna (History of the Theatre) and Yale University (Comparative Literature).


Other contributors to the volume:


VOLUME 10, No. 2/3 POETICS 10: 109-315 JUNE 1981



Edited by Marie-Laure Ryan


Introduction. On the why, what and how of generic taxonomy


Nature, convention, and genre theory


For and against genre labels


The short story: the long and short of it


Entertaining commitments:
a reception theory of literary genres


The genres of classical Sanskrit Literature


Tragedy and the sacred: notes toward a
semantic characterization of a fictional genre


Superordinate genre conventions


What kind of speech act is interpretation?


Cognitive aspects of genre





Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles