Comments on Zheng Ying, “Chinese and Western Drama”

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

I was both pleased and stimulated to read Zheng Ying’s insightful reflections on tragi-comedy and tragedy. Since Professor Zheng is concerned centrally with my work on this topic, it seemed appropriate that I make a few comments. Broadly speaking, I believe Professor Zheng’s essay shows us something important about tragedy, comedy, and tragi-comedy. However, I am not convinced that it shows us a difference between Chinese and Western drama.

First, I should say that I did not initially conceive of my comments on tragedy and tragi-comedy as involving terribly substantive claims. I had analyzed story sequences in terms of goal pursuit, with goals defined by imagined happiness. Achievement of the goal is the basic condition of comedy. This left the obvious issue of what constitutes tragedy, since heroes do not typically pursue objects they do not believe will make them happy. My claim was simply that tragedy is not a problem because the tragic hero pursues a happiness goal in the usual way; what marks off tragedy from comedy is that the hero cannot achieve the goal. For example, Romeo and Juliet desire union. Their deaths prevent this. I went on to argue that prototypical comedies intensify their outcome emotion (of joy) by developing the middle of the story into an apparent loss of the happiness goal. For example, it is all well and good if John and Jane fall in love, then get married with their parents’ and friends’ enthusiastic encouragement. But it is more engaging and ultimately enjoyable if John and Jane are married after they have been separated by parental disapproval, with one of them apparently dying and the other being engaged to a wicked rival. In comedy, that intensification in the middle is, so to speak, temporarily tragic. The lovers are not dead; the conflict with the parents can be overcome. In tragedy, that middle is permanent.

Reading Professor Zheng’s essay, I realized that these claims are not simply preliminary to the genre analyses that follow. They do have some independent consequences. The first consequence that I should note is terminological. I use the term “tragi-comedy” to refer to outcomes of story sequences—failure to achieve goals (tragedy or the “tragi-” part of “tragicomedy”) versus success in achieving them (comedy). Another use of “tragi-comedy” refers to overall mood—sad (tragedy or the “tragi-” part of “tragi-comedy”) or joyful (comedy). In keeping with the latter usage, some writers refer to a work as a tragi-comedy if sorrowful elements disturb our response to the joyful elements, rendering the predominant mood unclear. Rather than referring to this as “tragi-comedy,” I would refer to (degrees of) ambivalence.

I believe to some extent Professor Zheng’s comments concern ambivalence rather than tragi-comedy (in my usage). However, that brings me to the second consequence, which is not merely terminological. Professor Zheng’s essay suggests to me that ambivalence is in part a matter of the extent to which happiness outcomes are or are not achieved, In other words, ambivalence results from different degrees of “shortening,” as Professor Zheng would put it. I have stressed the broad extent of ambivalence in other work (see How). But I did not fully realize its importance in tragedy or tragi-comedy before reading Professor Zheng’s analysis.

Specifically, Professor Zheng presents a suggestive argument that both Chinese and Western narratives involve shortening comedy into tragedy. However, in my terms, he indicates that Chinese tragedies are more ambivalent (thus have more joy) in their outcomes. This is possible. However, if true, it could only be shown by broad survey. What Professor Zheng’s examples suggest to me is, rather, that both traditions are more ambivalent than I had previously thought. In The Mind and Its Stories, I did stress the troubled character of heroic usurpation narratives. The “epilogue of suffering” that often ends such stories suggests that there is frequently a tragic mood even in works that count as tragi-comedies by my outcome-oriented definition. I also pointed out that many heroic stories involve the original leader being killed and replaced by his heir. Given these points, The Great Revenge of the Orphan of Chao seems to conform relatively well to the general structure of heroic tragi-comedy—or, more properly, it seems to approximate the prototype (since we are not dealing with necessary and sufficient conditions here, but with roughly average tendencies).

Hamlet is more clearly tragic than Chi Chun-hsiang’s play. The usurper is killed, but so is the hero (the usurped leader’s heir). King Lear turns out to be a difficult case. It partially approximates the tragi-comic prototype as the usurped leader (Lear) is succeeded by his favored son-in-law (Albany; recall the opening lines of the play, “I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall” [I.i.1-2]). But his favorite child (Cordelia) has been killed—partially due to conflict with that son-in-law. Even while being more complex in its outcome, King Lear seems clearly to be varying the prototypical, tragi-comic case. But its complexity—narrative, thematic, and above all emotional—is important and consequential.

The key point for present purposes is that all these heroic works—Chinese and Western–betray degrees of ambivalence, whether we judge them ultimately tragic or comic in outcome. The same point applies to romantic works. (On heroic and romantic works, see “Story.”) Consider, for example, Romeo and Juliet and Ma Chih-yuan’s Autumn in Han Palace. Both involve the permanent, tragic separation of the lovers. But both also involve social reconciliation at the end—reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets in the former case and reconciliation between Emperor Yuan and Emperor Huhanya in the latter. Indeed, once we are attuned to ambivalence, we are likely to notice that it occurs even in comedies, most obviously with the “scapegoat” figure—for example, Malvolio at the end of Twelfth Night or the suicidal rival, Cheng Heng, at the end of Western Chamber Romance.

In sum, it is not clear that there is a systematic difference between Chinese and Western drama in the nature of shortening tragi-comedy into tragedy. Rather, Professor Zheng seems to me to have drawn our attention, very valuably, to variation in the degree of such shortening in both traditions. This in turn sensitizes us to the extent of ambivalence in both tragedy and comedy. Finally, it suggests that there is not a sharp comedy-tragedy division, but a continuum, with ambiguous cases—rather as we might have expected from the idea of tragi-comedy to begin with.

Future Research

The preceding points suggest that the ambivalence of both comedy and tragedy should be studied more systematically across a range of traditions. Part of this research may involve understanding what patterns there are in such ambivalence, for example what forms of “shortening” we find in more tragic stories or how common scapegoating is in comedies. Another part of this research may involve explaining why different traditions apparently develop comic and tragic outcomes in different proportions, both within and across works. Finally, further study of the way tragi-comedy operates in the different universal-prototypical genres (such as the heroic and romantic stories) might advance our understanding of why some genres appear more prone to ambivalence than others.

Works Cited

Chi Chun-hsiang. “The Orphan of Chao.” In Six Yuan Plays. Ed. and trans. Liu Jung-en. New York: Penguin, 1972, 41-81.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. How Authors’ Minds Make Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Ma Chih-yuan. Autumn in Han Palace. In Six Yuan Plays. Ed. and trans. Liu Jung-en. New York: Penguin, 1972, 189-224.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. In The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. New York: Norton, 1997, 2307-2554.

Tung Chieh-yuan. Master Tung’s Western Chamber Romance. Ed. and trans. Li-li Ch’en. New York: Columbia UP, 1976.