Comedy and tragedy

“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” – Mel Brooks

Saw Strindberg’s play “Creditors” this evening, wonderfully directed by Alan Rickman, at the BAM Harvey Theater. It’s a fascinating play. For most of its 90 minute length the audience is presented with an hysterically funny black comedy. A clever man weaves an elaborate web of lies around a gullible husband and wife. It becomes clear rather quickly that he is trying to break up their relationship because he wants the woman for himself (although eventually the truth turns out to be somewhat darker).

The audience laughs along with the smart jokes and clever dialog (this version has a great new translation by David Greig). It’s very much like an elaborate bedroom farce, ever so gradually rising in pitch as the lies begin to build one upon another — except that all of the pratfalls are verbal, and all the pies in the face are metaphorical. As the plot thickens, the jokes get funnier and darker, the punctuations of audience laughter more explosive.

Until the very last moments of the play, when comedy suddenly turns to tragedy. And this is accomplished not by some surprise plot twist, but rather by the simple expedient of shifting the point of view. In the last moments of the play we are made to reconsider everything that has just happened. No longer are we viewing the past 90 minutes from the point of view of the trickster, but rather we find ourselves seeing the same events from the point of view of the duped couple. And suddenly the result seems devastatingly sad.

Strindberg’s play is, at heart, a truly masterful commentary on the nature of comedy and tragedy. Or, in the immortal words of R. Miles, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

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