We owe the words “comedy” and “tragedy” to the ancient Greeks, whose stage plays in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. gave rise to the terms. A hundred years of films and about 80 years of commercial television have left us thinking that comedies are comic and tragedies are sad. The Greeks were more nuanced.
Tragedy may contain humorous moments and funny characters, but what makes a tragedy tragic is that it ends badly. The hero fails, the aspiration goes unfulfilled, night falls. Comedies, though they may have intensely unhappy moments and deeply disturbing characters, end well. The loser wins, the impossible goal is achieved, and a better day dawns.
Shakespeare followed the Greeks in writing both tragedies and comedies. Some of his tragedies contain comic scenes. The drunken porter’s soliloquy in “Macbeth” comes to mind. The comedies, on the other hand, sometimes include distressing scenes. Think of the “Merchant of Venice.” Act 5 ends with the young lovers together, but two men’s lives have been ruined in the process.
The difference between a comedy and a tragedy is not that one is funny and the other is sad, but that one comes out right in the end and the other does not. So, what kind of story are we in? Is life on earth a comedy or a tragedy? It all depends on how it ends.
For secularists, life on earth is, and can only be, a tragedy. Even if humanity is someday capable of removing all diseases and can stop the planet’s residents from destroying it, the story always ends the same way: the sun dies, the galaxy goes dark, the universe implodes, night falls. It may be an exceedingly long story with many happy moments, but it is inescapably tragic.
(It should be said that many secularists are working hard to make the story a happy one for as many people as possible and for as long as possible. This is commendable and should be acknowledged. God bless them.)
For secularists, life is a tragedy. For Christians, it is a comedy. They believe that God’s story ends well. Or rather, that it goes on well forever. The end is not a dark galaxy and an imploding universe but, in St. Paul’s language, the liberation of creation “into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”
All great comedies – and God’s is by far the greatest – are composed of shorter stories. Whether it is Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” or Wendell Berry’s “Jayber Crow,”great stories are filled with characters whose individual stories intertwine and combine to move the plot forward. These internal stories can be funny or sad, pleasant or painful. They can even conclude badly.
Unlike human authors who generate their characters’ every thought and action, God literally gives his characters a life of their own. He allows them to live that life – to write their own story – as they see fit. If they refuse to collaborate with the creator, their story will be a tragedy. Yet God will edit, compile, and fit it into his own glorious comedy, which is guaranteed to end well. Just read the final two chapters of the Bible.
People who believe they are living in a tragedy are bound to feel and act differently from those who believe they are in a comedy. If the end is personal, planetary, and universal extinction, then present pleasure and comfort become all-important. Selfish people crave these temporal goods for themselves. Altruistic people seek them for others, even for humanity itself. But whether for self or others, such goods remain temporal, even short-lived.
Perhaps this explains why St. Paul writes that those who are “alienated from God … have given themselves over to sensuality…” Sensuality provides the shortest route to pleasure and comfort. Sensuality cannot lead to meaning but it does provide distraction and, if life is a tragedy, people need all the distraction they can get.
In the end, it is not what happens to us but how we respond – and who we trust – that makes our little stories comedies or tragedies, Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot,” or a tale told by an infinitely wise and loving creator.
(First published by Gannet.)