We begin with a classic. A label that can be applied to every work of art ever created that incorporates elements of both tragedy and comedy – so ubiquitous that the two states combined have come to represent for many the idea of theatre itself.
And that’s really the problem in microcosm – it’s not just an ‘old’ description, it’s the basis of theatrical catharsis. It’s so deeply woven into the fabric of live drama that the likes of Brecht spent his entire career kicking against it. What I’m trying to say is that when you say a play is ‘darkly comic’, you kind-of might as well be describing it as ‘a play’.
Good storytellers know that balance is key. Relentless tragedy with not even a sliver of levity becomes a parody of itself – equally remorseless upbeat comedy simply stops being funny. Even Euripedes’ ancient gloom-fest The Bacchae has a bizarre pun slipped in right at the end to settle everyone down, and the most raucous farce needs a certain level of tension or ‘mild peril’ to give it meaning.
With new writing, please don’t say our play is darkly comic. It’s stopped meaning anything, except that we’ve mastered the preeeeeeeeeetty basic dramatic art of being Serious and Funny in the same play. Go us. Thanks to the over-application of this phrase, it’s now something that makes every playwright groan, whether internally, audibly, or whilst vomiting their kidneys up through sheer despair. Are there really existing human receivers of arts marketing who dedicatedly define everything as either Funny or Serious, with as little as possible in between? In the absence of an all-encompassing descriptive, do they phone the box office in tears because they don’t know how they’re going to feel at the end of the evening?
Also, what’s ‘dark’, exactly? Death? Crime? Deceit? Generalised things-we-prefer-not-to-talk-about? Isn’t theatre (or even art in general) sort-of supposed to be about aspects of life that aren’t widely or freely discussed? If so then aren’t we all equally fantastically brave and inventive for approaching uncomfortable issues with such innovative devices as Humour? And isn’t that what normal humans do anyway?
We’re playwrights. We’re humans. We’re darkly comic. We’re just doing the job.
PS. Don’t try and get around this by using ‘blackly comic’ instead. It means the exact same thing only you take a massive gratuitous dump on grammar at the same time. That’s not the sort of thing I’d normally worry too much about, but to illustrate the point, here is a list of other popular colours rendered in the same way:
Redly; Bluely; Greenly; Yellowly; Whitely; Pinkly; Purplely; Brownly; Orangely
Do any of these sounds like human words? That’s coz they’re NOT.