And killing time is perhaps the essence of comedy,
just as the essence of tragedy
is killing eternity.
-Miguel de Unamuno
from my journals, April 5, 1996
We are talking about Aristotle in my Introduction to Drama class, so the nature of comedy and tragedy have been on my mind a bit.
What does Aristotle say the difference is? Well among other things, tragedians (he says) portray human beings as better than we are, while comedians portray us as worse than we are.
In other words, tragedy is about abstract disasters, idealized lives pushed off the track of happiness by smoothly polished juggernauts of moral conflict or divine will. Comedy takes as its basis the messiness, the assymmetry of human fallibility, rather than its grandeur and order.
We go to tragedy to feel fear that even those with power, wealth, talent, and status can suffer despite their best efforts at living a good life. Fear that if their lives can go so far astray, so to can our much less blessed and careful ones. Count no man happy till he dies, free of pain. But we go to comedy to despise, rather than to empathize. Or so this line of thinking goes.
I love the way Unamuno picks this up: killing time is such a fascinating turn of phrase, such a sharply moral stance on indolence. To fritter away an hour is to be a murderer of time, a finite commodity; it is a slaughter of a concrete portion of your total life.
Unamuno (in this translation, at least) highlights the moralism of the phrase, but also underscores the common ground between comedy and tragedy. Both deal with the destructive nature of human behavior: to kill time is in some essential way to kill eternity, to waste some vital portion of the human opportunity. Thus there is always an element of absurdity in tragedy, and of pathos in comedy.
Play every comedy as if it were a tragedy, as acting coaches have been saying from time immemorial.