Tragedy, Comedy – Part I

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Improvisation, comedy and theater have a place in society now more than ever. With negative images flooding social media, television and everywhere one looks, the arts are proof that in order to see the light, one must face the dark: comedy vs. tragedy. One thing that has been synonymous with not only theater, but life, is that there is a fine balance of tragedy and comedy; sad and happy.

This blog will be a two-part series highlighting the faces of theatre: Thalia and Melpomene. High school drama departments, theater playbills and many notable schools highlight the notorious symbol of a smiling and frowning mask that most people associate with modern-day performing arts. The aforementioned muses, Melpomene and Thalia, represent the two spectrums of emotion. Melpomene is the muse of tragedy; the frown, Thalia is the muse of comedy; the smile. The masks were used in historic Grecian theater performances to differentiate the actor’s different emotional states – the masks evolved to exaggerated emotions and ultimately became the symbol of theater and performing arts. This post will highlight the other half of Thalia or the inspiration of tragedy – Melpomene.

The recent events in Orlando have made it difficult to not only write, but let alone improvise, or hell, even speak. The night after the tragedy on the LGBT community, I was slated to speak to a humanist group about life, connection and improvisation. That morning, I was at an all-time low after the event – knowing people in the Florida gay community affected. Despite the horrific circumstance, something positive had to come of it. During the time with group, I spoke to the importance of tragedy and how it initiates subconscious gratitude to the comedy, or positive events; and visa versa. This may be why we hug our loved ones when we hear of someone falling ill or even passing. The lesson of light vs. dark was one of the best I had given and the group was delighted with contagious light and love. The positive energy was palpable – just hours after negative energy. That’s when everyone universally understood the importance of Melpomene and Thalia. There is no happy, without sad. There is no positive, without negative. There is no we, without you. There is no Thalia, without Melpomene.

Melpomene is the muse of tragedy. Symbolizing the frown on the mask; she was the daughter of Zeus – the Greek god of Thunder and of the Skies. The King of Mount Olympus and Mnemosyne are parents to Melpomene, the muse of tragedy along with the eight other daughter. The most famous linked daughter to Melpomene is Thalia, the muse of comedy. The tragedy of Melpomene is often associated with beautiful melodies and songs – Melpomene traditonally carries a mask of theater and knife, one in each hand. Melpomene was the heart of the family, deriving from the word celebrate.

I compare comedy, improv and theater to the human heartbeat. It starts at one point, the point raises to an all-time high – a peak – then it begins slipping down. The point goes below the point where it began hitting an all-time low – a valley – then it rises a higher. Then, miraculously, it levels out for a moment. Then it does it again, and again, and again. The heart explains the philosophy of the legendary theater masks echocardiogram machine – it tells us to live with the peaks, the valleys and the moments of stillness. A life of highs, lows or worse, stagnant would be counter productive to life; literally.

Jon Jon Lannen chibi headshot
Jon Jon Lannen is the best-selling author of the Giraffe book series. He is an instructor, performer and writer for the RISE Comedy Playhouse.
More on him here.