It seems to me that some of this disagreement is really just semantic. I'm pretty sure that Rick isn't saying that there's anything "light" or "playful" intrinsic to the subject of a corpse in a lysol. But doesn't "black comedy" and "cynical wit" often come from the incongruity of treating "heavy" subject matter in styles usually deemed appropriate to "light" subjects (or vice versa)?

From: T. S. Eliot Discussion forum. [[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Nancy Gish [[log in to unmask]]
Sent: Wednesday, July 22, 2009 10:56 PM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Moreover---Re: P.S.--on Birth, and copulation, and death

I appreciate a serious response.  I cannot, however, agree with it as an explanation.  See follow-up notes below.

>>> "Rickard A. Parker" <[log in to unmask]> 07/22/09 9:42 PM >>>
Nancy Gish wrote:

NG> I'm astonished and offended at this notion that a horror story
NG> about death, a corpse in lysol, and terror can be treated
NG> "lightly" because it is just about a murdered woman.

As Ken wrote earlier, it was you who added the bit about "just about a
murdered woman."
Ken and you have taken my words completely out of context.

I was responding to this, from Peter; he is describing the killing as described in a playful way, not only the rest of the play:

Peter: "Don't think he felt like killing a woman, but then Sweeney doesn't exactlly demo. that except in a playful way. He did happen to know someone like that, as I am sure, did Jesus."
My response, as follows, was directly keyed to Peter's calling the Sweeney's description of killing as "in a playful way."

I'm astonished and offended at this notion that a horror story about death, a corpse in lysol, and terror can be treated "lightly" because it is just about a murdered woman.  Frankly, you are the last person I expected to add to such a notion.

More importantly, this play is about horror throughout.  Doris says from the beginning that you can't trust Pereira, and she and Dusty try to avoid him even though "he pays the rent."  When they cut the cards they get the COFFIN and are frightened--and the KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK of the later horror begins when the men first arrive.

I did not deny "comedy" in the sense Eliot implies: this is what I said:

If what is meant by any of this is that it is perverse, black comedy, cynical wit--yes.  "Light," "playful,"  where?  The words on the page are about uneasy and frightened women dependent for the rent, and crass men, and the cynical aftermath of war, and murder.

To any woman all this is fear.  Is that hard to see?

I'll let the playright speak to this:
For to those who have experienced the full horror of life, tragedy is
still inadequate. [] In the end, horror and laughter may be one 
only when horror and laughter have become as horrible and laughable
as they can be; and [] you may laugh or shudder over Oedipus or
Hamlet or King Lear--or both at once: then only do you perceive that
the aim of the comic and the tragic dramatist is the same: they are
equally serious. [] There is potential comedy in Sophocles and
potential tragedy in Aristophanes, and otherwise they would not be
such good tragedians or comedians as they are.
The citation given for the above was:
T. S. Eliot, "Shakespearian Criticism: From Dryden to Coleridge,"
in 'A Companion to Shakespeare Studies', ed. by H. Granville-Barker
and G.B. Harrison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977),
pp. 2956
although I saw a 1934 date given also.

Precisely--comedy is as serious as tragedy, and there is dark comedy, and we know that the ending of Measure for Measure
makes it a comedy but the terror of death is powerful in the play.  Unlike MM, Eliot's does not end well but in terror.  "Comedy" does not simply mean light or funny--read Checkhov, who blends comedy with misery.  Do you think Eliot is saying Oedipus is "light"? Or Hamlet or Lear?  One may laugh or shudder not because any are light or funny or "comic" in the contemporary limited sense but because there is horror in laughter and laughter in horror.  But none of it is light.  I never said there was no comedy in the Sweeney drama any more than I said "just" in the way you decontextualize it.  See above on "black comedy" and "cynical wit."

Note that Eliot is identifying Aristophanes as a writer of comedys and
also that Sweeney Agonistes" is sub-titled "Fragments of an Aristopanic
Melodrama" (where melodrama means a play with music.) So it doesn't seem
inconcievable that Eliot might have included both comedy and drama in
the play.

NG> "Light," "playful," where?

I had already written:
Still, there is a lighter tone throughout the play. There are
the names, repetition and rhythm leading to that.

Yes, there is the dark side of the murdered woman but then there is also
the lighter side of a Greek chorus made of white minstrels (and then
that made up with Swarts (black) and Snow (white,) Snow on bones
(white).) And let's add Sweeney as the King of clubs. Oh, yes, the
completed play apparently was to be entitled "Wanna Go Home, Baby?" (a
hint that a tradegy was to follow?)
It is the ironic use of comic material that is, in fact, horrible; it is not "light" because, as you quoted Eliot above, it is as serious as tragedy.

NG> What does the fact that a woman's college performed it have to do
NG> with seeing it as horrific or not? Women are the ones who are most
NG> danger from such men. Of course they would put it on. What does
NG> one expect? Light comedy and cheerleading?

Okay, that was not one of my better moments but I did not expect a 1933
Vassar production to put on a play then as dark as you imagine.
I still wonder why ever not?  What do you think intellectual women did then?
I'm a bit more unsure of that now I still doubt that they would. I'll
appreciate some proof before changing my mind. In the meantime this is
what I have to go on besides my belief:

May 6, 1933

The Experimental Theatre presented a mime sequence, Now I Know Love,
which included the world premiere of T.S. Eliot's first play, Sweeney
Agonistes. The other plays were three by Theocritus, translated by
Professor Philip H. Davis, Penthouse by Mary Morley Crapo, '34, and
Telephone by Dorothy Parker. The music was composed by Associate
Professor Quincy Porter. Mr. Eliot was present and gave a poetry
reading on the following day.

Also, the director wrote Eliot about the play beforehand and he wrote
Haille Flanagan that F.M. Cornford's "The Origin of Attic Comedy" (1912)
was essential to understanding his goals in that play. I'll just let it
go at that for now except for acknowledging that there could be a lot of
discussion on that in itself.

And now, off topic for a bit.

*POSSIBLY* Dorothy Parker's "Telephone" at Vassar was a performance of
her short work "A Telephone Call." The text of that is at:
A MP3 file of a reading can be gotten via page (I haven't downloaded it):

To get me into more hot water, here are some short items my searches
have picked up:
A quip on Vassar by Dorothy Parker:
If all the girls at Vassar were laid end to end, I wouldn't be
This one is unattributed. I picture it said with a Yiddish accent:
You can lead a whore to Vassar, but you can't make her think.

That sort of thing used to be thought funny.  I had thought explicit misogyny (even from Dorothy Parker) and a Jew being nasty would have lost some of its claim to wit.

This whole discussion has been unfortunately revealing.  I don't think you would find many women who would find the fear of men, the need to rely on them to pay rent and so have to let them in, the joking about being eaten, and the story about "doing a girl in" light or funny or "comic."  What is the matter with any of you?  Can you simply not imagine playing Doris instead of Sweeney?

Eliot apparently knew it was horrible tragi-comedy.
One more thing. At a question and answer session at Vassar Eliot
mentioned that his poetry was simple and [something]. That prompted
laughter from the audience.

Rick Parker