There are thousand ways of distinguishing classical comedy from classical tragedy. The ancients Greeks gave us both, the plays, the characters and the way of thinking about them. We are as indebted to Aristotle for showing what moves in us when we’re confronted to comedy or tragedy as we are to Euripides the tragedian or Aristophanes the comedian for immersing us in the thick of it, the soft paste of comedy or the deep darkness of tragedy.
One way of separating comedy from tragedy is universality. If comedy is about the here and now, tragedy is about the everywhere and always. Comedy is specific, humour is non-interchangeable, non-transferrable, immediate. Tragedy puts forth ageless truths, the uncomfortable condition of making and paying for choices, being in this world, with everything that existence brings, and always falling, however high and fast one may think one soars.
The ancient Greeks understood that to be human is to keep comedy in tension with tragedy. To have both. Both the now and the always. Medea’s crime is timeless, Agamemnon’s penalty, in perpetuity. The figures of tragedy tend to die in Greek myth and drama, but the lessons they teach, the powerful existential truths they tell are still with us – because we are still here. And they are us, and we are them, moving restlessly on the dark stage, pursued, like Orestes, by the furies of our own pitiless condition.