Serpents & Birds

“As filtered through Horace and the power of Roman literary institutions, Aristotelian notions of genre provided the very foundation of the neoclassical critical system. […] Perhaps the most celebrated cause of this period is the battle over the ultimate generic crossbreed: tragicomedy. Ever the incontrovertible naturalist, Horace had set limits on the poet’s right to mix genres: ‘it does not go to the extent that savage should mate with tame, that serpents should couple with birds, or lambs with tigers’. Reacting strongly against the medieval grotesque tendency to mix the sublime and the ridiculous, the sacred and the secular, the tragic and comic, seventeenth century French neoclassical critics and first found it impossible to accept the new composite. Yet little by little the production of new plays […] broke down critical resistance and led to the acceptance of the hybrid genre.

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“For our purposes, one particular lesson stands out from this unexpected development. That a new genre should be born in an expanding culture hardly provides cause for surprise. More important is the way in which this genre develops out of the coupling of two genres previously thought diametrically opposed. In spite of the Horatian committment to keep genres seperate and the neo-Aristotelian refusal to recognize genres not mentioned by Aristotle, the rise of tragicomedy demonstrates the possibility of generating new genres through monstrous mating of already existing genres […].

During the latter half of the 18th Century, a new genre began to edge its way between tragedy and comedy. At first called the ‘serious genre’, as opposed to classical genres, deemed incapable of dealing with contemporary reality, the new genre was designated the ‘weepie genre’ (genre larymoyant) biy its conservative opponents. Eventually baptized simply ‘drama’ (drame) by its radical supporters […] this is the theatrical form that would eventually give rise to melodrama – the most popular theatrical mode of the nineteenth century and cinema’s most important parent genre…”

Rick Altman. Film/Genre. London: British Film Institute. 1999. pp 4-5.

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