Arctic Tern

  Chris Hawkes

  Comedy:

   An Introduction

Mask of comic slave, Brish Museum

[Edmund's house, in hallway. Baldrick is sweeping the floor. Edmund enters.]

EDMUND I can not believe it! She drags me all the way from Billingsgate to Richmond to play about the weakest practical joke since Cardinal Woolsey got his knob out at Hampton Court and stood at the end of the passage pretending to be a door.

[Baldrick giggles]

EDMUND Oh, shut up, Baldrick -- you'd laugh at a Shakespeare comedy.

(Curtis R., Elton B. (1986) Blackadder II Part 4: Money

What is comedy?

This might seem an easy question to answer - but consider this extract from Willy Russell’s Educating Rita:

(Rita, a Liverpudlian hairdresser, has decided to take an Open University course in Literature and has just seen Macbeth for the first time. She is so excited that she catches her tutor, Frank, during his lunch break, to tell him.)

RITA (moving towards the door) Well, I better get back. I’ve left a customer with a perm lotion. If I don’t get a move on there’ll be another tragedy.

FRANK No. There won’t be a tragedy.

RITA There will, y’ know. I know this woman; she’s dead fussy. If her perm doesn’t come out right there’ll be blood an’ guts everywhere.

FRANK Which might be quite tragic— (He throws her the apple from his desk which she catches) —but it won’t be a tragedy.

RITA What?

FRANK Well—erm—look; the tragedy of ,the drama has nothing to do with the sort of tragic event you’re talking about. Macbeth is flawed by his ambition—yes?

RITA (going and sitting iu the chair by the desk) Yeh. Go on. (She starts to eat the apple)

FRANK Erm—it’s that flaw which forces him to take the inevitable steps towards his own doom. You see? Whereas, Rita, a woman’s hair being reduced to an inch of stubble, or—or the sort of thing you read in the paper that’s reported as being tragic, ‘Man Killed By Falling Tree’, is not a tragedy.

RITA It is for the poor sod under the tree.

FRANK Yes, it’s tragic, absolutely tragic. But it’s not a tragedy in the way that Macbeth is a tragedy. Tragedy in dramatic terms is inevitable, pre-ordained.

As Willy Russell suggests, literary tragedy is not the same as “tragic”: it is not sad things happening to people. Similarly, the genre of literary comedy is not the same thing as “comic” – Richard Curtis and Ben Elton are aware that Shakespearean – and indeed other – comedies are not necessarily funny. So other ideas of comedy must be important for us to understand the genre.

In this short essay, however, I shall not be trying to define literary comedy. Definitions are problematic because they suggest that genres are fixed. They are not: they are fluid. Those who remember when AQA LITB2 looked at the genre of Tragedy will also remember the problems caused by students (and, alas, many teachers) who relied on Aristotle for their understanding of what tragedy was. The folly of applying the descriptive criticism of a fourth-century BC Athenian writer to Shakespearian – and even to 20th and 21st century – tragedy should surely be obvious.

Fortunately, at least from that perspective, Aristotle’s treatise on comedy, the second part of his Poetics, is lost. Perhaps this will allow students and teachers to have a more flexible understanding of the genre. I shall therefore not be offering a definition, but suggesting some aspects of literary comedy that seem fruitful. This approach also helps to link AQA’s LITB2 with LITB1: LITB1 looks at “Aspects of Narrative”, celebrating the idea that narrative is also not fixed, but narratives share some features that can be explored, allowing focus on the text(s) under discussion rather than rehashing a formula about narrative. This allows the text to be kept at the forefront of investigation, essential for success in all literary criticism.

Pascal A.J. Dagnan-Bouveret - Hamlet and the Grave DiggerDespite the above, I’m not suggesting that comedies do not contain humour. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, whilst there is little to laugh about a the enforced marriage of Hippolyta and Egeus’s determination to either have his daughter killed or sent to a nunnery, the “rude mechanicals” do provide the opportunity for ridicule; in As You Like It, the usurpation and exile of Duke Senior and the threats to the life of his daughter Rosalind are not comic, but the clown Touchstone and his sexual predation of the innocent Audrey provides an opportunity for laughter. The comic is a feature of most comedies, and it could be argued that one of the primary purposes is to amuse the audience – distinguishing comedy from tragedy, as many tragedies also feature the comic (see the Drunken Porter in Macbeth with his jokes about drinking, sex and urine, or the Gravedigger in Hamlet, who jokes whilst standing in Ophelia’s (or his own) grave.)

Plot is not always a helpful distinguisher. After all, the plot details of a man who falls deeply in love with a woman, is deceived about her chastity by a person he trusts, and who therefore kills her points to the tragedy of Othello, but is very nearly also the plot of the comedy and also the tragi-comedy or romance, A Winter’s Tale.

It is often claimed – with reason – that tragedy seems to focus on the movement from order to disorder. Perhaps almost the opposite is true for many comedies. Comedies frequently hinge of confusion and disorder for their comic elements – good examples might be confusion of identities in The Comedy of Errors, Sheridan’s School for Scandal or Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking. As an audience, we are focused on the confusions presented to us on stage, and comedies sometimes even start in a state of disorder, whilst some tragedies begin with what appears to be an ordered and stable situation: Twelfth Night begins with thwarted love and a storm that has shipwrecked Viola and (supposedly) killed her brother.

Perhaps such confusion, often shocking in tragedy, is amusing in comedy because the audience is always aware that there is likely to be a “comic resolution” rather than a “tragic climax” to the chaos that unfolds. By the end of a comedy, there is usually a more secure order established than at the beginning of the play (unlike most tragedies, where whilst order is generally re-established, it is a lesser order because the audience have lost their prime focus: out interest in Oedipus Tyrranos is lost when Creon takes the throne; we have no affect with the character of Fortinbras who takes up the crown of the dead Claudius in Hamlet.

Comic resolution then is an interesting area for exploration, whatever text is under scrutiny. A good question to ask might be “How satisfying is the comic resolution of the play?” Note we are already into interpretation by asking this: the ending of The Merchant of Venice resolves the conflict that had threatened the life of Antonio, unmasks the disguised Portia, and sees the marriage – or, presumably, the lead up to the consummation of the marriage - of Portia with Antonio, Gratiano with Nerissa and Lorenzo with Jessica. However, how do we as an audience react to the ending of the play for Shylock? His life is under forfeit, he has been shorn of his wealth, separated from his daughter, and forced to abandon his religion. We should bring AO4 context to bear here too: it is likely that, as a post-Holocaust society, our reactions to the treatment of this Jewish money-lender will be different from those of a more anti-Semitic context. Perhaps an audience in the state of Palestine would have a different reaction again.

Of course, the above does not prevent the play from being a comedy – in the same way that Bennett’s The History Boys can be classed as a comedy despite the comic resolution at the end being at least questionable. But it does raise areas of debate – and we are firmly in AO3 (Evaluation of the Strengths and Weaknesses of Critical Opinions) territory here.

We could, of course, push this further. Is one of the purposes of comedy to raise such questions? The interactivity of the theatre also comes into play here. If I laugh at the treatment of Shylock or of Malvolio, if I laugh at the ignorance of the rude mechanicals or Touchstone, is my own tolerance of racism or intellectual snobbery subtly being revealed by the playwright?

That question suggests another aspect of comedy: exposing folly and ridiculing vice. In The Clouds, first performed in 423 B.C., Aristophanes attacks philosophers (including Socrates) for having their heads in the clouds rather than engaging with real issues – but the attack is through comedy. However, in Plato’s Apology, Socrates states that the play and the way he was portrayed was one of the reasons for his trial (and subsequent execution.) Comedy can be a powerful weapon indeed.

Plays that highlight vice or seek to reform foolish behaviour are termed satires. Here, the principal aim is not so much to amuse for amusement’s sake, but to challenge folly by ridicule and perhaps thereby to amend behaviour. Aristophanes wrote a number of such satires, particularly against the politician Cleon who at that time prominent in determining Athenian foreign and domestic policy. Satire is a powerful tool: when we laugh at something, we take away its power. Consider the riddikulus! spell for removing the threat of boggarts! (Rowling, J.K. (1999) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban In Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Dario Fo attacks totalitarian regimes, and in particular that of the Spanish dictator, General Franco. Satire can also look at societal follies: for example, Oscar Wilde’s plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan, which gently satirise the pretentions and parochialisms of the Victorian upper class.

Comedy, then, is a flexible and adaptable genre of literature, and, as with tragedy, is a genre which each age adapts for its own audience and its own purposes. The burgeoning ur-democracy of Athens in the 5th century B.C. needed comedy that allowed political leaders to be revealed as human despite their position. Shakespearean comedies often explore the importance of hierarchy and order in a universe that sometimes seems to possess neither quality: in Shakespearean comedy, hierarchy is often achieved “beyond human understanding”: as Viola as Caesario cries at the height of the play’s chaos, “O time, thou must untangle this, not I: / It is too hard a knot for me t’ untie!” Yet many modern comedies are subversive: like Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem or Jim Cartwright’s Road, empowering an underclass which in our context is powerless in societal terms.

Actors in National Theatre production, starring James Corden, given a dressing down by Nicholas Hytner

And, as suggested above, in terms of AO4 the most important context is that of reception: the context of the present-day audience. In these terms, it is interesting to see which comedies from the past flourish: Richard Bean’s 2011 comedy One Man,Two Guv’ners , an adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 comedy, Servant of Two Masters (Arlecchino servitore di due padroni), has proved wildly popular on the 2011/2012 stage. Perhaps its success is partly because it is an attack on those who possess power in an age where the political process ironically seems to have divorced the modern citizen from politics itself: I write at a time when a by-election secured a turn-out of only 18% of the potential electorate. More so than tragedy, comedy is ultimately democratic: partly because it lacks the serious and highbrow mantle of its darker brother.

Comedy is by its nature a subversive genre, and perhaps this fact alone is sufficient to justify its focus for LITB2, as well as explaining its popular appeal throughout the ages – and its popularity today.

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