The Case for Comedy
JAMES THURBER has in recent months turned his interest in comedy in the direction of the theater, and with much success. After a long and well-received tryout through the Middle West, A THURBER CARNIVALwas classified by VARIETYas a hit on Broadway, although friends in St. Louis had told Mr. Thurber that CARNIVAL was “too sophisticated for New York.”In September he joined the cast of the show, playing the role of himself.
THE robin in my apple tree sings as cheerily now as if he were living in the Gay Nineties, when there never was a cakewalk or a band concert in the park that ended in a knife fight, the throwing of beer cans and bottles, the calling out of the National Guard, and the turning of fire hoses on youthful rioters. Through it all the robin sings, “Summertime, and the living is easy,” and I wish I could sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk with the merry moron. I would tell him that it is easy enough to be lighthearted if you have not got yourself involved in the Broadway theater. And if that cued him into “Give my regards to Broadway,” I should probably make a pass at him with a fly swatter and order him out of the house, or the tree.
Editors, and other busy minds, keep asking me what I think about the future of the American theater. If they telephone me in the country to ask this question, I always say, with a sigh of relief, “Then you mean it’s still alive!” Naturally, I worry about the fabulous invalid, which has got into a far worse state since the 1920s than I have. In 1928, Philip Barry’s Holiday opened on Broadway on a Monday night in November, and there were four other openings that night, and twelve in all during the week.
Later the legitimate theater acquired a slow wasting ailment. It began to develop the nightmares and matineemares that now afflict the drama. Once, last summer, when the robin woke me with his Gershwin tune, I lay there retitling certain plays to fit the temper and trend of the present day, and came up with these: Abie’s Irish Neurosis, The Bitter and Ache Man, Ned Macabre’s Daughter, I Dismember Mama, They Slew What They Wanted, Toys in the Psychosomatic, The Glands Menagerie, Destroy Writes Again, The Manic Who Came to Dinner, and, a title calculated to pop you out of bed and into a cold tub, Oklahomosexual.
It seems to me that this year’s extensive arguments and debates about the morbid and decadent state of so-called serious modern drama skim the surface like skipping stones because they fail to take into consideration the dying out of humor and comedy, and the consequent process of dehumanization, both on stage and off. There were literally dozens of comedies to lighten the heart and quicken the step between, say. The First Tear and Life With Father. These were comedies of American life, familial and familiar, but they seem like ancient history now, something to be discussed solemnly by a present-day Aristotle. They could be more cogently and amusingly discussed by a new Robert Benchley, but, alas, there isn’t any.
The decline of humor and comedy in our time has had a multiplicity of causes, a principal one being the ideological beating they have taken from both the intellectual left and the political right. The latter came about through the intimidation of writers and playwrights under McCarthyism. The former is more complex. Humor has long been a target of leftist intellectuals, and the reason is simple enough in itself. Humor, as Lord Boothby has said, is the only solvent of terror and tension, and terror and tension are among the chief ideological weapons of Communism. The leftists have made a concerted attack on humor as an antisocial, antiracial, antilabor, antiproletarian stereotype, and they have left no stereotype unused in their attack, from “no time for comedy” to the grim warnings that humor is a sickness, a sign of inferiority complex, a shield and not a weapon.
The modern morbid playwrights seem to have fallen for the fake argument that only tragedy is serious and has importance, whereas the truth is that comedy is just as important, and often more serious in its approach to truth, and, what few writers seem to realize or to admit, usually more difficult to write.
It is not a curious but a natural thing that arrogant intellectual critics condemn humor and comedy, for while they can write about Greek Old Comedy, Middle Comedy, and New Comedy with all the flourishes of pretension, they avoid a simple truth, succinctly expressed by the Oxford Classical Dictionary in its discussion of Middle Comedy. “Before long the realistic depiction of daily life became the chief aim in Comedy. Ordinary, commonplace life is no easy subject to treat interestingly on the stage; and Antiphanes contrasts the comic poet’s more difficult lot with the tragedian’s, whose plot is already familiar, and the deus ex machina at hand — the comic writer has no such resources.”
THE history of stage comedy, in both Greece and Rome, begins with cheap and ludicrous effects. In Greek Old Comedy there were the padded costumes of the grotesque comedian, the paunch and the leather phallus. The Roman Plautus, in freely translating Greek New Comedy, stuck in gags to make his rough and restless audiences guffaw, so that in the beginning comedy was, to use a medical term, exogenous — that is, not arising from within the human being, but dragged in from the outside. The true balance of life and art, the saving of the human mind as well as of the theater, lies in what has long been known as tragicomedy, for humor and pathos, tears and laughter are, in the highest expression of human character and achievement, inseparable. Many dictionaries, including the OED, wrongly hyphenate tragicomedy, as if the two integral parts were warring elements that must be separated.
I think the first play that ever sent me out of the American theater in a mood of elation and of high hope for our stage was What Price Glory? Amidst all the blood and slaughter there ran the recurring sound of congruous laughter. I still vividly remember the scene in which the outraged French father of an outraged daughter babbles his grievance for a full minute to the bewildered Captain Flagg, who then asks a French-speaking American lieutenant, “What did he say?”
“Rape,” says the lieutenant.
That scene fairly shines with humanity when compared to an episode in the recent There Was a Little Girl in which the raped little girl solemnly asks her seducer if she had enjoyed the experience. And I can still recall the gleams of humor in R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End, as bitter a war play as any.
“What kind of soup is this, Sergeant?” asks Captain Stanhope.
“Yellow soup, sir,” says the mess sergeant, apologetically.
Screen writers, as well as playwrights, seem reluctant, or unable, to use the devices of comedy out of fear of diluting suspense. A few years ago, in a movie about a bank clerk who stole a million dollars, crammed it into a suitcase, got into a taxi with his unaware and bewildered wife, and headed for an airport to flee the country, there came a scene in which he handed the driver a fifty-dollar bill and told him to “Step on it.” Now I submit that the wife of an American male of modest income would have gone into a comedy scene at this point, but the writer or writers of the script must have been afraid that such an interlude would ruin the terror and tension, and terror and tension must be preserved nowadays, even at the expense of truth.
Katherine Hepburn recently said that our playwrights should “rise above their time,” but, if they tried that, they would simply sink below themselves, or sit there staring at the blank paper in their typewriters. Separate molds turn out unvarying shapes. You can’t make a Tennessee Ernie out of a Tennessee Williams, any more than you can turn a callin’ back into a trough cleanin’. A callin’ back, if you don’t know, is a gatherin’ of folks at the bedside of a dyin’ man, to call him back. I hope this doesn’t inspire one of the morbid playmakers to make a play in which the dyin’ man drags all the other folks down with him.
It will be said, I suppose, that I couldn’t write such a tragedy because of the limitation of my tools and the nature of my outlook. (Writers of comedy have outlook, whereas writers of tragedy have, according to them, insight.) It is true, I confess, that if a male character of my invention started across the stage to disrobe a virgin criminally (ah, euphemism to end euphemisms!), he would probably catch his foot in the piano stool and end up playing Button Up Your Overcoat on the black keys. There are more ways than one, including, if you will, a Freudian stumble, to get from tragedy into tragicomedy. Several years ago a book reviewer in the New York Sunday Times wrote: “The tragedy of age is not that a man grows old, but that he stays young,” and, indeed, there is the basis of a good tragedy in that half-truth. The other half might be stated, in a reverse Shavian paraphrase, “The trouble with youth is that it is wasted on the old.” There is where the comedy would come in to form a genuine tragicomedy. At sixty-five, going on sixty-six, I think I can speak with a touch of authority.
MISS HEPBURN (to get back to her) is devoted to the great plays of Shakespeare, who didn’t rise above his time, but merely above the ability of his contemporaries. He often wrote about a time worse than his own, such as the period of Macbeth. In that drama he could proclaim that life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, but say it in a play told by a genius, full of soundness and fury, signifying many things. The distinguished Mr. Williams and his contemporaries are not so much expressers of their time as expressions of it, and, for that matter, aren’t we all? The playwright of today likes to believe that he is throwing light upon his time, or upon some part of it, when his time is actually throwing light upon him. This, it seems to me, has always been the case, but it happens more intensely now, perhaps, than ever before. Moreover, there are two kinds of light, the glow that illumines and the glare that obscures, and the former seems to be dimming.
The American family, in spite of all its jitters and its loss of cohesion, still remains in most of its manifestations as familiar as ever, and it is our jumpy fancy to believe that all fathers are drunkards, all mothers kookies, and all children knife wielders planning to knock off their parents. Our loss of form in literature is, in large part, the result of an Oral Culture into which we began descending quite a while back. This is the age of the dragged-out interview, the endless discussion panels on television; an age in which photographers, calling on writers in their homes, stay around the house as long as the paper hanger or the roofer. Everything is tending to get longer and longer, and more and more shapeless. Telephone calls last as long as half an hour, or even forty minutes by my own count; women, saying goodby at front doors, linger longer than ever, saying, “Now I must go,” and, eventually, “Now, I really must go.” But nothing is accomplished simply any more. Writers of letters finish what they have to say on page two and then keep on going. Khrushchev talks for five hours at press conferences, and may even have got it up to ten by the time this survey appears. (Moral: Great oafs from little icons grow.)
As brevity is the soul of wit, form, it seems to me, is the heart of humor and the salvation of comedy. “You are a putter in, and I am a taker out,” Scott Fitzgerald once wrote to Thomas Wolfe. Fitzgerald was not a master of comedy, but in his dedication to taking out, he stated the case for form as against flow. It is up to our writers, in this era of Oral Culture, to bring back respect for form and for the innate stature and dignity of comedy. We cannot, to be sure, evoke humorists, or writers of comedy, by prayer or pleading or argument, but we can, and must, hope for a renascence of recognizable American comedy. The trend of the modern temper is toward gloom, resignation, and even surrender, and there is a great wailing of the word “Decadence!” on all sides. But for twentyfive hundred years decadence has come and decadence has gone. Reading Webster on the subject might make a newly arrived visitor from Mars believe that everything in art and literature came to a morose end as the nineteenth century closed out. It was a period of Decadence and of the Decadents, led by Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Mallarmé in France. Writes old Noah: “They cultivated the abnormal, artificial, and neurotic in subject and treatment, tending to the morbid or eccentric, and to the mystically sensuous and symbolic.”
Well, we are still going on, and we have four decades left in this battered and bloody century. Walter Lippmann said last summer, in his first television appearance, that he did not believe the world is coming apart. It is heartening to know that he selected as the foremost leader of our time Sir Winston Churchill, a man also respected for his wit and humor, but one who, like Lincoln, had to survive suspicion and attack for his gift of comedy. I think it was Booth Tarkington who once said, “Sobersides looks at humor the way a duchess looks at bugs.” It is high time that Sobersides came of age and realized that, like Emily Dickinson’s hope, humor is a feathered thing that perches in the soul.