I’m doing the layout for an anthology of our comedies, to be published in the fall. Three are in the commedia dell’arte tradition, two are solo shows, one a surreal satire, and one a piece that’s hard to justify its being called a comedy.
Which leads me to think, “What’s a comedy?” We’re lucky that Aristotle’s treatise on comedy was lost. His analysis of tragedy, though astute for the plays he analyzed, has stretched countless playwrights on the rack of theory. There’s no lack of philosophical speculation on the nature of laughter, but comedy has mostly been left to the comics.
For us, first of all, it’s writing truth. Comedy’s a nasty paring knife that cuts deep in your thumb at the slightest bobble. It’s often dismissed as “entertainment,” though franchise movies with loads of blood and exploding heads also claim that title. We might say it’s any play where we get some laughs and the characters don’t die. Or better to say, perhaps, that it ends before they die, since we all tend to die.
Surely it involves laughter. With most comedies I’ve seen, it’s laughter at recognition, laughter at dilemma, laughter at embarrassment, laughter at surprise. In many eras, folks die at the end of tragedies; in comedies, they get married. But endings rarely raise much emotion: the fun is in getting there. And maybe comedy is more truthful than other genres in allowing—even depending on—incongruity. With judicious excision of a few monologues, HAMLET could be staged as a rollicking farce. Comedy depends on frustrated obsession, and that play teems with it. Remove our empathy with the hero, and his drive is absurd.
But unless you have a paid claque—a theatrical tradition for centuries, equivalent to the TV laugh-track—it depends on connection with your audience. We’ve had the experience of having a comedy hit in our repertory for many years once hit a stone wall, not a laugh. The danger factor—the prospect of sensing that Dr. Flop is on his way—is as essential to comedy as to the trapeze act.
We sometimes laugh at stuff that’s merely silly, but it won’t sustain. When Arlecchino tries to eat his own arm, his hunger must be real to us, as must the pain. When Pantalone fails a dozen attempts to kill himself, we need to believe both in his need to do it and in his embarrassment at failure. Of course we know it’s pretend—that allows it to be funny—but it corresponds to feelings we know.
Chekhov termed his plays comedies, though they contain suicide, lost love, thwarted ambition, wasted lives, and the occasional misguided director tries to “lighten” them with silly business or exaggerated characters. Indeed, when we see the word comedy, we’re primed to expect something light, escapist, and overblown. We’re much more familiar with dark comedy than in earlier days, but the theatregoer still asks, instinctively, how dark is dark? To our minds, the defining issue isn’t even the distinction that all characters survive at the end. Konstantin Treplev doesn’t, Tuzenbach doesn’t, and though Malvolio survives his humiliation, it’s as thorough as Shylock’s comeuppance. Rather, in our minds it involves a degree of objectivity in the face of obsession.
In one of our plays, a physician is obsessed with his profession to the point of farcical nightmare. His world demands this obsession, even as it sets up barriers against it. In the best comedy, there’s often a moment when the central character feels, I’m in a comedy! I shouldn’t be in a comedy! Our doctor comes back to that repeatedly, and comedy depends on that moment. Every vessel of truth has its outrigger of blunt objectivity, and comedy is merciless.