Comedy and the Great Tradition by Ken Ludwig
by Ken Ludwig
I was sitting in the Festival Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon last summer watching the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of As You Like It, when the stranger in the seat next to me tapped me on the arm and hissed “Be quiet!” I was about to protest, when I realized that I had indeed been disturbing the poor man – by unconsciously humming the opening bars of Le Nozze di Figaro.
On the stage in front of me, Rosalind, the heroine, was swooning at the first sight of her sexy future husband Orlando, while in my head, Figaro, roguish and loveable, was measuring his honeymoon suite to make sure the bed would fit.
A half hour later, as I watched that melancholy courtier Jacques up on stage sadly intoning his speech known as “The Ages of Man,” I could hear in the distance the Countess Almaviva’s lonely aria of self-assessment “Dove sono.” And a few minutes after that, as Orlando happily nailed love poems to the trees in the Forest of Arden, I could hear the exuberant strains of Cherubino’s aria “Non so più” pulsing through my head. (Notice that I said “my head,” not “my lips,” since by this time I was keeping quiet.)
By the end of the evening, I had made a connection that solved a riddle that has puzzled me for years. Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare invented the most original, bracing and astonishing form of stage comedy the world has ever known. He started figuring it out in the early 1590s in The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew. Soon afterwards, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he nailed it cold. And by the end of the decade, in full possession of his genius and his method, he had penned the three greatest comedies ever written, his so-called “high comedies,” Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night.
The riddle is: Where in the world are the many stage comedies that should have followed in the same tradition but never materialized? Why weren’t they written? What happened?!
To some extent, the answer is obvious – no one but Shakespeare could have written works of such towering genius. He is uniquely great, and we shall never see his like again. Moreover, the Elizabethan culture in which Shakespeare created his early and middle plays, right up until Elizabeth the First’s death in 1603, was uniquely suited to the flowering of Shakespeare’s comic genius. If, by magic, the very same man lived today in our post-Hiroshima age, I’m sure he would not be writing high comedies of the same temperament. Instead, my guess is, he would be writing thornier pieces, in the nature of his so-called problem plays, like Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Troilus and Cressida.
Aside from the sheer genius of Shakespeare, however, the riddle remains: Where in the past 400 years are the great comic stage pieces in the tradition of the high comedies? Have any great comedies of that kind been written since 1600?
The answer, I think, is that they were written – and that they’re constantly performed and adored – but that we don’t usually recognize them as the successors of Shakespeare’s work. I am speaking of the great comic operas of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Cosi Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute; Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, L’Italiana in Algeri, La Cenerentola and some others; Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, L’Elisir D’Amore and La Fille du Régiment; Verdi’s Falstaff; and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.
Of these composers, to my knowledge only Verdi was a real student of Shakespeare. (He wrote two other operas based directly on Shakespeare plays, Macbeth and Otello, and for many years contemplated writing another based on King Lear.) Yet, at the end of a good performance of Il Barbieri di Siviglia or L’Elisir d’Amore, I always feel much the same joy, well-being and exhilaration that I feel after watching Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s not simply that I’ve enjoyed both performances; I realize in my bones that I’ve had the same kind of experience.
What is it that makes these experiences so similar? Why do we feel instinctively that they are part of the same literary tradition? The answer, I think, is that Shakespeare’s comedies and the great comic operas share a set of identical ingredients, what I call the main elements of the Great Comic Tradition. These are as follows:
1. Each piece contains a broad palette of colorful characters, young and old, master and servant, rich and poor, idealistic and cynical. Similarly, there is wide variety of scenes, often exotic or at least foreign. The broth is rich.
2. The story is genuinely compelling. It’s a great yarn. We really want to know what happens next.
3. There is more than one plot going on at the same time.
4. The tone is romantic with respect to at least one of the plots.
5. The piece contains broadly comic characters, and the action encompasses broad comic devices, which almost always include disguise and mistaken identity. These are usually accompanied by some degree of boisterous physical comedy.
6. At least one of the characters achieves a depth of emotion that genuinely moves us.
7. There is a genuine sexiness about the piece.
8. The story ends with one or more marriages.
9. There is an element of fantasy, or at least perceived fantasy, in one of the plots.
10. The piece has a poetic richness about it, a quality that ultimately takes us out of ourselves. In Shakespeare’s case, it’s derived from the poetry itself; in the case of the operas, it comes from the music.
11. The piece has a characteristic rhythm that feels like a long arc, moving from relative stability, through a period of uncertainty and struggle, finally resolving itself in a happy serenity that leaves us feeling fulfilled and content (sort of a classical sonata form writ large). The great literary critic Northrop Frye describes the Shakespearean comic pattern this way:
[The] structure normally begins with an anticomic society, a social organization blocking … the comic drive, which the action of the comedy evades or overcomes. It often takes the form of a harsh or irrational law … preoccupied with trying to regulate the sexual drive. Sometimes the irrational law takes the form of a jealous tyrant’s suspiciousness or … a hostile father. … The second period of confusion and sexual license … we may call the phase of temporarily lost identity. [It] is usually portrayed by the device of impenetrable disguise, or by the activities of a character assumed to be invisible …. The third and final phase is the phase of the discovery of identity. The identity may be social, the new group to which most of the characters are attached, or individual, the enlightenment that changes the mind or purpose of one character; or, as usually happens in Shakespeare, both.
In his book Anatomy of Criticism, Frye likens the comic movement in drama to the cyclical motion of the seasons, beginning in the summer, darkening and gaining complexity and instability through the fall and winter, and ending with the regeneration and renewal we experience in the spring.
12. Finally, the complexity of the piece ultimately leaves us with a sense of exhilaration. We feel not simply that we’ve had a good time, but also that we have witnessed a piece of life that leaves us with a feeling of renewal and hope. We have partaken of not just entertainment, but of that indefinable something we call “art.”
When these twelve elements are combined in a single work for the theatre, they create an experience that tells us something profound about ourselves while, at the same time, leaving us with a feeling of being transformed.
Are Shakespeare’s comedies and the great lyric comic operas the only examples of worthy attempts to write theatre pieces in the Great Comic Tradition? I think not. There have been many playwrights over the centuries who have tried mightily to write great comedies in this tradition (Lord knows, I’m one of them), and a few have had some notable successes. George Farquhar, though still reflecting the fastidiousness of Restoration manners, made a pretty fair stab at the genre around 1706-07 in The Recruiting Officer and The Beaux Stratagem. Then, in the 1770s, two Irish playwrights living in England created three comic masterpieces of authentic genius: Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals and The School for Scandal. However, while these plays are by turns hilarious, touching and beautifully structured and contain many elements of the great Tradition, they ultimately lack the breadth, poetry and essential humanity of Twelfth Night and Le Nozze di Figaro.
Three other examples spring to mind: The Playboy of the Western World by John Millington Synge, which certainly has the poetry if not the breadth of characters and scenes. And Pygmalion and Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw, which have the intellect but lack the poetry. Ultimately, there is a certain insistence on viewpoint about Shaw that precludes him from achieving that sense of universality that even Donizetti achieves through the beauty of his lyricism.
By the time we get to the 20th century, the ravaging and tumultuous effects of the modern world have taken their toll on the very idea of the Great Tradition. Ours is an era that is antithetical to the genuine comic spirit. Our masterpieces are Heartbreak House and Waiting for Godot, The Homecoming and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. All truly great plays. But these are comedies of a different sort, narratives that reflect the perceived bleakness of the human condition. Their roots, of course, can also be traced to Shakespeare (in my opinion, virtually everything to do with Western culture from the 1590s onward can be traced to Shakespeare), but theirs is a tradition of cynicism and despair that originates with Troilus and Cressida and King Lear.
Moreover, even the kind of boulevard comedy that we see today for purposes of thoughtful entertainment and a few good laughs has a very different set of goals than we’ve been discussing. The highly-successful play Art, for example, purposely limits itself to three middle-aged, middle-class characters, all men; the play takes place in only two rooms with white walls; and it lasts only ninety minutes. More to the point, its concerns are consciously limited (it takes on modern art and male bonding) in a way that the plays and operas of the Great Tradition are not.
And modern operas? I know of none written in the past 50 years that seeks to reflect the concerns and achievements of Falstaff and Le Nozze di Figaro. This is not to say that modern operas, and some interesting ones, aren’t being written. But none of them, as far as I know, is even trying to throw a modern light on the joyous, inspiring concerns of the great comic operas.
There is, in my view, however, one art form of the 20th century that fits squarely into the Great Comic Tradition. Like Shakespeare comedies and the comic operas, it started out with a goal of simply entertaining us. And like its predecessors, it evolved, in the hands of masterful creators, into something more lasting and profound. I don’t believe that it ultimately has the artistic stature of the great comic operas, let alone Shakespeare. But its goals and methods are those of the Great Comic Tradition; and in a few cases, it has achieved dazzling success. I am referring to musical comedy.
My Fair Lady and Guys and Dolls, Oklahoma and South Pacific, Kiss Me Kate and Fiddler on the Roof – these and a few other musicals have real greatness about them. And each one contains virtually all of the elements outlined above: romance and deep emotion; a broad palette of characters and settings; good stories, sub-plots, sexiness and broad comedy. In the end, as with the other examples of stage works in the Great Comic Tradition, we emerge from the experience of seeing these pieces genuinely exhilarated.
Where will the tradition emerge next? I’m not sure, and I don’t believe that anyone knows. The movies could have created experiences of the quality that we’re discussing, but I don’t think they have, at least in the area of high comedy. Bringing Up Baby, To Be Or Not To Be, and The Philadelphia Story – or, more recently, A Room with a View, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Shakespeare in Love – are all delightful, comic and touching; but I don’t think they ultimately attain the profound qualities we associate with Falstaff, Le Nozze di Figaro and Twelfth Night. (Of course, they aren’t precisely “stage works” either, though they do qualify as drama.) And I don’t yet see any dramatic comic art forms emerging from cyberspace, but it’s probably too early to tell. To paraphrase the old radio show The Shadow: Who knows what genius lurks in the minds of men?
For now, then, it can be argued that our only living link with the Great Comic Tradition is the musical, which grew out of comic opera, which grew out of Shakespeare’s high comedies. Little did Shakespeare and Mozart suspect, but their direct descendants are wearing sequins at the Hot Box, strolling through the cornfields of Oklahoma, dancing the hora in a shtetl, and clowning on the sands of the war-torn south Pacific. I guess that’s show biz.
Copyright 2005 by Ken Ludwig