Thursday, 11 August 2011

The Comedy of Terrors

08:19:00 Posted by Damp incendiary device 1 comment

There's a brilliant book by Christopher Brooker called The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories. I assume it's brilliant all the way through. I'm on chapter 2 and it's going to take some time to read. There are 705 pages and the font is miniscule. The first chapter actually has its own prologue. Last night, between the book falling out of my hands and my imagination taking over, I managed to read a little about the difference between comedy and tragedy, as defined in Aristotle's Poetics.

To paraphrase - tragedy involves someone who initially has a great time and winds up dead or very sad; comedy involves someone becoming very confused by a complicated situation before everything unravels in the denouement (literally 'unknotting'). This highlighted the difference between comedy and humour, a necessary enlightenment because I often confuse the terms. I remember being disappointed by The Comedy of Errors when, rather than laughing my socks off at the hilarity, I smirked at the smutty humour which occurred for a brief time:

Antipholus S.: "Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?"
Dromio S.: "O, sir, I did not look so low."
(Act 3, scene 2, line 137-8)

The pair are naming parts of a maid's body after countries. The low place in question is the lady's vagina. That's why it's funny...

Aside from this, however, the play revolves around the hilarious confusion which arises when one twin is mistaken for the other. Just when I was thinking to myself that Aristotle's definition of comedy doesn't fit modern examples, I considered the film, The Hangover. Although there are no twins involved, there is a case of mistaken identity when the groom, Doug, vanishes and his friends believe that Chow has kidnapped him. When Doug is released and a bag removed from his head the group discovers that it is in fact the wrong Doug. This is not an especially humorous twist however it is typical of a comedic story and allows for the creation of the following dialogue:

Stu Price: That is not Doug.
Mr. Chow: What're you talking about, Willis? That him!
Stu Price: No, I'm sorry, Mr. Chow, that's not our friend, he... it's...
Alan Garner: The Doug we're looking for is a white.

It occurs to me that the essential difference between a comedy and a tragedy is the amount of shit we want to throw at our characters. The loss of a finger is comedic, the loss of a sibling is tragic. Getting lost on your wedding day is comedic, getting lost behind enemy lines is tragic. Falling face down in a puddle is comedic, falling face down in a puddle and not getting up again is tragic. We want to witness people facing situations which they can't understand and battling against discomfort (think every National Lampoon film). If possible we'd like them to do so with silly expressions and clever one-liners.

Humour then, in theatre and film, is derived from the collective delight that we take in someone else's response to confusion. Comedy however... Well, it's complicated.


Ashley R Lister said...

Horace Walpole said, 'Life is a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel.'

It makes me thankful I'm a sociopath with no emotions or feelings - so I can enjoy life to the full.

Great post.