One of the things I’ve noticed on my whirlwind tour of French theater, particularly in Molière, is that it really does seem like the thing we call humor has some sort of universal core. For example, on Sunday my insomniac double feature included Libeled Lady, which I really liked, and it’s just absolutely true that screwball comedies1 are Shakespearean. Like, there’s a repeated scene where Spencer Tracy forgets his hat, then a few minutes later William Powell does the exact same thing, and it’s hilarious. And then there’s Myrna Loy’s wit games. Humor as old as time. Whether that’s causation or due to the universal nature of humor, I couldn’t say. It’s probably a combination.
Molière often veers into that “Why I outta…”2 category of slapstick, which, again, it’s just crazy how universal our sense of humor is. Several of these plays have scenes of one-upmanship in hilarious threats of physical violence. The inclusion of so much slapstick is one of those reasons you don’t really need to update the plays. Richard Wilbur, whose verse translations I’ve been reading,3 really argues against updating these plays in one of the forwards, or maybe it was in an interview. I am of many minds on this, because there are so many elements in that choice in direction–from the practical, “will anyone come see this otherwise?” to the artistic, “using non-textual elements to create meaning,” to the petulant, “I do what I want! That’s the fun of theater!”–but the relevant point is that you could update nothing and the plays would still be 100% hilarious.
The counterexample I do have on my mind to the universals of humor is that there are great chunks of the Fool’s speeches in King Lear, which I saw recently, that I firstly had a hard time understanding, and secondly couldn’t understand the humor in. Like, scenes where the cast on stage is guffawing to tell the audience that something was a joke, and I’m just like…what?
I think the real question is whether there are equivalent scenes in theater outside the western tradition, obviously. A more scholarly person would probably start taking notes on this.
Or I could just enjoy this gif.
- I usually say I love melodramas, but it’s actually screwball comedies that probably have my heart. Except I think this genre term is a teeny bit overused, as it seems to apply to some pretty wildly different films.
- Fun fact: this construction is called aposiopesis.
- I’ve gotten really interested in translation recently, and so I read basically all of his theater translations because of the specific problem that they’re in rhyming couplets, mostly. Obviously I knew this to be true intellectually, but this is the first time I’ve really noticed: you really start to get a feel for the translator after a while. BLATHERSKITE IS NOT A WORD.