Sunday Retrospective ~ February 24th 2019

During weeks three and four of my Shakespeare course we were focusing on Twelfth Night.  (Henry V this past week and next, The Bears have spent the last few days declaiming ‘Once more unto the breach’ and proudly proclaiming themselves a ‘band of brothers’; goodness only knows what is going to happen when we reach ‘Exit pursued by a Bear’.) anyway, back to the point – Twelfth Night.  One of the things we were asked to consider was what constitutes a comedy and what makes us laugh.  Well, the general view in our family is that I was born without a funny bone because almost nothing makes me laugh.  Oh, I can laugh because I’m happy, but laughing because I am amused almost never happens.

In fact, I think this might be because I was exposed to Shakespearean comedy from a very early age and the point that was being made on the course was that for Elizabethan audiences comedy was very much about structure.  We start with a certain amount of chaos, proceed to stir things up even more and then in Act Five (not that they would have called it that) we miraculously manage to bring everything to a happy(ish) conclusion.  Comedy describes the journey not the rib tickling sideshows along the way.  I am still fascinated by how this, and other narrative structures, work out and obviously never got round to taking account of the funny bits along the way.

All this is by way of a preface to telling you that yesterday I went to Stratford to see not a Shakespearean Comedy but a retelling of Molière’s Tartuffe set among Birmingham’s British Pakistani community with Tartuffe as a fundamentalist Muslim preaching reform to the paterfamilias of a modern family who have adopted a British lifestyle – even Grandma, although she would never admit it –  in an attempt to fleece them all of their money and possessions and the women of their honour as well.  Now, I could see that this was a clever (possibly in the less than positive sense of that word; I haven’t quite decided yet) way of approaching the play to make it relevant to a current audience. Recasting the family maid, Dorine, as a Bosnian Muslim cleaning lady, Darina, was a stroke of genius and Michelle Bonnard was the star of the show. But, when everyone around me was laughing away, at times uproariously, I was sat there cringing because what was happening on stage was everything I would normally avoid. People, especially the aforementioned paterfamilias, were ranting and raving, making total fools of themselves and being blackmailed before our eyes and for the life of me I couldn’t, still can’t, see why this is supposed to be funny.  All right, I go in knowing that this is a comedy and therefore also knowing that it will all come out right in the end.  Tartuffe will get his comeuppance and family harmony will be restored.   But, I’m  still not sure why this makes it all right to laugh at people who are being duped.  Perhaps it’s my Asperger’s getting in the way. I don’t know. I do know that it was one of the most uncomfortable afternoon’s I’ve spent in a long time.

My discomfort wasn’t helped by the fact that the play ended with a ‘message’.  Now I don’t know the original well enough to be able to say whether or not it finishes with a warning about marginalising people because of the way they look.  Perhaps someone can tell me.  However, here Tartuffe’s final speeches preach the idea that it is impossible for someone who looks like him to make his way in British society by any other means than that which he has chosen. And I do mean preach.  It was far too obvious an insert for it to have any real impact.  And, I wasn’t certain quite what he meant.  If he was referring specifically to his long beard then he might have been said to have a point.  But, if he was just talking about British Muslims being unable to rise to positions of power then I surely can’t have been the only one who wanted to say “er – Home Secretary”?

I know that the problem is mine.  Everyone else there was having a great time until the final message clearly made them uneasy.  Not that their dis-ease lasted for long, mind you.  The comedy police act turned up just in time to save the day and the laughs.  They were straight out of a Brian Rix farce.  Another form of humour I never really understood.

Why did I go?  You may well ask.  But I live in hope that one day there will be a flash of light and suddenly all will be revealed to me. I will be able to join in with the mirth around me and be one of the crowd.  Unfortunately, it didn’t happen yesterday.

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15 thoughts on “Sunday Retrospective ~ February 24th 2019

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings February 24, 2019 / 4:58 pm

    I’m not convinced I would have been amused either. Frankly it sounds like heavy handed satire at best…

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  2. heavenali February 24, 2019 / 8:21 pm

    I think I would have found that performance rather uncomfortable too.

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    • Café Society February 24, 2019 / 9:06 pm

      It was one of those occasions, Ali, when I really thought long and hard about whether or not I was going back after the interval. It was only the Bosnian cleaning lady that kept me there.

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      • heavenali February 24, 2019 / 9:11 pm

        I liked the sound of the Bosnian cleaning lady.

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  3. Liz February 24, 2019 / 9:03 pm

    Bravo for keeping the faith in seeing that flash of light some time. I am notoriously ‘not amused’ in our family. Anything that is labelled as funny is guaranteed not to make me laugh at all. I have a particular aversion to slapstick – Wodehouse, Laurel and Hardy, pantomimes etc etc are all firmly off limits. Part of the problem for me with Shakespearean comedy is that it often needs explaining. It is hard to laugh, as I gather we are supposed to, at Malvolio’s yellow hose. But hey, life is an adventure and it’s good to keep exploring!

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    • Café Society February 24, 2019 / 9:09 pm

      One of my real pet hates, Liz, is production’s of Twelfth Night that play Malvolio for laughs from the start. He has to be someone who Olivia’s father and brother would both have seen as a competent steward, otherwise why keep him on. However, if you do that then his downfall becomes tragic rather than funny and it shows up Sir Toby in particular for the nasty piece of work he is.

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      • Liz February 24, 2019 / 9:16 pm

        Yes I completely agree that it becomes sad and uncomfortable. If I remember rightly (it’s a long time since I watched it!), he is driven to act out of character by infatuation/love which is never likely to be returned and for which he is ridiculed. Not many laughs there.

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  4. Jeanne February 24, 2019 / 9:35 pm

    I love heavy-handed satire, although the really obvious stuff doesn’t make me laugh but cringe. I wrote my dissertation on 18th-century blame-by-praise satires, so have always had a taste for the stuff.
    You and I are complete opposites about laughing. I laugh easily and often. One time I got up to leave a movie theater after a comedy and an old lady sitting behind me, who I’d never seen before, said to me “you really enjoyed that, didn’t you, dear?” My kids and their friends always said they could tell where I was sitting for their school performances by the sound of my laughter.
    Having a moral for a play, however? That sounds terrible. Even heavy-handed satire should require a little brain action from the audience.

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    • Café Society February 24, 2019 / 9:56 pm

      Yes, that was my problem, Jeanne. I really felt I was being spoken to as if I was a small and rather stupid child. You sound as if you are like my drama tutor. We always knew just where in the theatre he was by the sound of his laugh.

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  5. BookerTalk February 25, 2019 / 2:57 am

    I have a general dislike of productions that are updated to make them ‘relevant’ to contemporary audiences and so the director can ‘make a point’. None of them have worked….. This production would have made me cringe even more with that appalling ending.
    You have my sympathy too in finding it hard to be amused when all around you are chortling. Have you found audiences trying way too hard to show that they understand the humour…..

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    • Café Society February 25, 2019 / 1:34 pm

      I have done, Karen, but to be fair I don’t think that was the case here; it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

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  6. helen February 25, 2019 / 10:20 am

    I think that a lot of comedy – and laughter – is essentially cruel (not to be po-faced about this); satire and mockery definitely fall into the cruel category. Really clever comedians/productions can turn that around upon the audience and make them question why they’re laughing (Twelfth Night can definitely be played this way). Or can be redeemed by showing something positive. But even fairly good-natured comedy can be about ‘us and them’ and therefore uncomfortable. So I understand your point exactly and it’s quite likely I wouldn’t have been laughing either, though who knows – laughter is ‘infectious’, people somehow want to be part of the crowd and I am probably no exception.

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    • Café Society February 25, 2019 / 1:37 pm

      I think your last point is really interesting, Helen. One of the things that theatre thrives on is the cumulative effect of an audience reaction. Saturday’s audience were very much onside with the production. If it hadn’t been for the fact that it would have meant sitting through the show repeatedly I would have been fascinated to see if every audience reacted in the same way. Perhaps there were some who collective were not at ease with what was being presented.

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      • helen February 26, 2019 / 12:01 pm

        Well I know from my very limited stage experience (school plays mainly!) that audiences can be very different from one night to the next, so I completely agree with you there. Also I have noticed that once you all start laughing, you laugh at pretty much everything including stuff that’s not funny.

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