On the Idea of Comedy and the of the Uses of the Comic Spirit by George Meredith


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Page 1

Then again, he is beset with foes to right and left, of a character
unknown to the tragic and the lyric poet, or even to philosophers.

We have in this world men whom Rabelais would call agelasts; that is to
say, non-laughers; men who are in that respect as dead bodies, which if
you prick them do not bleed. The old grey boulder-stone that has
finished its peregrination from the rock to the valley, is as easily to
be set rolling up again as these men laughing. No collision of
circumstances in our mortal career strikes a light for them. It is but
one step from being agelastic to misogelastic, and the [Greek text], the
laughter-hating, soon learns to dignify his dislike as an objection in
morality.

We have another class of men, who are pleased to consider themselves
antagonists of the foregoing, and whom we may term hypergelasts; the
excessive laughers, ever-laughing, who are as clappers of a bell, that
may be rung by a breeze, a grimace; who are so loosely put together that
a wink will shake them.

'. . . C'est n'estimer rien qu'estioner tout le monde,'

and to laugh at everything is to have no appreciation of the Comic of
Comedy.

Neither of these distinct divisions of non-laughers and over-laughers
would be entertained by reading The Rape of the Lock, or seeing a
performance of Le Tartuffe. In relation to the stage, they have taken in
our land the form and title of Puritan and Bacchanalian. For though the
stage is no longer a public offender, and Shakespeare has been revived on
it, to give it nobility, we have not yet entirely raised it above the
contention of these two parties. Our speaking on the theme of Comedy
will appear almost a libertine proceeding to one, while the other will
think that the speaking of it seriously brings us into violent contrast
with the subject.

Comedy, we have to admit, was never one of the most honoured of the
Muses. She was in her origin, short of slaughter, the loudest expression
of the little civilization of men. The light of Athene over the head of
Achilles illuminates the birth of Greek Tragedy. But Comedy rolled in
shouting under the divine protection of the Son of the Wine-jar, as
Dionysus is made to proclaim himself by Aristophanes. Our second Charles
was the patron, of like benignity, of our Comedy of Manners, which began
similarly as a combative performance, under a licence to deride and
outrage the Puritan, and was here and there Bacchanalian beyond the
Aristophanic example: worse, inasmuch as a cynical licentiousness is more
abominable than frank filth. An eminent Frenchman judges from the
quality of some of the stuff dredged up for the laughter of men and women
who sat through an Athenian Comic play, that they could have had small
delicacy in other affairs when they had so little in their choice of
entertainment. Perhaps he does not make sufficient allowance for the
regulated licence of plain speaking proper to the festival of the god,
and claimed by the Comic poet as his inalienable right, or for the fact
that it was a festival in a season of licence, in a city accustomed to
give ear to the boldest utterance of both sides of a case. However that
may be, there can be no question that the men and women who sat through
the acting of Wycherley's Country Wife were past blushing. Our tenacity
of national impressions has caused the word theatre since then to prod
the Puritan nervous system like a satanic instrument; just as one has
known Anti-Papists, for whom Smithfield was redolent of a sinister smoke,
as though they had a later recollection of the place than the lowing
herds. Hereditary Puritanism, regarding the stage, is met, to this day,
in many families quite undistinguished by arrogant piety. It has
subsided altogether as a power in the profession of morality; but it is
an error to suppose it extinct, and unjust also to forget that it had
once good reason to hate, shun, and rebuke our public shows.

We shall find ourselves about where the Comic spirit would place us, if
we stand at middle distance between the inveterate opponents and the drum-
and-fife supporters of Comedy: 'Comme un point fixe fait remarquer
l'emportement des autres,' as Pascal says. And were there more in this
position, Comic genius would flourish.

Our English idea of a Comedy of Manners might be imaged in the person of
a blowsy country girl--say Hoyden, the daughter of Sir Tunbelly Clumsy,
who, when at home, 'never disobeyed her father except in the eating of
green gooseberries'--transforming to a varnished City madam; with a loud
laugh and a mincing step; the crazy ancestress of an accountably fallen
descendant. She bustles prodigiously and is punctually smart in her
speech, always in a fluster to escape from Dulness, as they say the dogs
on the Nile-banks drink at the river running to avoid the crocodile. If
the monster catches her, as at times he does, she whips him to a froth,
so that those who know Dulness only as a thing of ponderousness, shall
fail to recognise him in that light and airy shape.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Wed 17th Jul 2019, 1:08