Tag Archives: comedy

Review of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST – Oscar Wilde

1895, in The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays, Penguin 2000

The same time I was reading Wilde’s comedy, I saw playwright Constance (Connie) Congdon speak at a Kennedy Center “Dramatist Guild Legacy Award Conversation.” She was talking to dramaturg Heather Helinsky about the craft of playwriting. She emphasized how playwriting is, like talking, a process. The more one engages with playwriting, the more fluid one’s playwriting becomes. This concept of the “fluidity of playwriting” immediately grabbed me, perhaps because I had been reading Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. “Fluidity” is a fantastic description of Wilde’s writing that hits the nail right on the head.

Wilde is one of the most fluid writers I have come across. There is an effortless ease in his dialogue, in how each scene glide into the next. His writing reminds me of the music of Mozart or Fleetwood Mac. Effortless melody. Of course, as Mozart used to complain, although his melodies sound effortless, a great deal of effort has gone into putting them together. This effort, however, is not immediately apparent to the listener because it is put together so seamlessly.

Not all great music is so effortless. Take Beethoven, for instance. He is on the same level as Mozart, but his notes sound  laboured. They sound like they were incredibly difficult to write. The notes do not flow together; they seem to have been willed together by the titanic force of his will. In the same way, not all great drama is as effortless as Wilde. Aeschylus and O’Neill write great plays. But their plays are clunky, wooden, and laborious. Yet their plays represent another type of pinnacle. Aeschylus is, on some days, my all-time favourite.

Congdon and Helinsky’s talk got me thinking: why do some works appear so fluid? Why do some works appear so laboured? My first thoughts were that fluid playwrights relish being in the present. Whichever act and scene they find themselves in, they delight in making it come alive. Algy’s eating constantly in The Importance of Being Earnest, for example, delights in his eating at inopportune moments in the present. Fluidity is part of the Zen of the ever-present moment.

For the more laborious playwrights, however, each moment is part of the scaffolding that sets up the big reveal. Laborious playwrights take delight in the future moment rather than the present moment. To use an example from O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, the incessant drinking Tyrone, Jamie, and Edmund engage in is not for the moment, but to set up that last moment where they see something that hits them so hard that they cannot have that last drink.

The Importance of Being Earnest

There are nine characters in the play. The subsidiary characters are: Rev. Canon Chasuble (the local priest), Merriman (Jack’s butler), Lane (Algy’s manservant), and Miss Prism (Cecily’s governess). The major characters are: John Worthing (Jack, JP, and, when in the city, Ernest Worthing), Algernon Moncrieff (Algy and, when in the country, Ernest Worthing), Lady Augusta Bracknell (Algy’s aunt), Gwendolen Fairfax (Lady Bracknell’s daughter and Algy’s niece), and Cecily Cardew (Jack’s ward). The major characters are major by virtue of their class and that they are, or will be, all related by blood or marriage by the play’s end.

The romantic action starts when, visiting Algy in the city, Jack–operating under the alias of his decadent and fictitious brother Ernest–proposes to Algy’s niece Gwendolen. Gwendolen, having always found the name “Ernest” to be most attractive, accepts. Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother, on interviewing Jack and finding out that he is a foundling, is not so keen to bless their union.

The action intensifies when Algy finds out that Ernest is an assumed name and that Ernest is actually Jack when he is at home in the country. Algy finds Jack’s country address and proceeds to visit Jack in the Country while himself pretending to be Ernest, Jack’s fictitious brother. It turns out Jack had made up a fictitious brother for himself as an excuse to go to the city to play. Jack is furious when he sees that Algy has come to his country manor under the alias of his fictional brother Ernest. What makes Jack even more furious is that Algy proposes to his ward, Cecily. Cecily, like Gwendolen, is also captivated by the name Ernest. She accepts his marriage proposition. At this point, both Gwendolen and Cecily believe they are engaged to Ernest Worthing. Ernest Worthing, of course, does not really exist: he is Jack’s alias in the city and Algy’s alias in the country.

The action reaches a peak when Gwendolen leaves the city and goes to the country to visit her new fiancé, Ernest Worthing. She meets Cecily there, who is also under the impression that she is also engaged to Ernest Worthing. To add more fun to the scene, the persnickety aristocrat Lady Bracknell also arrives in the country to take Gwendolen back home. After Gwendolen and Bracknell arrive, Jack and Algy’s covers are blown. It is quite an embarrassing moment.

After recovering from the unexpected appearance of the city guests, Algy and Jack renew their marriage proposals to Cecily and Gwendolen, who accept. Jack, however, as Cecily’s guardian, refuses to bless their union. It seems however, that he would bless it if Lady Bracknell would bless his union with Gwendolen. Bracknell, however, puts her foot down: she has climbed the class ladder for too long to let her daughter marry a foundling from the train station. An impasse results.

At that moment Miss Prism enters. Lady Bracknell recognizes Prism as the irresponsible servant who lost her sister’s baby many years ago. She recounts the story of losing the baby in a handbag in a train station, the very same train station where Jack had been found. Jack still has the handbag. He fetches it. Prism recognizes it: it is marked with her initials. This means that Jack is actually Algy’s brother (and not just pretending to be his brother!). What is more, they find out that the missing baby had been–drum roll-christened “Ernest.” So, Jack was always an Ernest. With this revelation, everyone gets married and the play ends with Jack saying: “On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of being Earnest.” A nice play on “Ernest” and “earnest.”

The Unexpected

Part of why Wilde can take delight in the dramatic present is because each moment gives him a chance to engage in wordplay. The wordplay sometimes consists of unexpected combinations of words, such as Lady Bracknell’s surprise when she finds out Jack is a foundling:

Jack: I have lost both my parents.

Lady Bracknell: Both? To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

Her response starts off reasonably: it is a misfortune to lose one parent. Her conclusion, however, that to lose both “looks like carelessness” is unanticipated. What would have been expected is something more along the lines of “to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both is tragedy.” But that lacks the desired effect. In performance, before the play was pulled over Wilde’s ruinous scandal, it is this line that elicited the most laughs. Children are not responsible for losing their parents. But in Bracknell’s view, they are. By turning expectation upside down, Bracknell’s observation tickles the brain. The brain sees that something does not fit. But a second later, the brain realizes what Wilde is telling us: that Lady Bracknell is, well, different. She is the higher class taken to its own logical conclusion where it becomes a caricature of itself. And when the brain is tickled like that, the biological reaction is laughter.

Similar is Algy’s remonstration of his servant Lane:

Algernon: Lane’s view of marriage seems somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.

Algy voices what the upper class believes, but does not normally voice. To most of the upper classes, to voice their belief in noblesse oblige, the inferred responsibility of the privileged to act with nobility was the norm. Here Algy wants the privilege without noblesse oblige. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. The line mentally discombobulates the audience. When the audience realizes that Wilde does this to let them know Algy is a harmless but good for nothing aristocrat, the biological reaction to this brain tickle is, again, to erupt into laughter.

Comedy, like tragedy, dramatizes the unexpected. Unexpected witticisms and wordplay provoke laughter. And, like tragedy, the fulcrum of the action is an unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence event. In the case of The Importance of Being Earnest, the event is that Jack has hired Prism to be his ward’s governess–the same Prism who, unbeknownst to him, had left him at the train station when he was a babe. Improbability is such an important and ubiquitous element of comedy that characters can make metatheatrical remarks about it and expect to receive in compensation a good laugh from the audience. So remarks Algernon:

Algernon: Now produce your explanation, and pray make it improbable.

Improbability is the heart of comedy and comedy is the heart of laughter.

– – –

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of THE MODERN HUSBAND – Henry Fielding

1732, in She Stoops to Conquer and Other Comedies, edited by Nigel Wood, Oxford 2008

No cakes and ale for this disturbing comedy by English novelist and playwright Henry Fielding. On the strength of Fielding’s reputation, and as an artifact of the Georgian era–a time of rapid change, scandal, growing class division, and increasing prosperity which saw the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution–The Modern Husband continues to be read and studied. From a reading, however, it is easy to see why it is no longer produced. To today’s sensibilities, the play is offensive.

In The Modern Husband, there are the usual family connections. The bad guys are Mr and Mrs Modern and Lord Richly. The good guys are Mr and Mrs Bellamant and Mr Gaywit. Caught in between good and bad are Emilia (the Bellamants’ daughter), Captain Bellamant (the Bellamants’ son), and Lady Charlotte (Richly’s daughter). Mr Gaywit, in addition, is Lordy Richly’s nephew.

Each of the characters experiences a crisis. Mr and Mrs Modern are running out of funds to support their lifestyle. Lord Richly is looking to satisfy his libido. Mr and Mrs. Bellamant having lost twenty-thousand in an unsuccessful case before the House of Lords, also run into financial difficulties. Gaywit loves Emilia, but Richly has made it so that he must marry Charlotte to inherit his father’s estate. Captain Bellamant is getting his allowance cut back, as his parents have lost their court case. So stands the situation as the comedy begins.

To fill up their coffers, Mr Modern pimps out Mrs Modern. He turns a blind eye while Mrs Modern connects with Richly, Gaywit, and Mr Bellamant. Through the largesse of mainly Richly, the Moderns can sustain their card-playing and socializing city lifestyle. Richly, however, is visiting less often. He has his eye on Mrs Bellamant, the devout and caring wife of Mr Bellamant. Richly, to get alone with Mrs Bellamant, offers Mr Bellamant help in his court case and pays Mrs Modern to arrange a rendezvous between himself and Mrs Bellamant. Mr Bellamant, while believing that his wife will be true, gives Richly leave to tempt his wife. Mrs Modern, becoming desperate, accepts Richly’s offer and also looks to her two other lovers–Mr Bellamant and Gaywit–for help. She borrows a hundred-pound note from Mr Bellamant. Mr Modern, realizing that Richly is coming around less often to see his wife, also grows desperate. He arranges to catch his wife in flagrante delicto and to sue her lover for damages. This practice, at the time, was all the rage for degenerate aristocrats to make a quick buck.

The comedy turns on the unexpected: Mrs Modern loses the hundred-pound note Mr Bellamant gives her to Richly while gambling. Then, a little later, Richly loses the same note to Mrs Bellamant gambling. When Mr Bellamant asks his wife to borrow some money, she gives him back the note that he had given to Mrs Modern earlier. Finding out that his wife had gotten the note from Richly arouses his suspicion. He goes on a romp with Mrs Modern, and is caught by Mr Modern. Now he will have to pay adultery damages to Mr Modern. But no! He finds a way out. The good guys find out that Mr Modern had pimped out his wife all along to catch a lover in the act and make a buck in court. This is strictly forbidden. So, Mr Bellamant is off the hook. But there still is his wife, who is angry that he has been gallivanting around town. But oh! She decides to forgive him. Finally, Richly pays the price. The Bellamants’ son Captain Bellamant marries Charlotte, Richly’s daughter, behind his back. This frees up Gaywit, Richly’s nephew, to marry Emilia, the Bellamants’ daughter. Unlike real life, the good guys stand up to the bad guys. Or so the play argues.

I found the play cringeworthy. Why should Mrs Bellamant forgive Mr Bellamant? When she finds out her husband has been running around, she starts off quite mad. But then her anger softens. As it dawned on me that she might forgive him, I was thinking, “Don’t do it!” Then, in a space of ten or fifteen lines, she forgives him. Unbelievable. To me, that was as unsatisfying as it would have been if Nora had forgiven Torvald in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Of course, that does not happen in A Doll’s House, which is a superior play.

Now what happens if the Moderns or the Bellamants run out of money? Money is a big issue in this play. Well, it turns out that the worse that could happen to these families is that they would have to retire to their country manor! To them, that is very bad. But, to a modern audience, leaving the rat race behind to retire to a country manor would be a dream come true! So, I found this facet of the play out of touch with modern sensibilities.

In addition, I found the “good” characters–especially the Bellamants–to be insufferable. Mrs Bellamant is a goody two shoes. And Mr Bellamant has not aged well. He may have been considered good back in 1732, but times have changed! For example, Mr Bellamant’s wager with with Richly that Mrs Bellamant can resist his advances is reminiscent of God’s wager with Satan over Job’s goodness. Today such a wager is unconscionable. When such a wager is made today–as it was in the 1983 movie Trading Places–both the God and the Satan figures are played by bad guys. In Trading Places the wager is made by callous millionaires. So too, Mr Bellamant appears in a callous light by accepting Richly’s wager. Richly–the “bad” character–while bad, at least had no pretence of being good. At least his is honest in his badness.

The one saving feature in the play are the courtship scenes between Captain Bellamant–who comes in strong–and Lady Charlotte–who is ice cold. If the actors could get their chemistry between the characters right–and there obviously is a chemistry between them–the courtship scenes could be hilarious as they heap insult after insult on one another while working towards the larger prize of marriage.

All in all, Fielding’s The Modern Husband is too rooted in the preoccupations of its time to transcend them to be a work for all time.

– – –

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Brownian Motion, Tragedy, Comedy, and History

The Discovery of Brownian Motion

In 1829, the Scottish botanist Robert Brown observed microscopic grains of pollen suspended in water. Instead of moving in straight lines or staying still, they moved about in an erratic and entirely unpredictable manner. They followed, as it were, a ‘drunkard’s path’:

Brownian Motion

Brownian Motion

To Brown, the pollen grains seemed invested with the primordial rudiments of life which gave imbued them with the capacity to meander about like drunkards following a random walk. Cool! Too bad though: he was wrong. But like so many things, even though his hypothesis was incorrect, the search for the correct explanation changed the way we look at the world. The correct explanation for Brownian motion is that the grains of pollen were being bombarded by myriads of water molecules moving at random. The molecules were too small to be resolved by the microscopes. Their presence could only be inferred by observing Brownian motion.

So, Brownian motion is the name given to the random motion of particles in gases or liquids. The particles follow a ‘random walk’ or a ‘drunkard’s path’ because they are round and elastic, bouncing off one another in proportion to the temperature of the system. Or so the kinetic theory of gases would argue. If this seems self-evident, it sure wasn’t in 1829. Molecules: what are those? Didn’t matter contain phlogiston, an element with the property of fire which enables combustion? And so on. It wasn’t until 1905 that someone figured out the true cause behind the disturbingly random movements in Brownian motion. It took Einstein to figure it out.

Levels of Uncertainty and Order in Brownian Motion

Now, what is most interesting about Brownian motion is that here is a system that is completely random, unpredictable, and lacking certainty on one level but exhibits form, predictability, and order on another level.

On a micro level, the random walk of a gas particle in a container is, well, completely random. That is to say, there is no force in the universe which is capable of predicting whither it will go. God doesn’t know. Ask Laplace’s demon and he would tell you many other things, but the random walk is beyond his intelligence.

All this uncertainty: very frustrating! What can be done? Well, nothing can be done. The uncertainty resolves itself! How? On a macro level, a container of gas exhibits form, predictability, and order. Gas in a container-that is to say millions of billions of particles all randomly walking-is governed by such things as Boyle’s Law (pressure inversely proportional to volume) and the transfer of kinetic energy (temperature) of the container to the outside world is also well regulated.

How it happens that on a micro level things are completely random (individual particles of gas randomly walking) and on a macro level things are completely determinate (billions of particle of gas have well defined characteristics including temperature, energy, pressure, etc.,) is beyond me. At some point, however, chaos gives way to order. Keep this in mind for now.

Tragedy, Comedy, and History

Ever thought about how randomness, unpredictability, and the unexpected dominate comedy and tragedy. In comedy, the unlikely couple overcome cantankerous patriarchs, and social and economic barriers to become happily married. In tragedy, the unexpected also dominates: Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane hill every time. But now turn your attention to history. Patterns emerge. Some of the patterns are linear. Fukuyama thought that history aimed towards achieving democratic capitalist societies. Then history ends. Marx thought history strives towards the communist revolution. Patterns can be linear. Polybius believed in anacyclosis, the doctrine that constitutions move cyclically from monarchy to tyranny to aristocracy to oligarchy to democracy to ochlocracy and then back again to monarchy. The patterns in history are reflective of a reality that has form, order, and is predictable. If tragedy, comedy, and history all represent reality, is comedy and tragedy correct or is history correct? After all, the unexpected reigns in comedy and tragedy while the expected reigns in history.

Come back now to the behavior of gases on a micro and macro level. On a micro level, Brownian motion is the term used to describe the unexpected ways particles move around at random. On a macro level, patterns emerge that are predictable (e.g. as pressure increases volume decreases). Tragedy and comedy look at the world from a micro level. They usually dramatize the actions of a day or less (the unity of time). History looks at the world from a macro level. It records actions taken place over decades and centuries. In this way, the short term randomness of a day yields to long term order and patterns. So comedy and tragedy versus history is like looking at Brownian motion: on a small scale, disorder. On a large scale, order. Neither are right or wrong. They are looking at the same reality from a different perspective.

It always astounds me how many parallels there are between science and art. It may have something to do with how we look at the world. Whether we are artists or scientists, we look at the world with the same set of eyes and the same intellectual apparatus. So perhaps the parallels between science and art rests on humanity and the all-too-human way of understanding things.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work by figuring out the secrets to tragic literary theory.

The Prologue in Comedy

Diligent readers will recall that comedy has been on the reading list of late. There’s the Old Comedy of Aristophanes (446-386 BC), the New Comedy of Menander (341-291), and the Roman comedies of Plautus (254-184) and Terence (186-159). Next up will probably be Moliere, Congreve, and Shakes. The purpose of reading comedy is to see how it handles the theme of the unexpected. Of course, reading comedy is also a delight unto itself! Just finished reading Terence’s The Eunuch where a young man disguises himself as a eunuch to go in the whorehouse. You can just imagine what happens! Of course, some of the things are politically incorrect to laugh at nowadays. Women, for example, are frequently ravished, and when they find out they are actually freeborn, they get married to their ravishers and everyone rejoices. But some jokes maintain their timelessness. For example when the head mistress complains that her incompetent champion needs a champion himself:

Thais: You must talk to him firmly.

Chremes: I will…

Thais: Prepare yourself for action [aside] Good heavens I’m lost. What a man to defend me! He needs a champion of his own!

The Prologue

One thing that sets apart the comedies of Aristophanes, Menander, Plautus, and Terence is the presence or absence of a prologue. Terence uses the prologue to give credit to his Greek predecessors and defend himself from critics. Here’s an excerpt from the prologue to The Eunuch:

If there are people who try to please as many and hurt as few honest men as possible, the poet begs to announce himself one of their number. Furthermore, if someone has thought something too harsh has been said against him, he must realize that this was not an attack but an answer, for he launched the first assault. For all his competence as a translator, his poor style of writing has turned good Greek plays into bad Latin ones. He is also the man who has just given us The Spectre of Menander, and in his Treasure made the defendant state his claim to the money before the plaintiff puts his won case…

Plautus uses the prologue to set the scene and lay out the argument. Frequently a divinity addresses the audience. Here’s an excerpt from the prologue to Amphitryo delivered by Mercury:

The scene is laid in Thebes. That is Amphitryo’s house. He comes of an Argive family. His wife is Alumna, daughter of Electrus. At the moment, Amphitryo is commanding the Theban army; Thebes is at war with the Teleboians. Amphitryo went away leaving Alumna pregnant. Jupiter…well, you know, of course, how-what shall I say-broad minded he has always been in these affairs, what a wonderful lover he is, when he comes across something he fancies…

Menander uses the prologue in much the same way as Plautus. Here’s an example from Old Cantankerous delivered by Pan:

Imagine, please, that the scene is set in Attica, in fact at Phyle, and that the shrine I’m coming from is the one belonging to that village (Phylaeans are able to farm this stony ground). It’s a holy place, and a very famous one. This farm here on my right is where Knemon lives: he’s a real hermit of  man, who snarls at everyone and hates company…

Aristophanes does not use prologues. What is to happen develops as a matter of course from the action. Here’s the beginning to The Clouds:

Strepsiades: Yaaaahhuuuuu. Great Zeus Almighty, what an endless monster of a night it’s been! Won’t the daylight ever come? I could have sworn I heard the roosters crowing hours ago. And listen to those slaves. Still snoring away! By god, things around here were a long sight different in the good old days before this war! Drat this stinking war anyway! It’s ruined Athens. Why, you can’t even whip your own slaves any more or they’ll desert to the Spartans. Bah. [pointing to Pheidippides] And as for him, that precious playboy son of mine, he’s worse yet. Look at him, stretched out there sleeping like a log under five fat blankets, farting away. All right, if that’s the way you want it, boy, I’ll snuggle down and fart you back a burst or two. Damn! I’m so bitten up by all these blasted bedbuggering debts and bills and stables-fees, I can’t catch a wink.

So, the play will be about his son and debts. But this is known not by prologue, but by action and dialogue.

Which is Best?

Which style do you like best? No prologue (Aristophanes), prologue to hear dramatist venting (Terence), or prologues that give out the argument of the play (Menander and Plautus)? If you ask me, the best is Terence: with prologue but prologue is not about events in the play. It is best just because it’s fun seeing him dig up dirt on rivals. And acknowledging his debts and sources is always excellent as well. Second best is Aristophanes: no prologue. In both Terence and Aristophanes’ cases, the plot develops organically from the action. Drama is from the Greek verb dran ‘do, act’. The natural function of drama then is to do or act, not narrate, which is what a prologue does. If I had wanted narration, I would have read a novel, not seen a play. So, having said this, least best is the prologue in Menander and Plautus which tells the audience what will happen instead of acting out what will happen. It is least best because narration is foreign to the function of drama. Why would Menander and Plautus used the clumsy prologue than? Perhaps they were unsure of the sophistication of their audiences, the capacity of their audiences to follow the action. The prologue would have solved this. Aristophanes wrote in Athens for an Athenocentric audience: they likely shared a similar point of view so the danger of being misunderstood was low. Menander and Plautus likely wrote plays which would have been performed throughout the wide Hellenic world: more danger of misunderstanding. So that might be a reason why. Not that I forgive them for this indiscretion to the spirit of drama, though.

Other Examples of Art Doing Things Contrary to Its Nature

Lately there seem to be some movies fascinated by stills. So if prologues in drama is a drama wanting to be a novel, stills in movies is a sign of a movie wanting to be photography (a still instead of a moving image). One movie that had a lot of breathtaking stills was Snyder’s 300. Though breathtaking, the cinematic experience allows motion: motion is its natural element whereas the frozen frame is the natural element of photography. Why confuse the two?

A common feature of medieval art is the speech scroll or the banderole:

Non est Deus Banderole, Master of Ingeborg Psalter 1210

Non est Deus Banderole, Master of Ingeborg Psalter 1210

Here is a visual representation of Psalm 14, ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God’. The banderole quotes the psalm, non est Deus. But this is a painting, whose function is not to narrate speech. The painter could have depicted the man trampling the bible or doing some other act visually to indicate this. The purpose of painting is to capture the imagistic heart of a moment. The banderole, being speech, takes away from the image and is contrary to the nature of the visual representation.

The other day, I was watching Kurosawa’s The Idiot (his adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novel) with MR and MA. One thing that got my attention was Kurosawa’s use of text to get the audience up to speed on the prehistory and argument of the movie. Again, I thought, ‘if it is a movie, why couldn’t this be done through the action proper?’.

In each for of art, there must be a telos: its proper function. When art observes its telos, it is in order. When art exceeds its telos, what is it-out of order, perhaps?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I have been Doing Melpomene’s Work.