[...on seriousness...]

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Comedy is not the opposite of seriousness.

This ought to be obvious, but to many it isn’t.

This is Bob Monkhouse on Parkinson when he was terminally ill.

His joke is funny, but it’s a lot more than that. Some might dismiss it as just a coping mechanism, a way of dulling pain, avoiding it, glossing over it. They would be wrong. As Monkhouse says, he cannot control the cancer, but he can control the way he looks at it, but he’s also doing more than this. Look at the reactions of Peter Kay and Lulu. He’s brought something difficult, painful, incomprehensible into the room. And from Peter Kay’s uncomfortable smile, you can see that by joking he hasn’t made it better. If anything, he’s made it harder.

If we bring a sad thing into the room, sadly, our sadness completes it, and things which are completed need no further thought. They are the thing that they tell us they are. They will never be anything more. We leave knowing what we already knew.

Perhaps we have felt something – and perhaps, for some, that is in itself enough. But when we are talking about pain – the desire to share in it (or rather, to accept the illusion that we are sharing it) is little more than an easy voyeurism. Which is not to say that theatre cannot or should not be painful. It can and should be. Comedy doesn’t deny pain, but it does play with it. It realizes that pain is at once delicate and robust. That serious-minded respect for pain is empty and meaningless, in reality no respect at all. And that conversely playfulness is a sincere and profound form of respect.

A theatre that tells us that it is serious before it deals seriously with serious things is, in fact, no more serious than the Prime Minister’s furrowed brow and deeply concerned eyes as he tells us that “every lost job is a tragedy” while he signs the order to cut the jobs of public sector workers. It is seriousness for those who need things to appear serious without doing the actually hard work that seriousness requires.

In Lars Von Trier’s lowest-of-fi comedy The Boss of It All, the director occasionally interupts his film to reassure us that what we are seeing is, after all, only a comedy, so we definitely shouldn’t think too much about it. It has no bearing on life. What a relief this is, he tells us. Of course, we distrust him.

A theatre (or a critic) which signifies its own seriousness should never be trusted. Signifiers are slippery, and meaning – as much as many would like to nail it down, categorize and ossify it – is a beautiful, dangerous, living thing – flowing, changing, deceiving. Triply so in the theatre which is a beautiful, dangerous, living thing itself. Comedy tells us this, and it is a serious point.

Comedy is not the opposite of seriousness.

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ps – By the way, for the next couple of days there’s a little more of that Monkhouse interview and a lot more other beautiful stuff in this documentary. I heartily recommend it.

One Comment

  1. Posted August 22, 2012 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    on a related note, Mess was one of only two shows in Edinburgh to bring me to tears this year. The other one was also very funny.

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