We love to laugh and to hear laughter – we respond to our mother's laughter while we're still in the womb. Perhaps even then we're hoping life is going to turn up roses and there will be a happy ending, the very thing that by definition a comedy provides.
As we grow older we may begin to fear that life is a tragicomedy, and we want laughter more than ever because laughter and comedy nurture love. Truly falling in love, as James Woods writes, "is the conversion of laughing-at into laughing-with." This transformation is the hidden spring of British comedy, and it has some good news for us.
We like to laugh, but how many people that we know can actually catapult us into comedic bliss? Comic writers are rare. Comedy requires an artist who can crack the shell of character, whip it up, fold it together with the lightest of hands in the bowl of set-up, apply the heat of plot, and cook his soufflé while galloping on horseback. Given the difficulty, the number of British writers with a talent for this are surprisingly high – a brief search online for 'British comedy' gave us 41 million returns.
That's the Web for you – it leaves us empowered and helpless at the same time. Since we have to ignore most of them, we'll look (with apologies to Shakespeare) at these comic writers:
In the only portrait of him, Geoffrey Chaucer has amused eyes. He has seen the world, dined with kings, and fought off thieves. Fortunately for literature, he loses his lucrative and demanding customs post, and dedicates the last impecunious years of his life to writing the comedy called The Canterbury Tales.
The word comedy derives from two Ancient Greek words meaning community and having fun. Chaucer imagines a diverse company of pilgrims, and sets them on the road to Canterbury. He introduces them in witty rhyming couplets, and has them tell entertaining, romantic, cunning, gruesome, and philosophical stories. We don’t know how happily their pilgrimage might have ended because at the age of 70 Chaucer died with his Tales unfinished. Nevertheless he has accomplished something entirely unexpected.
When Geoffrey Chaucer began writing there were three languages in England – Norman French, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon; largely due to him, when he put down his pen in 1400, there was one – the marvellous language called English.
Chaucer's bold Wife of Bath, with her gap-toothed smile, red face and red stockings, substantial hips and even more ample intelligence, is our first indication that British comedy will level the playing field between men and women. This is revolutionary, and was probably the result of Chaucer paying attention to reality, which turns out to be an essential attribute of comic art.
In her tale, the Wife of Bath describes an arrogant knight who rapes a woman. Brought to justice before the Queen, he is told that unless he discovers what women want above all things before a year and a day, he will forfeit his life. We're shocked by his actions, but wanting to know the answer, we stick with him as he searches. He hears dozens of different answers, but none of them seem right. Just before time runs out, he meets an ugly old woman who promises to give him the correct answer if he promises to marry her. Of course he promises, and when he returns to court with her, the Queen and court agree he has the right answer.
The knight reluctantly keeps the promise he has made, and marries the woman. In bed that night she asks him whether he would prefer her to be ugly and true or beautiful and false. The young man finally knows himself, and chooses what he once thought himself too good for – a true but ugly woman. In that moment his wife, who has been under a spell, is transformed into a beautiful, young woman. The knight is forgiven, and given a beautiful and unexpected gift – a true, wise, and gorgeous wife. This is a fascinating introduction to the role of women in British comedy, even if you do not believe that Chaucer has identified what it is that every woman wants - power.
Reading Chaucer provides many insights into male psychology as well, but we like him because he sees that women are witty. Shakespeare is clearly convinced of that fact, and, jumping ahead several centuries, playwrights Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith in the 18th century, and Oscar Wilde in the 19th, create sizzling comedic heroines. It's noteworthy that British playwrights admire bright, witty, independent-minded women.
Sheridan, Goldsmith, and Wilde
Sheridan, Goldsmith, and Wilde, all born in Ireland of Anglo-Irish families, moved to England in their 20s, and wrote comedies produced on the London stage, where their flamboyant and immensely successful careers proved comet like, spanning less than a decade per man. Their careers ended with Goldsmith dying, Wilde in prison, and Sheridan in Parliament.
Sheridan, who survived elopement, two duels, and near bankruptcy before he was twenty-two, has a biography that resembles his theatrical plots. In plays like The Rivals and The School for Scandal his young lovers, malicious sophisticates, and spendthrift spouses teeter at cross purposes, and plummet into catastrophe as Sheridan pricks pomposity, skewers self-righteousness, and makes immorality look ridiculous.
Through it all his characters maintain their zest for life and their sense that the only real poverty is lack of self-possession. “I wonder you can have such spirits under so many distresses,” remarks one. “Why, there’s the point!” responds the other, “My distresses are so many, that I can’t afford to part with my spirits.” The hero's imperturbability and insouciance model real-life attitudes of coolness under fire.
Goldsmith modeled this attitude in his life. He wrote the novel The Vicar of Wakefield and the play She Stoops to Conquer in a warm, charming, and humorous vein despite being overwhelmed by debt. Engagingly psychological he has a sure and genial touch whether describing a flummoxed lover; a pleasant but avaricious mother; or young sport Tony Hardcastle (“Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no fibs”).
Like his predecessors, Oscar Wilde was keenly aware of the social hypocrisies that smothered his characters’ lives, and his plays crackle with epigrams flung like grenades. He made his reputation in theatre in three years, between 1892 and 1895. Wilde exposes the tyranny of expectations and the shackles of social hypocrisy. His intricately plotted entertainments involve blackmail, political corruption and mistaken identity, and have been quoted for more than a hundred years since Wilde’s skill with a one-liner is almost unparalleled. A favourite is his definition of the cynic -
A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
In Wilde's plays, many masks crash to the ground, but amid the ruins a flower grows, a glimpse of blue sky gleams. Wilde's most tender moments are reserved for the man or woman who remains true to kind-hearted love.
Arrested for committing acts of indecency with males, tried (several times – his first jury could not arrive at a verdict), Wilde was convicted and imprisoned. He wrote two profound and poignant works in jail: The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis, a passionate examination of Christ, how the Passion had created culture, and Christ's personal meaning for the writer. Wilde admitted in De Profundis that his tragedy was to discover he had poured his genius into his life rather than his art.
It was not a mistake made by P.G. Wodehouse who wrote more than ninety of the funniest novels in English literature, more than 30 plays, and 20 film scripts before dying at ninety-four on Valentine's Day, 1975.
Plum, as his friends called him, was a kind and diligent man who lived in Britain, France, and America, and sometimes published two or three books a year, but never managed to satiate his many readers. During World War II he was seized by the Nazis, and innocently made a terrible mistake for which he paid for the rest of his life. This, however, did not stop the publication of his books, which sold hundreds of millions of copies around the world.
Shashi Tharoor, a fan from India, writes,
PG Wodehouse is by far the most popular English-language writer in India. . .His erudite butlers, absent-minded earls and silly-ass aristocrats, out to pinch policemen's helmets on boat race night or perform convoluted acts of petty larceny at the behest of tyrannical aunts, are familiar to, and beloved by, most educated Indians.
When Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, creator of Jeeves and of the prize pig the Empress of Blandings, died,
. . .every English-language newspaper in India carried it on their front pages. . .the world he created, from London's Drones Club to the village of Matcham Scratchings, was a world of the imagination, to which Indians required no visa. But they did need a passport, and that was the English language. English was undoubtedly Britain's most valuable and abiding legacy to India, and educated Indians, a famously polyglot people, rapidly learned and delighted in it - both for itself, and as a means to various ends. . .
Wodehouse has something witty to say about almost everything -
Unlike the male codfish which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.
Like so many substantial citizens of America, he had married young and kept on marrying, springing from blonde to blonde like the chamois of the Alps leaping from crag to crag.
He groaned slightly and winced, like Prometheus watching his vulture dropping in for lunch.
As PG delivers his comical confections, he throws ideas like darts over his shoulder, and often hits a bull’s eye -
He braced himself with that painful air of effort which announces to the world that an Englishman is about to speak a language other than his own.
That would be the language called American.
Wodehouse's plotting is delicious, like riding a roller coaster or a wave, but the business of finding work or enduring an awful job is realistically described. Notwithstanding remarks about the chump, Wodehouse likes brains in a man and a woman.
But he’s too ethical and subtle to admire brains for their own sake. He wants his men and women to use their minds to become authentic people. It’s a wonderful ideal, even when tilted like a flag flying over a stricken field.
Wodehouse is happy when one of his heroes finds well-paid work that draws on his deepest affections, and meets a woman he can really love. He's equally generous to his heroines.
It’s a lovely trait in an author. This may be one reason that though his books were once outlawed by Stalin, they have made a comeback in Russia -
This leads us to an idea about British comedy you may like. But first a detour.
Monty Python, a team of five Brits and an American, used 20th century cinematic and animation techniques to produce memorable slap-stick send-ups on stage and in film of most human prejudices, many psychological states and some cultural insitutions we respect such as King Arthur and the Christian Church. Their most recent effort is Spamalot, a musical based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Monty Python is reminiscent of panto performances, attended by thousands of giddy British children and their parents in December and January. On stage, actors in big wigs and hats and gaudy costumes – with the occasional man decked out as a woman and a woman masquerading as a man – deliver saucy send-ups of fairy tales while bounding on and off stage, singing, and imploring the audience to respond. The audience laughs, roars, sings and shouts warnings.
Monty Python made mocking cultural icons a year-round theatrical spectacle, and were deliciously barbed and silly. Interestingly their wit could not be confined to left-wing topics. Here in The Life of Brian they present a wry take on the largely unloved Roman Empire -
A Beautiful Idea
In the best British comedy, wit and psychological insights tumble from every mouth, but there are no hidden agendas or self-righteous sociological theories. In these fictional worlds all our very real problems – making a living, bringing up our children, staying married, and staying alive – are transformed into giddy gambols. We experience the ecstasy of healing laughter. We forget our troubles. We forget ourselves.
In this world, British comedy’s most beautiful and profound idea is always on view, shimmering naturally like light on water. Without it, we could never see what is funny, and British comedy would never have been born. The idea shining in British comedy is the principle that to be brave, truthful, free, and forgiving is the best way to be.
Moving with assured craftsmanship and an exhilarating dash of craziness, the Brits mount The Goon Show, Hancock, Steptoe and Son, Fawlty Towers, Mr Bean, and dozens of other comedies on stage, radio, and TV. We have not attempted to give sitcoms their just deserts. We would be glad to hear from anyone who would like to contribute a piece on British television comedy.
When you contribute to this website,
BRITISH ARTISTS ONLINE
Chaucer's pilgrims have told their stories for seven hundred years.
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"Conscience has no more to do with gallantry than it has with politics."
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"The quarrel is a very pretty quarrel as it stands; we should only spoil it by trying to explain it."
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"America had often been discovered before Columbus, but it had always been hushed up." Oscar Wilde
"Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace." -Oscar Wilde
Wilde for US readers
Pick any one of more than 90 books by Wodehouse.
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We warned you about Monty Python.
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This wonderful book describes Britain's gifts to the world. Adults will refresh their understanding of profound events in British history, and young people will find inspiration. Warning: This book defies aggressive secularism and unthinking multiculturalism. Written by the co-editors of this website, Share the Inheritance is beautifully illustrated with 125 colour images and a timeline. Available at Amazon UK and at Amazon USA.