The Theatre, Dec. 1907
Vol. VII No. 82, p. 348
By BENJAMIN DE CASSERES
LAUGHTER is an organic necessity. In the present theatrical season, as in all theatrical seasons since Aristophanes with his little comedies first shivered the solemnity of philosophers and gods, mirth will predominate on the boards—vaudeville, “French comedy,” “light comedy,” “domestic comedy-drama,” “musical comedy,” “comedies of manners.” Ibsen and Strindberg and Maeterlinck may come and go, but the comedian in us goes on forever. On the boards “The Mikado” will outlast “Ghosts” and “The School for Scandal” will still be performed when Bernard Shaw and his plays have long been forgotten.
No one is stronger than Proserpine, goddess of death, except Momus, god of laughter, whom Proserpine cannot slay. Care cudgels us by day with its ebon bludgeon, but at night, O ye weary and cocktail-ridden and stock-ticker-beridden mortals, get ye on to the gay White Way, where the fairy goddess waves her silver-bright stave commanding all to worship.
There is a comic spirit in all things. The gods bowl us over and still we make merry. Hurricane, earthquake and fire conspire to annihilate us, but jocosity and joviality flow in an unbroken stream from the springs of buoyancy set deep within the soul of man.
The instinct that demands “foolish humbug” in theatricals is a sound one based upon human experience. Laughter cleanses; mirth keeps us sane. All comedy is intellectual; and the explosive guffaw that the clown at the Hippodrome elicits or the silent laughter of the mind at the incongruous situations in a Barrie fantasy, such as “The Admirable Crichton,” stems from the same need. The antics of Marceline and Puck differ in degree, not in kind.
The great mass of playgoers go to the theatre to have their minds tickled with the straws of the ridiculous and absurd. They are conscious of the element of incongruity and sportive topsy-turviness that runs through all the affairs of life. We secretly delight in watching a fat man slip up on a banana peel.
How deep was Shakespeare’s mirth when he gave us Puck! Puck, the lordly imp of an upsy-downsy universe; Puck, who is the seer par excellence of the world; Puck, who put a girdle of laughter around the world for evermore; Puck, who smiled and smiled and was not a villain—only a divine sportsman who played with us on the field of the cloth of gray which some have nicknamed Eternity!
Leisure is the condition of laughter. The comic spirit is born in the cradle of contemplation. Mirth is a kind of serene skepticism. Bernard Shaw has confessed that the comic imp in him saved him from the gallows. We can readily imagine that if Harlequin had not incarnated itself in the Irish playwright at birth he would have become a bombmaker.
What saved Shaw was his funny-cells in his brain, just as we are all kept sweet by our funny-bone that over ten thousand artists (sometimes) are going to tickle for us all winter. Only the heart suffers; the brain is the peaceful, undisturbed eternal spectator of the monstrous parade, called Life. The mind never worries, is never in pain. It is the heart—that great lupanar of desires—that is always seducing the mind to its will and its aches and its petty needs. The mind left to itself would laugh forever. For mirth is as old as the first mind that succeeded in detaching itself—were it even for an hour—from the slavery of the emotions. Distance, aloofness, detachment, perspective, impersonality—that is the secret of laughter. Whether it be Joe Weber or Coquelin—what we laugh at in their characterizations is—ourselves!
Momus toujours! The raucous guffaw of Rabelais reverberates to this day. The silvery rill of Cervantes—who dragged Prometheus from his rock and set him tilting at windmills—is Spain’s immortal contribution to the comic view. The dry smile of Molière still lingers on the latest imported French comedy—you can catch it at the Empire in “My Wife.”