May 22, 2012 § Leave a comment
Comedy= Tragedy + Time
This formula has always troubled me. It is hard to know who to credit it to. Many people have said similar things throughout history. Another is the line about comedy being when someone else suffers, but you don’t. As soundbites they kind of work, but I have never felt comfortable accepting them as absolute truths. But then, I have never been good at maths.
In preparation of a master’s course I begin in October, I am having to “book up” on works of drama, from classic to contemporary, beginning with The Theban Plays: a trilogy of works by Sophocles, which include the ever-infamous story of Oedipus. In their own time, (around 429 BC in the case of Oedipus the King) these great tragedies were performed as entertainment, but they were also educational, keeping alive old traditions and old stories. People didn’t go to see a new play, but rather to contemplate eternal truths. Language and culture shift parallel to one another, and much of the specifics of the story are alien (and to an extent distracting) to me as a modern person. But eternal truths are eternal, unlike the girl-band Eternal, who lasted six years.
The essential theme of Sophocles’ tragedy trilogy is that of man encountering “more than man”: the forces that appear to govern life. In Poetics (335 BC), the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory, Aristotle spoke of tragic drama as being a series of reversals and discoveries to bring about pity or fear in an audience. Key to this was that the tragic characters (even if kings or queens) were portrayed as universal, relatable figures. Even if they were the focus of hatred in a play, they were never pantomime villains, but rather had a balance of dislikeable and likeable traits.
According to Aristotle, the most effective form of dramatic discovery in tragedy is one that is accompanied by a reversal, that is, “a change from one state of affairs to the opposite”. The same could be said of good comedy.
Aristotle is believed to have written another volume specifically on comedy, which has been lost to time. In Poetics he only mentions it briefly, stating that comedy is “a species of ugliness or badness”, but in a form that is “not painful or injurous”. He continues, “comedy aims at representing men as worse than they are… tragedy as better”, i.e. in comedy, deserving of pain, and in tragedy, undeserving.
Of course, much time has passed since the day of Ancient Greece (hence the name), and it is perhaps no longer as easy to separate comedy from tragedy thus. But this having been said, The Theban Plays and Aristotle’s Poetics remain key texts to contemporary dramatists to this very minute, despite the many trends and changes to life and culture since. So who am I to doubt their eternal wisdom?
In being awarded his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, Samuel Beckett, the Irish novelist, poet, playwright, was commended by the judges for his writing, in which modern man “acquires elevation” through his own destitution. Beckett, perhaps more than any other dramatist presents a problem for a clear definition of comedy or tragedy. His plays are equally both.
In Beckett’s works, physical and verbal comedy is used to explore the idea of the individual in opposition to forces greater than himself, death and bureaucracy, and trapped by language. Though his plays famously offer little reprieve for the characters, they are founded on a rigorous philosophy of humour as self-defence against loss.
We each have our own sense of humour, formed by local and cultural influences. This sense has its public and private forms, and changes as we grow, and it is unique to our individual psychologies. Therefore, this uncomfortable balance between comedy and tragedy is not something that can be defined by any one person from anyone’s perspective but their own. I can’t deny that to see someone else suffer, if it is without serious consequence, is funny, sometimes, but for me, this not enough for a definitive definition of all humour.
There is no doubt in my mind that comedy is a form of rebellion. But rather than being an act of confrontation, good comedy is a show of weakness, be it feigned or under (perhaps hidden) control.
In a documentary I saw which tried (and disappointingly failed) to seek the link between spiritual enlightenment and the ability to laugh, actor/comedian Mike Myers spoke of his compulsion to act silly as being a defensive gesture, albeit through acts of self-violence. “I wanna be the architect of my own embarrassment, thank you very much”. For me, comedy is more than a genre, but a philosophy, teaching a strategy of levity that opposes societal determinism, or your Fate as decreed by The Gods perhaps.
And so back to that mother-lover immemorial, Oedipus. In order to stave off my unresolved questions about tragedy’s relationship to comedy, I went to see a comic retelling of the story, Oedipussy, at the Lyric Hammersmith in London. To say none of my questions were resolved would be to forget the numerous new questions the show raised, all of which are private and deeply regretted. To end on a quote from Aristotle’s Poetics, “Poetry is the product either of a man of great natural ability or of one not wholly sane”.
May 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
This weekend I visited a friend in Oslo, Norway, for the first time. I flew with Ryanair, from Stansted: possibly the worst combination for any journey.
Ryanair’s chairs are a few degrees forward of upright, and unadjustable, and with everyone sat in a position the inverse of natural comfort, it’s hard not to look at the space as resembling the inside of a Playmobil aeroplane; our mannequin-like forms rigid in their uniformity. When you pull the armrest down there is the sound of cheap plastic rubbing against cheap plastic, that indelible squeak of quality. In actually leaving the ground, Ryanair planes truly illustrate the wonder of air travel. It really is amazing that such a piece of crap could fly through the sky. The engines make so much noise that you feel like you are in a washing machine on fast spin, for the length of your journey. If a car makes a lot of noise, you take it to the garage. In Ryanair terms, a lot of engine noise means all is as good as it can be.
Of the numerous times I have flown, only on a couple of occasions have the passengers roundly clapped the “flight team” upon landing. The first time this happened I clapped along, slightly worried as to what I had missed during my nap. A fire? A drought? A plague of locusts ripping the wings to shreds? I find this kind of behaviour all very unnecessary. Yes, it is amazing that we are able to fly through the air in a metal box, and touch back to earth without exploding in a ball of flames. But surely we are all used enough to it by now to move on. It is the engineer’s job to understand the physics, and the pilot to know what to do to not kill us in relation to said physics. Even if you did understanding either job completely, I don’t think that feeling of amazement would actually be resolved. It is essentially incredible.
There is a lot I don’t understand about many things. I don’t applaud birds. I don’t high-five-low-five-on-the-side-down-below-you’re-too-slow my doctor. With flying, it is of course that feeling of having had your life in the pilot and crew’s hands for the length of your journey that compels applause. But surely the trustworthiness of the pilot in this endeavour is integral to our unspoken agreement. If you don’t kill me, I won’t kill anyone else. I personally don’t find it surprising that they have good judgement in this regard, or at least I don’t think it worthy of exceptional thanks. Again, I silently applaud your skills, but it is your job. I know you don’t expect to be clapped, so don’t expect me to join in when others decide to. Maybe that’s why pilots don’t reveal themselves to the passengers before a flight. In our minds they are superhuman figures, perfect and flawless in every way. If I saw my pilot had stubby thumbs, even I might be prone to a round of applause when we land, or a panicked emergency exit mid-flight.
Maybe it’s just me, but I always sense upon landing a moment’s indecision, in which everyone is looking around at everyone else to see whether we are going to clap or not. Their is a general agreement to the idea, but not many will start it off. To be the one clapper is not a happy feeling. When a Ryanair plane lands on time they play a recording of a trumpet triumphantly sounding off. Again, for me, this is unnecessary embellishment. Planes are meant to be on time.
Thinking about it some more, the only thing worse than the clap at the end of a flight would be if it became habit for people to clap and cheer during take off, like a bunch of blokes goading a mate to chug a yard of ale in one sitting.
Oslo was fun. The people were nice. My main cultural learnings to take back to the UK were:
1) Norwegians have something called “Brown Cheese”, which a friend of me told me is cheese stirred so slowly that it turns brown. Mmmm. It is essentially caramelised dairy. I have now tried it, and will never have to taste it again. Phew.
2) They have a squareabout, as opposed to a roundabout, in Oslo, where cars have to take sharp corners around a central island. The sign for a squareabout is identical to that of a roundabout.
3) All liquors and wines are sold at the state-run Wine-Monopoly. You have to applaud them for their honesty in calling it that. The government makes all the profit from booze, and they don’t lie about it.
4) It is ridiculously expensive to live in Norway. To buy a tin of kidney beans, you have to hand the cashier your own kidney.
It doesn’t matter what the Youtube video is, if there are more then three comments underneath, at least one will be highly abusive. I find it amazing that anyone who puts a video up gets emotional when this happens. It is proven that if you put boys in front of a keyboard they would rather use it to serve the god of filth, than any greater force.
Kids nowadays have such access to inappropriate material; violent, pornographic, offensive. In my day you had to make do with that soiled sheet from the Daily Sport which lay by the swings in the park, which you kicked around playfully to cop a glance. Either that or you had to buy your booby-pics off that friend-of-a-friend, the fat one with the moustache, for 20p a page (10p if there was writing on the second side). Today these friend-of-a-friend porn vendors are a dying breed. Alas. Gone with the written letter and Christian values.
May 7, 2012 § 1 Comment
Nothing makes me much sadder than seeing roadside trees that have been cut down unnecessarily. I’m sure they (whoever they are) justify it by saying it was “outgrowing itself”, or some bullshit, but for me there is no justification for it. The other day I noticed that three trees had been chopped to sad stumps next to the Highfields Park, at the University of Nottingham. Was it blocking the cars’ view of the park? Or the dog’s view of the road? Either way, I lazily hate the nonspecific people who decided that was a good idea, in a completely middle-class disenfranchised way.
Do bin-men ever get to their own house on their rounds and realise they have forgotten to put the bins out? Is there a system whereby bin-men are given routes away from their own residence to avoid conflict of interest?
The other day I bought eggs from Aldi. They are the cheapest free range eggs in town. Dirt cheap. So much so, that I was almost expecting to crack them open, and for rocks to fall out. They are so cheap that Aldi has had to limit purchases to three boxes per customer. Forget the petrol shortages, I can see the egg queue slowly forming. It reminded me of a time when I saw two (almost certainly) homeless guys shoplift four big blocks of Cathedral City extra-mature Cheddar from a Co-op. The first thing I thought was maybe one day cheese will be a precious commodity, and we’ll all have to fight tooth and nail for a wheel of Brie, and those other little things we take for granted nowadays. The second thing I thought was those homeless dudes are going to be experiencing a lot of phlegm over the next week. I wonder if they went down the road and stole some pickled onions from the Polish Deli, then sauntered into town and nicked some crackers and port from Waitrose. I’d like to think so.
I wrote recently about how the word “organic” has been held hostage by advertisers and marketing teams, as a byword for quality, as a tool for branding. Well I recently came across a sign for an eatery that claimed that all their pasties were “hand-baked”.
I’m familiar with the term hand-made... You’ll often see claims to “hand-made sandwiches” on signs outside pubs, which qualify a measure of homeliness, of realness, as if to say “we are from another era, where people care enough about you to personally finger your ham baps”. You will also at times see claims to the home-made; mostly in cafes, advertising cakes of some kind or another. But due to the evolution of some very particular rules in language etiquette, you wouldn’t see a cafe claim to have “home-made sandwiches”, or “hand-made cakes”; the former suggesting soggy egg-mayonnaise rolls driven to the shop in a shoebox in the boot, the latter suggesting fingerprints in your chocolate log.
You might see home-baked, perhaps at a cake stall at a village fete, and you can even buy “half-baked baguettes” from supermarkets. But hand-baked?
It sounds like an unnecessarily painful procedure. But maybe to hand-bake a pasty is a kind of ritual branding, a rite of passage, and written into Greggs’ manifesto (I assume they have one) as a way of bringing their staff together into a subterranean society of minimum-wage bakers, which I’m sure exists in the stockrooms or basements of every store, and then across every Greggs nationwide. Like Scientology, but northern.
So, the other day MCA of the Beastie Boys died. As an ode to him, here are some typically original lyrics from the man:
Pass me the scalpel, I’ll make an incision
I’ll cut off the part of your brain that does the bitching
Put it in formaldehyde and put it on a shelf
And you can show it to your friends and say “that’s my old self”