There’s a old adage in the theatre: Dying is easy, comedy is hard. That’s probably why I remember so clearly my first comic bit. It was in The Imaginary Invalid. I played Louison the youngest daughter of Argan the invalid.
My one scene was rather simple. Argan wants to find out from Louison about the man her older sister is in love with. When Louison won’t tell him, he tries to beat it out of her, but she outsmarts him, by instantly playing dead, until he repents having killed his daughter.
We played this scene by having me run behind a large wooden chair. David Brigham, the actor playing Argan, would strike the back of the chair with his stick well above my head, and then I made a comic scream and played dead.
One day in rehearsal I had an idea, and I shyly approached the director and asked if when David hit the chair, I could throw the small stuffed clown I was carrying up into the air. The director approved, and so night after night I would run behind the chair and when David struck it, the clown would go sailing comically high into the air, and the audience would laugh.
Nine years old and I was already a comedic genius.
A couple of lessons well learned from our seventh season: Don’t cut; don’t mix genres, styles, or voices in a single evening’s production. The first lesson proved its value in our opening show: The Importance of Being Earnest. We did not do the standard received version of the play which is Wilde’s cutting of his original four-act play. We did our reconstruction of his original version from a compilation of drafts and hand-written and typed fragments preserved in a limited edition of the play we found in the rare-books room in Norlin Library. As far as we know we are the only company ever, in the English-speaking world to have produced that play. (There is some evidence Wilde’s original was sent off to a German translator, for there is a record of a German version, Ernst Sein!, with “major additions of unknown authorship.”) Anyway, more about that another time.
But we closed our eighth season with Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid and there is perhaps no play that violates our second rule more thoroughly. It’s Molière’s last play and it is—mostly—a conventional seventeenth century French farce. Argan, a hypochondriac, tired of paying physicians to cure his imaginary illnesses decides to marry his daughter to a physician so he can get free health care. There is a sub-plot in which his wife, Béline, tries to get him to change his will to give everything to her. The first act ends with these two plots established. Angélique, his daughter, asks Toinette, her maid, to contact Cléante, her lover and enlist his aid. Toinette says:
“There’s no one I can get to do it except the old loan shark Pulchinello, my admirer; and it’ll cost me a couple of sweet words, but I can spare them for you.”
Then there is an interlude. Pulchinello enters. Pulchinello! He is a continuing character in Italian commedia del’arte, the source of our Punch. He enters and sings a comic love song in Italian to an old woman, not Toinette, who rejects him. Then he is accosted by a dozen or so “archers” armed with slap-sticks who beat him until he gives them money. There really is such a thing as a slap-stick. It looks something like a cricket bat, but it is split down the middle so when you hit something with it the two halves, momentarily separated by the swing, hit each other with a loud clap. We built a dozen of them. The interlude has nothing whatever to do with the play; it does not advance the plot, it’s style is totally different, and every translation of the play into English I could find on the internet simply ignores it. They all simply say “First interlude” and go on to Act II.
Act II continues the plot. There are scenes between Argan and various doctors, love scenes between Angélique and Cléante, and then the second interlude: A musical number by a half-dozen Moorish women, followed by a ballet done by them and some unspecified number of monkeys. Yes, monkeys. We could have done the Moors; the women in the show could easily have put on some sort of robe to suggest Moorishness and danced, but not a single monkey showed up for auditions so we did the best we could: we staged a comic ballet.
Then Act III. Argan’s brother, Béralde shows up and persuades Argan that even better than having a doctor as his son-in-law is becoming a doctor himself. And all he needs to become a doctor is to learn a little Latin. (This may be pretty close to actual seventeenth century medical science.) Here’s how Act III ends:
Toinette: What’s your plan?
Béralde: To have a little fun this evening. The actors have prepared a little interlude about the investiture of a doctor, with music and dance; I want us to all take part in the entertainment, and I want my brother to play the leading role. We can each take a character, and perform the interlude for ourselves. After all, this is only a play.
“After all this is only a play.” Could you end a play like Hamlet or Lear or Death of a Salesman with a line like that? So I think what I said about consistency of tone and style is only true of serious drama. Shakespeare could violate this rule; there are comic scenes at critical moments in many of his tragedies, but just because he could manage it doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. Don’t try it.
Think of the great variety shows of twentieth century television. They were all comic. They could move between comic skits, musical or dance numbers, and stand-up routines. But I do not remember a single tragic episode in the Carol Burnett Show orSaturday Night Live. Comedy is a special form. It breaks all the rules.