“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
These lines, attributed to actor Edmund Gwenn (Santa in the original “Miracle on 34th Street”), sum up the state of comedy today with one important twist. Given the state of contemporary humor: Dying is easy. Comedy is nonexistent.
As a culture, we have been instructed not to laugh anymore and definitely not to enjoy ourselves unless we are miserable. So careful are we that we might offend another with even the most innocuous comment, we have become essentially a humorless society, overseen by scolds. The Natural Theater—the antidote to the Theater of Misery—seeks to reintroduce humor into our lives.
In coining the term “Natural Theater,” in addition to restoring humor, I aim to restore protagonists to a state capable of self-reflection and heroism, rather than to one of victimization by oppressors, as “Theater of Misery,” another term I’ve coined, would have it.
One of the built-in problems with comedy is that we often don’t know what to do with it, much less how to do it effectively. Aristotle, the first theater critic, didn’t have a lot to say about comedy, at least that we know about. In his “The Poetics,” the first and most important work on dramatic literature, we learn that Aristotle thought comedy to be somewhat of a lesser artform than tragedy and that comic characters were more frivolous than their tragic counterparts. They were, as he put it, “men … worse than others.”
But the Theater of Misery has in many respects turned Aristotle on his ear by elevating those “worse than others” into a prominence they do not deserve. The Natural Theater, therefore, strives to put the “worse” man in his proper place, while elevating, of course, those who are worthy of our esteem. In so doing, it never abandons humor.
There’s no doubt that comedy in ancient Greece, a source for Natural Theater, often served a greater purpose than mere entertainment. The great Greek comic writer Aristophanes juxtaposed comedy with more serious issues. Arguably his most famous play, “Lysistrata,” satirizes the seemingly endless Peloponnesian War by using elements of farce, wordplay, and slapstick to make its point. The women in “Lysistrata” do not want equal rights; they want the killing to end and their men home.
Aside from the Greeks, we have great comic playwrights such as Molière and Oscar Wilde, who used comedy to point out pretensions and hypocrisy among those who profess an air of respectability. (Molière’s “The Misanthrope” and Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” come to mind.) The comedy in their work comes from audience members laughing at the foibles of others while at the same time retaining the ability to laugh at themselves. After all, who among us does not have foibles?
Even the formulaic comedies of Neil Simon—as weak and television-inspired as they are (more on television later)—allow us the privilege of poking fun at other people’s idiosyncrasies while believing that we are free of similar peculiarities.
The human eccentricities that were once the subject of comedic plays are now seen to be too hurtful or, in our contemporary parlance, “hateful” to be allowed. The sometimes not-so-gentle attacks on characters deserving of scorn have now become symptomatic of an oppressive society. We have positioned outcasts as misunderstood victims of our society.
In an ironic twist, those we once laughed at are now the characters we must take most seriously. One can imagine an effeminate fop, such as the titular character of George Etheridge’s “The Man of Mode or Sir Fopling Flutter,” causing teeth gnashing today among the socially conscious at the alleged homophobia of his demeanor, even though fops were generally heterosexual. Or consider the portrayal of Noah’s gossiping wife in the medieval cycle plays, and how her portrayal—meant to be comic relief for the serious work of ark building—might be seen as misogynistic by the sensitive souls of today. With so much investigation and consternation surrounding the arts, it’s no wonder we’re losing our ability to laugh at ourselves.
What is the cause of our comedic writing woes, and how do we recover? I believe that a number of factors have led to the dearth of effective comedic writing. One of them, obviously, is the turn that our culture has made toward the glorification of the oppressed. This has, I suspect, made our playwrights fearful of offending anybody, unless, of course, the offended does not fit into the assigned categories of victims.
Another is television, which in itself is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, television comedy is the source of endless superficialities with a constant emphasis on sexual conquest—or failure. To be sure, desires of the flesh have been comically portrayed onstage for centuries. But never before have they been so consistently presented with an eye toward elevating the perpetrator and considering sexual yearnings to be just another day at the office.
Molière’s sexual predator Tartuffe is ridiculed, finally getting his comeuppance at the end of the play. Is there any comeuppance for today’s lascivious men who seem to be everywhere since the sexual revolution of the 1960s? No, usually these men get a pat on the back—“Way to go, bro!”
On the other hand, television, particularly through its news providers, promotes the aforementioned cultural turn, creating the perception that the vast majority in this country see the world as a split between victims and oppressors, while the destructive minority is hopelessly traditional and in great need of reeducation.
I suspect that the opposite is true: The “traditional” folks are everywhere, but the often literally destructive minority run the show. Comedy is a casualty in either case.
Natural and Funny Theater
The Natural Theater can break the hold that those resistant to humor have on the arts. This impacts not only theater but also stand-up comedy as well.
First, we must produce the comedies of old and do so proudly. We must present them free of modern-day analysis—Lysistrata is not unhappy with the status quo, and Kate is a shrew. We must expect directors to emphasize the comedy of situations and characters and to let audience members enjoy themselves without guilt or an unnecessary examination of societal ills except as it serves the plot. For goodness’ sake, let’s have fun!
Second, we must start writing such plays again. Contrary to what some believe, theater is not and has never been a safe space. We should be unafraid to point out societal ills as a subject of our ridicule—despite the majority of the artistic community telling us that we have no right to do so if our spoof is not of a particular ideology. We should have no fear of poking fun at misfit characters, whose choices in life make them subject to mockery. They are not victims! Therefore, they are fit to instruct us toward a more dignified path in life, lest the same fate await us.
The Natural Theater welcomes comedy as much as it does tragedy, but it wants comedy to be every bit as cautionary and redemptive as more serious fare. You think that’s easy to do? Just ask Edmund Gwenn.
Robert Cooperman is the founder of Stage Right Theatrics, a theater company dedicated to the preservation of the founders’ vision through the arts. Originally from Queens, New York, he now lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he earned his doctorate at The Ohio State University.