The public theatre today is dominated by humour. Comic performance is by far the most popular and commercial theatre is the most viable. In the Caribbean, however, this is a source of worry. There is great concern that comic theatre has crowded out what has been called “serious theatre”; that “serious theatre” will always suffer at the box office; and that the popular and the comic are an inferior brand that has contributed to the deterioration of the local stage.
When comic plays began to make a definite impact in Jamaica there was resounding resistance and condemnation from some circles. Nevertheless, the popular play became an important factor in the development of Caribbean theatre and the ascension of comedy spread all over the Caribbean. In Guyana, there is a notion of quality that excludes comedy altogether and regrets the fact that only comedy will fill an auditorium.
The theatre that is overwhelmingly dominant from a popular standpoint, and commands the people’s attention is the stand-up comedy of Uncensored, the farce of Nothing to Laugh About and the satire of The Link Show. For some, this is cause for concern and there is a need for alternative choices to get a share of the market. Very promising alternative types are emerging and making their presence felt, but that presence is still to be felt in the box office.
However, there is a deep and lengthy history of comic performance in the region which will challenge that notion of the superficiality and mediocrity of comedy. It is a history worth telling, but the focus here will be on the fact that humour has been a serious part of the development and growth of theatre around the world and has been a feature since the very origins of drama in the western world.
Theatre originated in religious ritual in pre-historic times, but western drama had its beginnings among the ancient Greeks. The Classical theatre then, was also rooted in religious ceremony and when plays were written they served a national public purpose of religious education. The tragedies were particularly designed for that, but among the early plays of the period beginning in the 5th Century BC, were comedies and satyr plays. The comedies were concerned with critical commentary and satirical examination of society and politics. The festivals devoted to the god Dionysus included a competition among playwrights who had to include tragedies, comedies and satyr plays in their productions. Humour was therefore a part of drama from those beginnings.
Interestingly, laughter for the Greeks arose from a theory that people will laugh at what they consider inferior to them, their norms and practices. There was sane, acceptable behaviour, but what fell outside of this was considered ridiculous and laughable because it was not right. The audience would see itself as normal and superior, and would therefore look down on folly and render it ridiculous and laughable. Satire would then be aimed at errant or unacceptable behaviour. Much good humour was found in plays whose first function was to take a critical look at the society, but they were funny because the audience looked down on the ridiculousness in human behaviour.
Sexual humour is in abundance in the comic theatre of today. This itself is seen as worrying, and there are those who would wish to eliminate the sexual content and its brand of humour from the theatre because they find it lascivious, vulgar and a threat to good morals. They also see it as inferior in quality. Yet, bawdy laughter existed in Greek comedies, and in some of the best of Aristophanes. It was there from the beginning. Ironically, it was this same attitude that helped to kill off the theatre around the 5th Century AD. The newly founded Christian church frowned upon theatre because of its content in Roman society which they also thought was fraught with lasciviousness and corrupting influences. The theatre declined along with the Roman Empire and faded away into nothingness.
Many centuries later comic theatre was reborn in the late Middle Ages. Another irony is that while the church rejoiced at the fall of theatre, it was the same Roman Catholic Church that gave drama its rebirth when the priests began to write and perform drama in the church to teach feudal society about Christianity. Eventually it spread among the population and was taken over by townspeople, guilds and tradesmen. The main type of play that they developed was the morality play. The main theme of morality plays was the journey through life made by a character called ‘Everyman,’ obviously representative of mankind. He was influenced by good angels on one side and evil devils on the other who fight to win his soul. ‘Everyman’ then, after numerous experiences, had to choose between salvation of his soul and heaven, or the damnation of his soul in hell.
By this time entertainment of an audience became most important in theatre, and not so much religious education. People began to pay to see plays and professional theatre was born. Laughter became a staple to interest a popular audience and farce and slapstick rose in the performance of those plays. According to descriptions of this drama, the audiences delighted in the pitched battles between the angels and the demons on stage, as well as the devils tearing ‘Everyman’ to pieces and dragging him off to hell if he did not choose salvation by the good angels at the end of the play.
People – theatre audiences – have not changed since the late Mediaeval period through the 12th Century AD until the moralities faded away in the 16th Century. They remained popular right up to the Elizabethan era. Around the same time, too, among the folk, there were folk forms of theatre developing, such as the mummeries and the pantomime in Great Britain. The pantomime dramatized a folk tale or fairy tale with a romantic plot. Relevant to this account is the inclusion of a character known as the ‘Dame’ in all pantomimes. This was a woman, always played by a male actor, who was given to all manner of farcical and slapstick performance.
Pantomimes were funny in Europe as well, as other forms developed first in Italy, then moving across France and Spain. One major type was the ‘commedia dell ’arte’ with a company of stock characters, some of whom were very funny turning out many humorous situations. The ‘Troubadours’ and other travelling companies toured the countryside to perform in towns along the way. One very well known play which was modelled on the plot structure of the ‘commedia dell ’arte’ is The Miser by Molière.
Elizabethan theatre (1558 – 1603) made great use of Classical drama, including comedies. This was the greatest age in English drama when the professional theatre became most developed with the building of permanent theatres, professional companies in which careers were built in playwriting, acting, directing and producing. Once again, practitioners were paid and there was a paying audience. Drama reached an extremely high level of intellectualism and adaptations of the Classical, but it was, just as it was in the late Middle Ages and as it is today, very audience driven. Farce and slapstick continued and the genius Christopher Marlowe made good use of it even in tragedies.
Sexual humour made its reappearance, continuing on from the Italian Boccaccio and the great Geoffrey Chaucer to no less a maestro as William Shakespeare himself. The great Bard of Avon remembered that theatre was for its audience and wrote several scenes especially for their delight. He made use of situational and ironic humour even in tragedies as in Julius Caesar. He employed sexual humour, again, even in tragedies such as in Romeo and Juliet and in Macbeth’s famous porter scene.
In the world of theatre, laughter is perennial, and never fails to make its reappearance every time drama reappears after a break or a disappearance. This happened again in the restoration theatre in 1660 after it was banned in 1642. The Puritans under Oliver Cromwell ruled England from 1649 and supported a prohibition against sinful, lascivious public theatre. This ban was revoked when the king regained the country in 1660. There was yet another rebirth of theatre and of comedy in drama. The theatres were rebuilt and women were acting on stage for the first time. This let in greater intimacy among performers and male-female interactions led to the usual audience driven sexual humour that became very popular after the restoration. The great comedies of manners developed in this period.
Even in the Neo-Classical era, humour became paramount. That period in the early 18th Century was known as “the Age of Satire” because of the popularity of dramas satirizing social and political corruption and behaviour. There were high and low burlesque, operas and comedies all using laughter as a tool to criticize the times.
The cycle is non-ending, and one could go through the development of the English Music Halls through the 19th and right up to the middle 20th centuries. One finds the history repeating itself – many rebirths of theatre, and every time the emergence of humour to satisfy an audience that delighted in it.
This account was largely limited to Western theatre, Europe and the UK. However, it is very representative. An examination of the theatre of many African civilizations will find an emphasis on humour. The traditions that transmigrated over to the Caribbean brought comic performance and satire with them. There is a reserve of laughter and sometimes a clown figure still seen in Indian Bollywood cinema. The high levels of worry and concern expressed in Guyana and the Caribbean today over comedy on the stage might itself be in need of a re-examination.
The resemblances over the centuries are profoundly ironic and significant.