The Comic Spirit in Comedy

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Comic Spirit

      There is the popular view that there is necessary connection between Comedy and Laughter. What, then, are the occasions in life when we feel tickled or moved enough to laugh?

      In the first place, the mere physical appearance of a person may be a source of comedy and hence give rise to laughter. Falstaff, the abnormally pot-bellied; the misshapen wretch, the hag-born Caliban; the "translated" Bottom with ass head; Malvolio with the yellow stocking, and cross-gartered besides; Sir Folping Flutter with Barroy suit and Piccat shoes and Orangerie gloves: they all walk straight into the land of Comedy. Some peculiarity of physique, some oddity in dress, some awkwardness in gait - these invariably provoke our merriment and we are constrained to laugh in consequence.

      In the second place, the misuse or strange use of language can be the immediate cause of much hearty laughter. Mrs. Slipslop in Fielding's novel and Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan's play take great liberties with the English language; Mrs. Malaprop gaily talks of a nice derangement of epitaphs, of the allegory of the Nile, and of representing her oracular tongue; the celebrated Dr. Spooner is supposed to have asked for a "well-boiled icicle" and spoken of "knquerine kongs", and to have complained that his students were given to "hissing his mystery lectures". Shakespeare himself sometimes made characters like Fluellan, Pistol, Nym, Launcelot Gobbo and Dogberry eminently laughable through the language. And, of course, Congreve's Lady Wishfort is the crowned Empress of the whole incredible crowd.

      In the third place, certain situations in life may evoke our laughter. Antipholus and Dromio, twins getting into all sorts of scrapes, thereby giving us "a sort of mathematical exhibition of the maximum number of erroneous combination of four people taken in pairs"; Viola in boy's disguise paying court to Olivia on Count Orsino's behalf and being challenged to mortal combat by the cowardly Aguecheek; the vicissitudes in the romantic entanglements of the two pairs of lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream; husband and wife exchanging occupations in Mr. O' Casey's playlet, The End of the Beginning; Sarvilaka using his 'sacred thread' in lieu of a pair of compasses in Mrichakatika; Lady Wish Fort at her toilette or when she confronts Sir Rowland in her chamber-situations such as these have made audiences roar with laughter.

      In the last place, we may feel like smiling or laughing when we detect certain unexpected traits in an average human nature. The trait is isolated, exhibited in action, presented from various angles, and the derogation is complete. Here is a man who would have others believe that, verily like Leigh Hunt's Ben Adhem, he lives only to love his fellow-men; he pronounces benedictions on others as often as he can in public; and yet, when closely watched, he betrays violently jealous nature and constantly schemes against the security and safety of his colleagues or his neighbors. A chasm thus separates his professions from his own dubious practices. As one unmasks such a Tartuffe, one is indignant perhaps; but one may be in a mood to laugh as well, one may feel strong enough to hold such self-deception in utter contempt. It is thus that our laugh is directed against a hypocrite, a miser, a snob, a braggart, or a parasite. Laughter here arises as the result of a clear perception of the clash of character and motive or the clash of the individual with society. The novels of Jane Austen, for instance, are drenched in the comic spirit; heartaches and sighs and disappointments there are, of course; but controlling them all is the spirit of Comedy that turns all its touches into pure gold of subdued laughter, easy, free and life-giving. Meredith's novels are comedies; they are intellectually conceived and executed; Meredith himself has indirectly explained their purpose and their method in his lecture on "Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit", a work that has rightly become a locus classicus of criticism.

Comic Spirit Interpreted by Meredith

      Comedy says Meredith, is sharply to be distinguished from farce, from irony; and from mere humor. The comic spirit breathes in a purely intellectual atmosphere; its weapons are common sense and wit; its butt is the mass of vanity; false pride, egoism, sluggishness, and anything else that is anti-social; and the result, from the audience's standpoint, is sane mirth and subdued, thoughtful laughter. Humor by itself is not much of a corrective; for incongruity, with which it concerns itself, is not in itself anti-social. Perhaps also, with humor sympathy is likely to come along, and criticism and correction are sure to be lost sight of in the familiarity and the resultant gaiety. Hence Meredith would prefer the splendid detachment afforded by the true comic spirit. In its genuine manifestations, flourishing in an intellectual atmosphere, the comic spirit will chase social monstrosities out of existence, or at least it will tame them into rationality. To Meredith, all life is little more than an ordeal and he alone succeeds in life who comes through the ordeal unscathed. Meredith's heroes are the traditional young men of the aristocracy or of the upper middle-class, whose false idea of what constitutes culture and gentility leads them to live a life of unconcerned idleness upon the fruits of the peasant's labor. The young men are thus really unsocial or even anti-social, either owing to conceit or as the result of a splendid isolation and innocence; and hence they should be made to go through the fiery ordeal of life and realize, in Cazamian's words, "the free self-possession of the soul, the energy of a valiant and cheerful heart." The comic spirit purifies and rejuvenates these youths and functions as a 'distilling apparatus-a condenser'. Even Harrington, Harry Richmond, Richard Feverel and Sir Willoughby are all like victims of the comic spirit, victims both reformed and transformed by it.

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