in Space, Time, and the Imagination



Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination

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Villains, Butts, and Fools

From Chapter 3, "The Range and Limkts of Comedy," Comedy and Space, Time, and the Imagination, pp. 43-46.


Because heroic, everyman-societal, and buffoon comedy all employ basically sympathetic characters and make their survival the main symbol for human survival, we can easily define comedy so that all three possibilities are covered. To write a satisfactory definition that includes villain-oriented comedy alongside these sympathetic variants, however, has been difficult. Many villain theories of comedy exist, but none really succeed in defining the comedy of both hero and villain without great distortions.

Like hero comedies, outright villain comedies concentrate on an extraordinary individual. But while the hero exercises his powers for good, the villain exercises his for evil and destruction. Because humans are almost unique among the animals in having a potential for self-destruction, it would be surprising if comedy had not eventually focused on the outright villain as one of the greatest challenges to a faith in human survival. If the human race is to survive, there must be some way to avoid the destructiveness people carry within themselves. Villain comedy epitomizes the artistic search for that way.

In villain comedy, the audience is led to admire some of the villain’s talents, abilities, or achievements while abhorring him as a threat to human survival. In the classic examples, plays like Jonson’s Volpone and Molière’s The Miser, the double interest in the villain as admirable and detestable leaves little room for attention to other characters, and we find only shadow heroes and heroines to contrast with the villain.

Villain comedy asserts that the human race will survive, but only because our self-destructive tendencies can be neutralized, even when those tendencies are embodied in an extraordinarily talented individual. We often sense at the end of outright villain comedy that the villain, while bested, is not finished—that we may have to deal with him again. So it is in the adventure comedy of Star Wars and its sequels. Human survival does not allow compromise with the villain, but this survival entails constant vigilance and repeated close encounters with villains who embody our own self-destructive tendencies.

Just as it would be a mistake to define all sympathetic comedy as heroic comedy, thus missing substantial differences in comedic import, so too would it be a mistake to define all unsympathetic comedy as outright villain comedy. Ben Jonson himself knew of an important variant on villain comedy, which he called comedy of humors, and which we shall call butt comedy. As characters, butts are generally disreputable figures, dominated by idiosyncrasies, which the audience is enjoined to deride. Some butts are forced by society to abandon their idiosyncrasies. More typically, however, the butt retains his eccentricities. Such a patterned character creates a new comedic import. Human beings survive, but only as deformed caricatures. Or human beings survive, but only because they are gifted with an exceptional vitality that enables them to survive even their most persistent shortcomings.

The difference between outright villain and butt comedy can be difficult to define. Molière’s The Miser, which we have considered as an example of villain comedy, actually borders on being butt comedy. Only careful study of the play could build a convincing argument to put it in one area or the other. And just as villain comedy gradually blends into butt comedy, both villain and butt comedy blend into what could be called fool comedy. Fools have been variously defined, but the earliest recorded Biblical definition may still be the best: a fool is one who has the capacity to understand and to learn but who deliberately turns his back on instruction. (Proverbs 15:5, 18:2)

In refusing instruction, the fool becomes a menace to himself and to society. In the twentieth century, several musicals have played a male fool against a typical heroine for interesting romantic effects. In The King and I, for example, Anna, a woman of superior training, experience, and self-possession, shares center stage with a king whose foolishness has been indulged from his youth. The king makes significant progress under Anna’s tutelage but finally refuses to abandon the barbarism that equates his selfish desires and pettiness with all human good and justice. Although Anna fails to teach the king his ultimate lesson, she is nevertheless a comedic heroine. She is crowned with success when the king dies and a new king, trained by Anna, comes to the throne of Siam. He sets a course for the Westernization of his kingdom along the humanitarian lines that his father admired but could not quite accept.

Somewhat less complicated is the relationship of Professor Harold Hill and Marian the librarian in The Music Man. Hill’s outward sociability shows that he has been taught better than his disreputable business and selfish romance would indicate. He is seen against a backdrop of provincialism that tempts him to dishonest gain rather than to respectability in a narrow and self-satisfied society. The fool, however, is finally converted from his foolishness by a woman attractive, strong, and loving enough to merit his reformation.

In Chapter 9, I will examine Shaw’s Pygmalion and Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady as other examples of fool comedy. All of these works achieve an even balance of interest between a hero from one focus of comedy and a heroine from a distinctly different focus. This should not suggest, however, that fool comedy can not stand on its own two feet. In the dark fool comedy, Stop the world—I Want to Get Off, the fool role is played against a backdrop of shadowy women, none of whom is developed enough to take attention from the lead male role. That role is epitomized by the song, “What Kind of Fool Am I?” Last of the Red-Hot Lovers works in much the same way.

It is also possible to have “double fool” or “fool couple” comedy, in which the romantic leads resist or fail to learn truths they are perfectly capable of learning. Often, as in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and farces like Hello, Pussycat! and What’s Up, Doc? the pattern asserts that only through the power of love can two fools learn to overcome their own foolishness.