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Butts and Villains

From Chapter 1, “The Scope of Comedy,” Comedy in a New Mood, pp. 11-13.


In butt comedy, a figure often very like the buffoon-antagonist is made sympathetic and becomes the protagonist.  The buffoon is sympathetic, but is also obviously fallible. This fallibility may be an intellectual or emotional blindness, or some physical inferiority, or perhaps an unwillingness to accept the grounds of his own finitude stressed by Vos and Hoy.  Whatever the buffoon’s fault, the action of such comedy is patterned to expose both the butt’s foibles and the exuberance, perseverance, resilience or other practical virtue which ensures the butt’s survival or success despite his faults.  Thus, the butt, like the comic hero, is presented as the image of man surviving.  Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel and Hardy are out best modern exponents of this often-farcical comedy whose antecedents include commedia dell’ arte, Falstaff (in The Merry Wives of Windsor), and Punch and Judy. However, butt-comedy need not always be as exuberant as these diverse examples of it would suggest.  I take it that all the plays Hoy discusses as typical comedy, Love’s Labors Lost, for example, can be considered more sedate examples of this same comic sub-form.


Villain-oriented comedy always contains vestigial remains of hero-oriented and/or butt-oriented comedy, as for example, in Tartuffe we have Orgon and his family. The main interest of Tartuffe and of all villain comedy, however, lies not with sympathetic figures, but with a comic villain. While in hero and butt comedy humanity is equated simply with the protagonist and the protagonist’s success is viewed as a demonstration of the race’s viability, the situation is much more complex in villain comedy.  The comic villain is normally a parody hero, in the sense that he is likely to have many of the pragmatic virtues. Moličre’s Tartuffe, Jonson’s Volpone—these have an immense joie de vivre and exceptional talents for getting on in the world.  Unfortunately, they misdirect these talents, usually because they turn them against society—and traditional comedy with very few exceptions views society as one of man’s most important tools for survival and practical success. The dramatist behind villain comedy is engaged in the tricky business of controlling his audience, alternately forcing it to admire grudgingly the villain’s talents and pushing it into absolute abhorrence of the villain’s inhuman, utterly selfish, and sterile motivation.  After suspending his audience between grudging admiration and open abhorrence for the better part of two hours, the dramatist contrives the villain’s downfall—again often as matter of luck. The world is left to the shadowy heroes or butts who are seen to have less spectacular, but more enduring qualities than the villain.


In villain-oriented comedy, then, we have a most complex situation, in which the survival of humanity is symbolized largely by the shadowy hero or butt, and also, though to a lesser extent, by the technical virtuosity of the villain.  Man is seen to possess the talents necessary for survival, but it is also shown that certain societal talents which the villain always lacks—generosity, courtesy, and love—are the sine qua non of survival.



Rogues Contents






villain, butt, Tartuffe, Volpone, Charlie Chaplain, Marx brothers, Falstaff, Laurel and Hardy, commedia dell' arte