Four Seasons: Variations in American Vitalist Film Comedy
by Paul H. Grawe and Robin Jaeckle Grawe
© Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies 2018
Comedy and Dynamis
In the previous chapters, we have explicated three levels of vitalist technique available to dramatists for spectacular synergistic effect. This effect or dynamic or dynamis allows the definition of a new subgenre of comedy, Vitalist Comedy.
The dynamis that we are speaking of is a comedic dynamis. It is not just any random psychological, emotional, or intellectual effect that we may want to claim as having occurred to us in reaction to a dramatic work as a whole. Therefore, in this chapter we need definitions of comedy and of the dynamis appropriate to it.
Over the last four decades, we have defined two subgenres of comedy: Somber Comedy, which was the subject of Paul’s dissertation and later of Comedy in a New Mood, and Senior Comedy, which Robin addressed through its special humorous structures in numerous conference papers and in December Comedy. In both cases, we have insisted on Moody Prior’s original impetus in these studies, that there can be no definition of a new subgenre of comedy without a prior definition of comedy itself.
Paul’s dissertation presented such a definition, which was later incorporated verbatim in Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination. That definition has proved remarkably useful for understanding comedy as it has continued to evolve. Four decades later, some of the most spectacularly successful comedies of our times—comedies which simultaneously have confused critics and in more than one case defied the professional acumen of one Hollywood studio after another, advanced comedies like Forrest Gump, Rain Man, On Golden Pond, and Whales of August—precisely these comedies which have so befuddled the Hollywood professionals themselves are all easily shown to reinforce the theoretical definitions of Comedy and Somber Comedy (and in the latter two cases, Senior Comedy)—as we have posited them.
Before briefly restating that comedic definition, which has been repeatedly discussed in other works, let us go much further back to begin with Aristotle, who essentially sets the stage for all discussions of dramatic genre with dynamis appropriate thereto. For this critical backgrounding, we will be looking at Aristotle’s definitions of tragedy rather than of comedy, since what we have of Aristotle’s thoughts on comedy is very brief and by his own admission incomplete. And we will be particularly concerned with his definition of tragedic dynamis.
Aristotle at the very beginning of The Poetics clearly identifies the need for a double definition of genre: first a formal definition and then a dynamic definition that is an identification of the kind of affect the formal character of the work attempts to elicit. Yet Aristotle’s own discussion of tragedy is concerned primarily with the formal definition, not the emotive, dynamic definition. Having given his double definition in a single sentence, Aristotle devotes almost all the rest of The Poetics to an examination of elements of the formal—i.e. subject matter, class of characters, level of language—not the emotional, dynamic definition. The emotive definition or dynamic definition is short and distinct:
“through pity and fear effecting the expurgation of these.”
The history of criticism has often been unfair to Aristotle, but typically unfair by praising him too highly and expecting him to have definitively accomplished much more than is realistic or sanely argued. The mantra of pity and fear is perhaps the greatest of these unintended slights, especially when Aristotle is used to denigrate later major tragedies, including those of Shakespeare. Aristotle may thus appear more narrow-minded than we have any reason to believe of the real philosopher of the 4th century B.C. More importantly, the exaltation of Aristotle’s pity and fear as the sole dynamis of tragedy and other dicta may have stunted tragedy’s potential.
It is certain, for example, that Shakespeare found the classical or even the neo-classical restatement of Aristotle’s tragedic definition hopelessly restricting. Time and again Shakespeare refused to follow Aristotle’s dicta while simultaneously creating the most memorable tragedies since Aristotle and Alexander the Great. Similarly, modern plays like Death of a Salesman and The Crucible gloried in defeating the Aristotelean expectation that the tragic hero must be “greater than ourselves.”
Less acknowledged throughout the history of criticism is that Aristotle’s dynamic definition of tragedy is not equally cogent even among the acknowledged masterworks of the Greek tragedic theatre that were available to him in 330 B.C. “Through pity and fear” seems a reasonable start for considering the dynamis of the Oedipus trilogy—we can all recognize that our own actions are always undertaken with less than total knowledge and that a very few rash acts undertaken in ignorance of the true reality can spell our own doom. In that sense, we can pity Oedipus because we sympathize with his inherent situation and equally we can fear the inherent analogous possibilities to Oedipus’ career in our own lives.
Similarly in the Oresteia, we can all recognize that, as for Orestes, there is a possibility of higher calling in our own lives, a demand to take a stand which we would rather not take but that is forced upon us. It is from there not at all unreasonable to think that we conceivably could be called on to take some stand which would bring us into painful or even fatal conflict with other standards of conduct not to mention bringing us into fatal conflict with our neighbors or even worse, with the governing powers of the universe. As we move into adulthood, probably most of us have experienced at least some minor analog of Orestes’ situation in our own practical lives. And with this background, it is easy to pity Orestes and to recognize the fearful potential within our own lives.
How exactly the Oedipus trilogy or the Oresteia then moves on to the “expurgation” of pity and fear is perhaps more debatable. At the ideological level, however, it is fairly easy to see what Aristotle was driving at and why he thought such purgation was socially desirable.
The Greek city-state consensus at the time was that the state itself was the ultimate value. The individual was a cog in the machinery of that city state. A state like Sparta went to extremes to create a life for the citizen which at every moment was nothing more than a training of the individual to be of self-negating service to the state, most highly exemplified in the martyrdom of the Three Hundred at Thermopylae.
Personal martyrdom thus was the other side of state-as-all—and that is certainly a fearful thought. The Greek system could, therefore, highly value any art product which purged, expunged, eliminated fear and with it pity from the nervous system of its citizen-audience. Best if the audience left the theatre thoroughly wrung-out and ready to get back to quotidian life and work and potential self-sacrifice without the burdens of pity and fear for one’s self and for one’s loved ones.
“Come back wearing your shields or on them.” It was a simple faith for confronting a dreadful universe mediated by a state that served itself, and everyone would be better without pity and fear in order to get about it.
So the full Aristotelian dynamis—pity and fear and the expurgation thereof—is understandable in the context the Golden Age of Athens. But when we move even the little distance to, say, the Agamemnon, it is not at all clear that tragedy as performed in the Golden Age actually lived up to the Aristotelian definition of tragedic dynamis. Agamemnon is coming home from a decade of war before Troy. He is the tired but victorious commander-in-chief. Troy has been taken; he is coming back with his own trophy concubine, Cassandra, a princess of Troy. What is there to pity or fear in this?
Agamemnon doesn’t know that his wife has taken a lover in his absence, and having gotten used to ruling at home in her own right, she is now ready to treacherously murder Agamemnon immediately upon his return. This is certainly fearful, but is it pitiable? What competent head of state can be so empty-headed or so arrogant that he doesn’t take precautions to know the state of affairs back home while he is indefinitely detained in foreign wars?
The further we consider Agamemnon, the more such problems emerge. It turns out Agamemnon has been warned—by Cassandra herself who has prophetic gifts. He just doesn’t listen.
Evidently he can’t imagine that someone as prestigious as he is, as admirable a martial figure as he is could ever be the target of assassination even when Cassandra won’t stop her caterwauling on the subject. We use “caterwauling” here advisedly, because the odd choice of description emphasizes how inherently ridiculous Agamemnon becomes if we don’t force ourselves to think otherwise.
In short, the kinds of argumentation that make Oedipus and Orestes representative Aristotelian tragic figures engendering a particularly defined tragedic dynamis simply will not work for a dispassionate and disinterested contemplation of Agamemnon. And it is even more difficult to imagine a Greek original audience, itself trained in the Iliad and the depreciated figure of Agamemnon therein, meekly accepting an obsequious pity for the figure Agamemnon cuts.
Admittedly Athenian husbands could skip most of the real contemplation of the play’s material and simply find it an opportunity to fear that their wives—who were only let out of the house three days of the year—might be planning mayhem the next time their own husbands took baths. At that level pity and fear may, in fact, have been a reaction of the original audience, but it wouldn’t have much to do with the basic plot of the play or of its artistic tragedy.
Such arguments can also be made for the Euripedian canon which clearly moves away from the hero-worshipping dynamis.
The standard answer to such challenges to Aristotle’s articulation of tragedic dynamis is to suggest that Euripides’ plays and plays like the Agamemnon were already moving beyond tragedy. Another way of saying the same thing is that Aristotle’s definition is outstanding for premier works of Athens’ Golden Age, but that artists were not satisfied to remain within narrow imitation of these models even at a time well back of Aristotle’s critical formulations. Artists since, certainly including William Shakespeare and Arthur Miller, have been ever more clearly deviant from Aristotle’s Golden Age model. But criticism has preferred to use Aristotle as a stultifyingly Procrustean standard for artistic achievement.
Aristotle, in short, has for centuries been used to suffocate art, not to explicate its achievements.
This is not Aristotle’s problem; it is the problem of lesser, often pandering, critics. It is past time, then, to shake off an inappropriate attachment to Aristotelian definitions, formal and emotive, and to take a new look at dynamis—or in English, to look anew at the dynamic or power appropriate to (i.e. which “fits”) a particular genre.
We start with a simple definition:
dynamis or dynamic is the power of a work of art as a whole over us, that is the power of a work of art to make us think or feel not as we would otherwise but as the work makes us to do.
Now in this simple definition, there are many things to note that move toward a sounder practical understanding of dynamics that fits Vitalist Comedy.
A dynamic is first and foremost—and this may seem counter to what we have already claimed in talking of a dynamis that fits an entire genre—an attribute of a specific work.
Second, dynamic is a power the work has over us.
Now it is only commonsense to recognize that the work does not have autonomous power over us, that we must cooperate in letting the work have power over us. After all, none of us is forced to read the Oresteia in the first place, and none of the original audience was forced to attend the dramatic presentation if they chose not to. It was free, expensive entertainment, so we can fairly assume that the great Greek masterpieces played to full houses, but even with the free-entertainment bribe, the audience still chose to be at the theater.
As audience, we choose considerably more than to be at the theater. Someone who comes to the theater committed to not being impressed or moved by the production will almost certainly succeed. He or she can simply assume a sour expression, sit in the back, and tune out the production in favor of the most depressing contemplations available from practical life. For that matter, in the back row one could probably just read the newspaper.
So when we say that a work has power over us, it is an abbreviated way of saying that we as good audience at least allow the play great latitude to play with our thoughts and feelings. And in that latitude which we allow, there is substantial power, though power which we theoretically can turn off at almost any point, taking back control over our thoughts and feelings.
Third, while we allow a play or film great latitude to direct our thoughts and feelings on a momentary basis throughout play or film, it is not this momentary power which we are investigating. The momentary power eventually results in some over-all power of the dramatic work as a whole. And it is this over-all power that we refer to as the work’s dynamic. The dynamic cannot be known, in other words, until we have experienced the vicissitudes of thought and feeling called up by the play or film moment by moment through every act and scene.
This seems cogent enough, but a practical definition of dynamis requires more. Just when do we experience this dynamic? Is it the moment the play ends as we clap for the performers? Is it as we walk to our car parked several blocks from the theater (or to the bathroom, if we watched at home), or is it when we are momentarily distracted to pay the fee at the parking ramp? Is it possibly on the drive home when we try to explain to our spouse or other companion what we feel? Is it on reflection a week later after Sunday dinner? Or is it on rereading the play, contemplating thereon, and finally on sitting down to write a scholarly definitive essay? Which reflective feeling counts as the dynamic of the play or film?
Clearly, there can be significant differences in dynamic as perceived at different distances from performance. These differences are even more complex for “The Great Plays,” The Sound of Music, for example, which we have been viewing over and over again, perhaps as part of a seasonal tradition, throughout our lives.
For our purposes, when we speak of dynamic, we will generally mean what might also be called “primary considered dynamic,” that is the dynamic which can be argued for an educated intelligent, reasonably compliant audience as it leaves the theater, having clapped for the performers (if the performance is live), having paid whatever social respects and civilities are due. In other words, a little time has been allowed for our thoughts and feelings to gel, we are no longer distracted by social obligation, and we have not picked up other practical obligations yet that are much bigger than putting one foot in front of the other toward the car. It helps if our companions are reasonably silent, they too listening for a primary considered dynamic in these moments.
In the host of other meanings of the dynamic moment, let us here take time to define one other, a “secondary” or “reflective” dynamic moment. This moment may actually vary widely in the elapsed time from performance. But it is a dynamic which remains when some of the detail work of the performance has been forgotten along with possible noise or distraction (like the fellow three seats down who unwrapped the hard candy during the second act). And because some of the specifics have been forgotten, the thought and feeling, and the spirit, if you will, of the whole is perhaps clearer seen; the forest is more apparent than the trees.
Typically, for a good play or film and certainly for a great play or film, there is a very great sense of consonance between such a secondary reflective dynamic and the primary considered dynamic. When such consonance is lacking, we have something of a disillusioning “morning after” effect, normally distasteful and indicative of shoddiness in the work which has perhaps cheaply taken us in for the moment but cannot sustain itself. For very great works, however, a reverse and satisfying process of ever-deepening sense of dynamic is possible and even normative. All the films we consider in practical criticism later in this study meet a criterion of deepening sense of dynamic.
A deepening sense of dynamic, however, is by no means inevitable. Remington Steele, favorably mentioned earlier, like almost all highly successful television detective series, progressively cheapened as it went. By the third season, very charming episodes—for the first half-hour after viewing—quickly lost their charm thereafter, certainly by the next morning as the shoddiness of plot became more apparent. A repeated example was what the series hoped would simply be “conventionally” accepted, that Laura and Remington would rather be caught dead than to call the police when they found a corpus recently delecti. When such thoughts set in, any dynamic based in respect for “seeker-after-truth-and-justice” heroes is automatically in jeopardy.
We should also note yet again that the dynamic of a work, its power over us, implies a good deal of cooperation on the part of the audience. Among other things, the audience must be willing to weight its own personal reactions with the expectable reactions of an educated audience as a whole. A good Republican audience for Annie, for example, must put aside its own reactions to FDR in favor of some estimate of an average expectable reaction. Their reaction to the portrayal of Herbert Hoover may be even more complex, but certainly being a cooperative audience implies that such a Republican audience not get waylaid in a Hoover controversy.
As earlier stated, dynamic is primarily an attribute of a single work of art. Yet close examination of individual works of art reveals that there is actually a dynamic layering in any work that presents itself as belonging to a genre. At a highly abstract level, there will be a layer of dynamic which is appropriate to, germane to, and evoked by the generic form itself. There is a very abstract level of dramatic power that comes from the generic form, from the form of tragedy in Aristotle’s case, from the form of comedy in the case of the present study.
Aristotle is normally assumed to be aiming at this genre level of analysis.
Arguably, however, Aristotle would have been much more profitably taken to deal with the next layer of dynamic, the layer of sub-genre.
Aristotle was looking at some of the great plays of Western theatre as exemplars on which to base his theory. These exemplars, along with plays that were very similar, can be taken as the Classical sub-genre. But as we have already noticed, even in the Classical era, some tragedians were moving away from this sub-genre.
From this perspective, the Oresteia and the Oedipus trilogy share a sub-generic dynamic which more or less fits with Aristotle’s argued “pity and fear, effecting the purgation of these.” But the Agamemnon, Euripidean tragedy generally, and a good deal of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Kyd, Miller, and other recent experimenters with tragedic form may be ill-served by an uncritical assumption of such a dynamic because they are, in fact, representatives of one or more distinctly different sub-genres of tragedy and with that sub-genre difference, representative of different nuances or perhaps more than nuances of dynamic effect.
Below the sub-generic dynamic level is a much more specific dynamic associated with the specific work, which has not only its own specific dynamis but also dynamics from the genre and sub-genre as well.
We might want to notice that between sub-genre and specific work there is also the possibility of a “school dynamic.” In Hollywood, the idea of school is often replaced by the idea of knock-off or sequel. We are not arguing semantics here. However titled, there are intermediate levels of several distinct types between genres as a whole and the individual work. And the individual work inherits layers of dynamic from every level above itself up to, and perhaps beyond, the generic level.
A quick example here is in order. The King and I is a Vitalist Comedy. As such, part of its dynamis will be generic, inherited from the entirety of comedy. Part of its dynamic will be vitalist, and we will be trying to define such vitalist dynamic throughout this work. And part of the dynamic will be specific to the King and I screenplay itself.
In between, part of the dynamic will be an inheritance from Margaret Landon's book, Anna and the King of Siam, compiling the story of Anna Leonowens (Landon). And part of the dynamic will be a confident internationalism, bred in America by a great many cosmopolitan developments in international affairs but also by a good many movies that shared a thematic dynamic of cosmopolitan exoticism. In this sense, part of the total dynamic of King and I is the inheritor of the Road shows of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.
We will try to avoid most of these layering complexities in all of our practical critical examples later in this study. Occasionally, however, such layered dynamics must be considered in a fully sane treatment of the particular work. And most certainly, great artists in composing masterworks have a formidable task in harnessing the various layers of dynamic in the synthetic dynamic effect for their particular play or screenplay.
As we will begin to see before the end of this chapter, between sub-genre and the specific work of art, there can also be sub-genre variations. This book is largely aimed at showing not just that a new sub-genre of comedy, Vitalist Comedy, exists, but that Vitalist Comedy itself, because of the vitalist techniques used to engender it, has at least four strong variants from one another which can be discussed as variants analogous to the four seasons of the year.
The Aristotelian sense of tragedic dynamis is, therefore, far from incorrect. It is an incisive analysis of a kind of tragedy particularly appropriate to the Athenian city-state. Perhaps exactly that dynamic or power was appropriate to the state-nation of Louis XIV, for it is in France and in that reign that we find the most highly successful close imitators of the Aristotelian ideals. Yet for an investigation of the tragedic dynamic from other eras, perhaps a closer literary critical inspection of Shakespeare’s tragedies or of Arthur Miller’s would start to get us back on a truer path of several tragedic sub-genres and sub-generic dynamic components. If we started from several sub-genres, say, from a) Aristotle’s Classical tragedic sub-genre, b) a Stoic de casibus sub-genre, c) a Christian de casibus variant, d) Shakespearean tragedy, e) naturalist tragedy in the late nineteenth century, and f) democratic tragedy à la Arthur Miller in the 20th, we would be in a much better position to state what they all had in common in form and what at a highly abstract level they all share in the dynamic power of tragedy as a whole.
Turning from these general considerations of dynamic, both of individual works of art and of genres and sub-genres, let us consider the genre of comedy itself. We will use as a working definition, a patterned success/survival definition of comedy. As Paul attempted such a definition four decades ago, that definition became much more open-ended than Aristotle’s definition of tragedy.
It had to be.
Aristotle was looking at a genre popular in about 400 BC, a type of theatre which has been commonly called Old Comedy. We were looking for a definition that would cover comedic achievement over easily 3000 years and at least 15 cultures. Moreover, from a perspective of 2300 additional years of experience after Aristotle, it was clear that comedy was a genre capable of progressive evolution, and at mid-20th century a genre that had already shown itself capable of more protean shifts in a half century than tragedy had been critically allowed in its entire history since Aristotle.
The definition we have proposed and built on recognized at least six different phases of comedy which have been discussed critically over the ages. Hero Comedy focuses on a central hero or possibly several heroes. Couples Comedy focuses on a couple who complete each other, and this can be extended to a team comedy in which all members of the team are necessary for the whole. Social Comedy replaces the hero or couple with society as a whole. Everyman Comedy replaces the hero with someone who is just ordinary. Butt Comedy focuses on someone who makes many laughable gaffs but is typically sympathetic. Villain or Rogue Comedy focuses on someone who is typically attractive but clearly not commendable to or by a responsible society. Were a definition of comedy to cover all six of these phases and nothing more, it would still have to be a definition at a very abstract level.
At the same time, following the Aristotelian model, our definition has both formal and emotive parts.
The abstract definition of comedy arrived at and articulated in Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination read as follows:
Comedy from a formal perspective is a representation of life patterned to demonstrate or assert a faith in human survival, often including or emphasizing how that survival is possible or under what conditions that survival takes place. (17)
In comparison to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, this definition pays considerably less attention to specific artistic technique, such as elevated language. That is one of the ways by which our definition of comedy broadens itself, allows it to take in a much wider range of artistic material, and allows it to anticipate wider artistic experiment.
As with Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, however, our comedic dynamic statement is quite compact:
Comedy is the celebration of ongoing life and of the conditions or qualifications on that ongoing life. (62)
This sense of the succinct is appropriate for anything at the generic or sub-generic level, as it was for the type of tragedy Aristotle discussed. Most of the dynamic of an actual comedy is left to individual artistry to fill in.
There are, however, some parts of the definition that rely on special technical wording, for example the concept of patterning. The idea of patterning is simple. Something is patterned if it can be said to be repeated. A red shirt is just a red shirt. But if the shirt has a red stripe followed by a white stripe and then returns to a second red stripe, we have the beginning of patterning.
Artistic dramatic patterning, however, has to contend with the fact that obvious repetition of action is boring. So artistic patterning is routinely disguised, made to look as little like patterning as artistic ingenuity can achieve while still enjoying the advantages of patterned action. We’ve discussed patterning in more detail in Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination and Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle. It will necessarily concern us throughout our analyses in following chapters.
Central to the definition is that comedy has form, and the form it has is of repeated or patterned action which allows us to exercise a faith in humanity’s destined success and survival. Comedy is never more in demand than when a society finds itself possibly on the verge of extinction. The 20th century, certainly the part lived in the shadow of a possible nuclear holocaust, was a period of great comedic demand. The 21st century seems to have enough challenges—terrorism, for example—to keep comedy vigorously alive at the box office despite an occasional critical murmur about the death of comedy.
If the form of comedy is to affirm a faith in the success or survival of the human race, the dynamic of comedy in general is to remind us of our faith in human survival (cf. Watts seminal idea of regaining the perspective of the marketplace.) And further, comedy engenders the power to force our celebration of this faith.
Celebration is inherently a matter of thought rather than feeling. The feeling or feelings of celebration can vary substantially. We can celebrate victoriously, and we can celebrate in despair. The same play, Waiting for Godot as a specific example, can be celebrated among European audiences as absurd. But at an American federal prison with lifer inmates as audience, the celebration was clearly exhilarating and almost triumphant. Our open-ended definition of comedic dynamic can handle such wide variations in response. It can also handle the fact that what starts off as an intellective remembrance of a faith can and normally does move on to a truly emotional response (e.g. the lifer exhilaration which is also part of the power, the dynamic). Ultimately, it can handle the fact that the power, the dynamic, of a specific play like Waiting for Godot is possibly ambiguous, encompassing both the absurdist reaction and the exhilarated reaction.
It is with this background that we begin to consider plays with such a distinctive dynamic that they deserve to be treated as a new, differentiable sub-genre of comedy, Vitalist Comedy. What identifies them as a new class is precisely their distinctive dynamis or dynamic. In the following studies of ten individual vitalist comedies, what they have in common, their common power over us, should become increasingly apparent.
In every case, however, we will be asserting that the work in question is a formal comedy, that with all other drama with shared comedic form it conforms to our formal definition of comedy and perhaps more importantly that it shares our dynamic definition. It is not that Vitalist Comedy says something different from formal comedy in general or that it employs a different power than formal comedy. But Vitalist Comedy adds to what all comedy has as form and what all comedy has as dynamic, creating sub-genre definition and a sub-generic layer of dynamic power.
The possibility of presenting with critical clarity such a new sub-genre which has characteristically grown in the American soil of an American century, while under almost constant threat of two world wars and a global cold war in addition to a major economic depression and all the thrills, spills, and chills of a democratic society pursuing its destiny is a critics’s dream come true.
But in this case, there is something more that must be added. Not only can a new sub-genre of comedy be elucidated, but four variants on that sub-genre, four variants on its formal structure and concurrent four variations on its dynamic, seem capable of elucidation as well.
The key to both the dynamic of Vitalist Comedy as a subgenre and to the possibility of four significant variants of that dynamic is the set of three vitalist humor techniques discussed in the last three chapters.
We have just claimed that various humor techniques create varying dynamics. It is critical to note that while humor affects dynamic, it does not define comedy. Nowhere in our definitions does the word “humor” appear, nor the word “funny,” nor the word “laughter.” Any attempt to define comedy by its laughs is based in a false premise, as we have amply demonstrated in other works.
Comedy and humor are two different, distinct entities.
Yet comedy and humor work well together. The various inter-workings of comedy and humor, (particularly classical humor or Humor of the Mind) are explored extensively in Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle and Cheshire Smile. In this volume we will be exploring a different form of humor found in some comedies, vitalist humor, which we have identified at three technical levels, each with four major variants.
These three were, again, Langerian vitalist moment-by-moment humor, formal sense of regain, and a deep, gladness, over-all response-to-extraordinary-life impulse and spirit. Each of these three techniques can be analyzed as consisting of four major variants. Thus, a play making full use of these technical resources can be working with twelve distinct positive vitalist variants over the course of a whole play. It is not only theoretically possible, it is easily demonstrable that vitalist plays are often working with several of these vitalist humor variants simultaneously at a particular moment within the play as a whole.
Art, however, normally implies careful selection and conscious choice, including the choice to emphasize some technical possibilities over other possibilities which are in themselves valid. And as we have shown in Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle and in Cheshire Smile. two book-length studies of humor’s pyrotechnic effects within formal comedy, traditional comedy rather routinely chooses two of four humor variants to emphasize as part of its own unique structure, creating a particular feel or texture to the work.
The choice of two “leads” has a great deal in common with the artistic choice of rhythm and rhyme which Robert Frost as critic and practicing poet described as artistic tension between “warp and woof.” Simple warp and woof is occasionally complicated by a play that has very substantial use for three of four elements rather than the simpler two lead elements.
Vitalist comedy typically uses multiple vitalist humor variants. Yet the use of three lead techniques, one variant each from Langerian momentary humor, Regain form, and Gladness Impulse, may work extraordinarily well together to represent a “seasonal” variant of extraordinary life and thus compose a “seasonal triad.” These triads are central to establishing seasonal variants of vitalist comedy. Leaving fuller explication for the specific analyses of representative Vitalist Comedies, these are the triads of seasonal vitalist technique:
Seasonal Variants of Vitalist Comedy
With these matters of theory laid out, we are all but ready to move forward to particular practical criticism examples exemplifying combinations of variants of three separate techniques creating seasonal variation within Vitalist Comedy in form and seasonal variation in dynamis.
But before we press on to our examination of seasonal variants, let us in our next chapter examine more fully the three vitalist humor techniques—Langerian momentary humor, Regain form, and Impulse vitalism—as they play out in highly successful films. Each of these films is a remarkable exemplar of all four variants of one of our three vitalist techniques.