It is undeniable that theatre is gifted with a peculiar— and to many — charming, atmosphere. Of the Seven Arts, it might very well be the most startling one.
The night is young, the crowd is chattering, the mood is light. Lights are still bright, shining on the bright red carpet or reflecting on the dim dark walls. Suddenly, the bells ring. Late comers quietly rush off the cloakroom counter. The early visitors chip their last peanuts, put down their bottled beers and white wines on wooden round tables to hand their geometrically designed tickets to shred by a smiling dark-clothed clerk. Everyone finds their seat. The chatter continues until they come… The loud repetitive hits from brigadiers, a beat, then followed by the final three distinct blows. The curtains ceremoniously open. Let the play begin.
It is undeniable that theatre is gifted with a peculiar— and to many — charming, atmosphere. Of the Seven Arts, it might very well be the most startling one. It is literary, but not exactly literature. It’s figurative, but not precisely sculpture. It is lyric, yet does not rely on music. It has rhythm, but it distances itself from dancing rituals. The dignified forebear of cinema, theatre’s grasp on all, and none, of its fellow artistic characteristics yields baffling feelings on its audience. Since the ancient times, philosophers of Arts and dramatists alike have all strived to decipher this extraordinary feature, leading to the slow composition of an enthralling field, which is drama studies today.
Of those startling effect that theatre has the power to incept in one’s heart and soul, laughter is one of the most complex there is. The most recognizable feat of drama comes through what Aristotle coined the catharsis. Grossly summed up, the latter refers to the exhilarating emotional release that an audience expects and experiences throughout a play. Anyone penetrating either the halls of a prestigious national theatre or the dark room of a cozy local playroom craves a cathartic adventure. Laughter is, perhaps, one of the most common features of this release. However, contrary to common misconceptions, laughter is not limited to comedy or comic relief. It is the product of a convoluted relationship between playwrights, actors and audiences, itself the result of a long and winding history of their quest or evasion thereof.
During a conference on Laughter in French Theatre centered around the play “Un Deux”, playwright François Bégaudeau and director Mélanie Mary outlined three main kinds of laughter in theatre: “comic relief”, “distinguished” laughter, and “absurdist” — or “surreal”— comedy.
Of all the various types of laughter one can find in drama plays, comic relief is, essentially, and, incidentally, also the one where misconceptions on dramatic comedy falls into. Comic relief, typically, is the degree zero of laughter. It amounts to what is commonly perceived as comedy, i.e. a play or a stage performance with the primary aim of producing laughter on its audience. Here, the audience expects to laugh. The burden or achievement falls into the performers for producing the right jokes at the right timing with the right techniques to optimize the overall humoristic essence of the performance. Comic relief utilizes catharsis in a very utilitarian fashion. The emotional release is set to distract members of the audience from their daily routines and diurnal worries. The public attends the performance to fill their leisure time. They are expecting a friendly experience which will not challenge them outside of their comfort zone. Vaudeville theatre and, arguably, most stand-up comedy shows could be described as comic relief.
It should come as no surprise that among the dramatist elites and members of what Foucault describes as the High Culture, comic relief theatre is met, at best, with disdain, at worst with hostility. Indeed, among the higher ends of the cultural society, theatre is a sanctified place. It is considered a serious cultural institution, amounting to an artistic temple, if not a secular church. Drama is perceived as a ceremony, where the most distinguished members of society glorify the rites of Arts. Hence, the frivolity of degree-zero laughter is, ineluctably, considered a nuisance corrupting the sacred ritual of theatre. Good enough for the common folk, unfit for the artistic endeavor.
There is, however, one path for frivolous comedy to achieve grand status among high cultural circles. That is time. A playwright that might be soiled and disregarded by his contemporaries, could posthumously witness his work and his name elevated to sanctity through the test of time. There are cases of 19th century Vaudeville theatre playwright, such as Georges Feydeau for example, utterly despised in his time, who are starting to be rehabilitated by famously recognized directors. The 19th century romantic movement also took up the challenge to restore Elizabethan tragi-comedy, a feature so dear to Shakespearean theatre, among mainstream theatre culture.
Hence, frivolity, when distinguished, entails a different relationship between the audience and the play. Comic relief is performed, the script is not expected to be read nor studied. Distinguished comedy is regularly read, published and commented. Roam through the street of Paris, and try to find one person who has not ever read at least some works of Molière. In comic relief, the artists need to design their work so as to provoke laughter in the audience. In distinguished comedy, the audiences already know the play, and is, thus, nearly expected to laugh at the right moments. As the very rehabilitation of those plays depends on time, the humoristic frivolity is almost always obsolete. Shakespeare and Molière’s play are hardly funny, yet an audience that does not laugh, is not cultivated, thus not worthy of the play.
Surreal theatre is, without a doubt, the most appreciated, complex form of laughter one can find. More than a kind of comedy, absurdist theatre has become a dramatic genre of itself, and not any genre. It is, certainly, the most influential modern theatre of the 20th century. Born after the second world war with prominent playwrights such Eugène Ionesco or Samuel Beckett, absurdist theatre offers a deep, uneasy stare at mankind’s complexities and contradictions. Surreal plays entail their very own characteristics such as lonely, quasi-insane characters lost in their incongruences and lack of meaningful endeavors; as well as grey landscapes, full of gruesome environments filled with lonely dead symbols of nature. In Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, two idle characters, Vladimir and Estragon, contemplate their own mortality, with just one belt and a dead tree as crops, they ponder whether to hang themselves or keep on waiting for Godot to arrive. For two long stretched hours, nothing happens, Godot never shows up, and might never do. The audience does not know why, or what, they are waiting for. Instead, they witness two tramps exploring the darkest corners of their minds and becoming gradually insane as a result.
That is what absurdist theatre does. It its forcing lonely characters to explore their spirituality in an uneasy and discomforting way. It inflicts the same experience on the audience. The loneliness and awkwardness of the characters forces the public to go through an unsettling spiritual awakening. The playwrights force them to take a long hard look at themselves throughout the play. The characters, the environment or the play do not make, at first glance, any sense, yet is meaningful. Absurdist theatre produces laughter, but it is not funny, it is surreal. The audience first laughs at the play, before laughing at themselves. Absurdist laughter offers a true, genuine, cathartic experience. The emotional release is troubling, deep and quasi-tragic. Attending a surreal play goes beyond distracting oneself from routine, or maintaining cultural standards. On the contrary, it is about facing the existential absurdity of our individuality and mankind in general. Once the black curtain draws to a close, the night is eternal, the crowd is silent and the mood is gloom. Here lies the beautiful power of laughter in theatre.