Thursday, November 8, 2012

THE COMPLICATIONS OF COMEDY

At the conclusion of PERSONAS OF GRATIFICATION I said:

The great failing of Quiller-Couch's breakdown is that its arrangement suggests that the "man" in the position of "protagonist" must be the main concern of the story, whereas I've detailed many examples in which the imaginative center can be the protagonist's villainous/monstrous opponent, whether it's a specific human threat (Fu Manchu), a natural phenomenon (Jules Verne's "Center of the Earth"), an unusual society, or a separate manifestation of one's own, as with Edward Hyde. 
Quiller-Couch's arrangement, by its use of the opposed terms "protagonist" and "antagonist," also suggests opposition in every sense.  And yet, it's possible-- particularly in comedy-- for the conflict to be one that results in accomodation rather than confrontation.  In this essay I cited the sociopolitical work of Francis Fukuyama, with special attention to his distinction between two "thymotic" processes, "megalothymia" and "isothymia:"


"Megalothymia can be manifest both in the tyrant who invades and and enslaves a neighboring people so that they will recognize his authority, as well as in the concert pianist who wants to be recognized as the foremost interpreter of Beethoven. Its opposite is isothymia, the desire to be recognized as the equal of other people. Megalothymia and isothymia together constitute the two manifstations of the desire for recognition around which the historical transition to modernity can be understood." (The End of History and the Last Man, p. 182).
I summed up my application of Fukuyama to literary studies thusly:


The phenomenon of sthenolagnia, of "strength-worship" in both real and literary worlds, could be said to abide in both of Fukuyama's categories. In "megalothymia" one worships a superior force which extends its power vertically downward. In "isothymia" one worships a commonality of interlinked and interdependent forces.
I'll admit that in most of my recent writings on the "persona-pairs" of "hero/villain" and "monster/demihero," I have tended to focus upon "megalothymic" conflicts, because so much genre fiction depends on such conflict.  I would argue that of Northrop Frye's four mythoi, adventure, drama, and irony are particularly dependent on this form of conflict.

Comedy, however, complicates the matter.  I should perhaps suspect some such permutation, though, given that I wrote in GRAVITY'S CROSSBOW PART 4 that the comedy-mythos was characterized by the least degree of audience-conviction in the fates of the characters:


This arbitrariness, this freedom from real consequence, is the reason I consider the comedy-mythos to be the one in which the audience holds the least degree of conviction—though such levity is precisely comedy’s appeal.
This is not to say that there aren't a lot of comedy-works that hinge on violent, megalothymotic conflict.  I'd hardly argue that after having frequently used the example of Rumiko Takahashi's RANMA 1/2 as a example of a "combative comedy."

However, it should be noted that the prime focus of the series-narrative-- one of the factors that trumps the adventure-elements of the stories-- is the romantic relationship of star Ranma Saotome and support-character Akane Tendou. Not every story in the series is about their rocky romance, but it sets the tone for the series; one that I call (in imitation of Theodor Gaster) the *jubilative.*



Ranma intrudes on the essentially placid home life of the Tendous and creates comic chaos.  To be sure, he isn't responsible for all of the chaos: before he arrives Akane has been having regular duels with Tatewaki Kuno in her attempts to fend off Kuno's ardor.  But once Ranma does arrive, the household is constantly invaded by people with grudges against Ranma.  Although Ranma certainly functions as a comic hero in the eyes of the audience, one might forgive Akane for regarding him as something of a "monster."

In many other comedies, however, the "monster" is neither heroic nor physically monstrous.


As this still from Rene Clair's 1942 film I MARRIED A WITCH suggests, Jennifer, the comely witch played by Veronica Lake, casts a forbidding shadow as she makes up to Fredric March's character Wallace.  She starts out the film intending to cause Wallace nothing but trouble, but accidentally drinks a potion that causes her to fall in love with him.  Though she is still in my reckoning the "focal presence" of the story, she becomes Wallace's ally against both her hostile witch-father and Wallace's shrewish fiancee.  Of my four "persona-types," Jennifer the Witch is still closest to that of the "monster," but plainly a benign one, like some of those discussed at the end of this essay.

As noted in ENSEMBLES ASSEMBLE a story may have more than one focal presence, as seen in the 1937 comedy TOPPER, based like WITCH on a Thorne Smith novel.




In this film there's no literal "antagonist," comparable to Jennifer's witch-father, against which the merrymaking ghosts George and Marion Kirby strive: theirs might be called a "man vs. society" struggle in that they endeavor to free up their henpecked, mousey buddy Cosmo Topper by encouraging him to act out and to remind his wife of his needs.

In both WITCH and TOPPER, supernatural beings bring conflict into the lives of drab humans, but it's clearly conflict that the humans need to break out of their respective ruts.  One might consider WITCH to still have some *megalothymic* elements given that Jennifer must at least outmaneuver her nasty daddy.  However, the Kirbys supply an entirely *isothymic* form of conflict.  Topper's narrative position approximates that of Jonathan Harker in DRACULA, but where "demihero" Harker is oppressed by the vampire's power, Topper's *thymos*, his power to be recognized as a willing subject, is enchanced by the ghosts' machinations.

Note that I'm not stating that no such *isothymic* arrangements pertain in drama, adventure, or irony.  But since all three mythoi are stronger in terms of the element of reader-conviction, one may speculate that *isothymic* scenarios simply don't appear as often.  It may that comedy can best deal with the idea of an anomaly that exists just to improve the life of a viewpoint character.

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