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Black Women Playwrights | Teachers' Guide

Serious Comedy: What Writers Can Do with Humor

In Poof!, Lynn Nottage could have "played it straight." She could have written a serious play about domestic violence. But would it have been effective? Here's the opinion of a veteran actress:

"What interested me most when I first read Poof!," says Rosie Perez, "was the humor that was injected into such a serious subject. We've seen stories about domestic violence, and they are very heavy-handed. Usually the woman is crying from start to finish, and you don't really get a sense of who she is."

Perez understands the idea behind the playwright's strategy. Dealing with the subject in a serious-sad-angry way would distance the audience from the play. Humor, though, attracts and embraces. With the power of comedy, the audience is pulled close to the play's action, characters, and themes.

Down through the centuries, playwrights and other writers have made serious use of comedy and have used it in different ways for different purposes. Here are four examples:

Aristophanes, The Clouds 423 B.C.E.

In The Clouds, Aristophanes (448?-380? B.C.E.) uses comedy to attack a new kind of education he thought endangered the future of Athens. For Aristophanes, comedy was a satirical weapon, a sharp spear to hurl at foolish or vicious persons, institutions, and ideas.

Aristophanes was troubled by the growing popularity of the Sophists, who taught rhetoric and philosophy. He thought they were arrogant and irresponsible. The Sophists taught young men how to spin fancy speeches and to win arguments, but there was no moral substance to their instruction. By engaging young minds in pointless speculations and hair-splitting debates, the Sophists were undermining religion, morality, and service to the state.

Aristophanes picked his contemporary, the philosopher Socrates, as representative of the Sophists. This was unfair. Socrates wasn't a Sophist, but his prominence, sloppy dress, and other eccentricities made him a good target for comedy. Here's how the play introduces Socrates. What better introduction for a man who Aristophanes thought had his head in the clouds-and his nose in the air.

... and who is this man suspended up in a basket?

That's himself.

Who's himself?


Socrates! Oh! I pray you, call him right loudly for me.

Call him yourself; I have no time to waste.

(He departs. The machine swings in SOCRATES in a basket.)

Socrates! My little Socrates!

(loftily) Mortal, what do you want with me?

First, what are you doing up there? Tell me, I beseech you.

(Pompously) I am traversing the air and contemplating the sun.

Thus it's not on the solid ground, but from the height of this basket, that you slight the gods, if indeed....

SOCRATES I have to suspend my brain and mingle the subtle essence of my mind with this air, which is of the like nature, in order clearly to penetrate the things of heaven. I should have discovered nothing, had I remained on the ground to consider from below the things that are above; for the earth by its force attracts the sap of the mind to itself. It's just the same with the watercress.

According to tradition, Socrates was in the audience and stood up so Athenians could contrast him with the character onstage.

Shakespeare, Macbeth 1606

William Shakespeare (1664-1616) liked to mix comedy into his tragedies. By abruptly changing mood and tone, he could heighten dramatic tension and underscore the horror of what his tragic heroes were getting themselves into.

A great example is found in Act II of Macbeth. In scene II, Macbeth comes in and tells Lady Macbeth he has "done the deed." He has killed his guest, King Duncan, while he was sleeping. Macbeth's hands are covered with blood, and he recounts grisly details of the slaughter.

As the scene draws to a close, the homicidal couple hears a loud knocking on one of the castle's gates.

Then, in scene III, Shakespeare puts his audience on an emotional roller-coaster. From the high drama of Macbeth's report of murder, the play plunges to the low comedy of a drunken porter opening the gate for Macduff and Lennox.

Was it so late, friend, ere you went to bed, That you do lie so late?

Faith, sir, we were carousing till the second cock; and drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things.

What three things does drink especially provoke?

Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance: therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him.

This dialogue gives the audience some much-needed "comic relief" after the scene with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and it also softens the audience up for its next jolt of adrenalin, the discovery of Duncan's murder that follows.

Moliere, Le Misanthrope 1666

Moliere (1622-1673) wrote "comedies of manners" filled with examples of human folly.

In Le Misanthrope, the character Alceste declares he is sick of the way people praise others to their faces, then criticize them as soon as their backs are turned. In the play's first scene, Alceste vows to tell only the truth. In his eyes, that means unvarnished criticism. His friend Philinte agrees that "trickery prospers," but reasons that in spite of human failings, we shouldn't abandon society.

I would have people be sincere, and that, like men of honor, no word be spoken that comes not from the heart.

When a man comes and embraces you warmly, you must pay him back in his own coin. Respond as best you can to show of feeling and return offer for offer, and vow for vow.

Not so! I cannot bear so base a method which your fashionable people generally affect.

In spite of Alceste's declaration, he is comically susceptible to wit and flattery when it's dished out by a lovely woman, Céliméne.

And as the play continues, his stance takes him deeper into trouble. When others react with pain and anger to his honesty, Alceste sees this as proof of society's hypocrisy; it will not face the truth that he speaks.

But isn't Alceste's version of truth is as phony as the flattery he condemns? He allows no ambiguity in behavior. Everything is either honest or contemptible, and Alceste gets to decide which. For all of his high-minded rhetoric, he is childishly arrogant, as shallow in his view of other people as any manipulating double-talker. And he never learns. At the end of the play, Alceste bids farewell to a society that is unworthy of him.

Betrayed on all sides, overwhelmed by injustice, I leave a pit in which vice triumphs and search the world for an isolated spot where one is free to be a man of honor.

George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion 1916

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) said that as a playwright he first tried to find the right thing to say, and then tried to say it in the most amusing fashion. Shaw used comedy to "sugar-coat" the serious points he tried to make in his plays. In Pygmalion, he depicts a society in which sound counts for more than substance.

Henry Higgins makes a good living by improving the accents of his clients, helping them to raise or consolidate their social status. He takes on a charity case, that of Eliza Doolittle, Cockney flower girl, as an experimental venture. Higgins wants to insert Eliza into polite society, on the theory her accent will be so good that no one will suspect her humble origins.

In the play's third act, to test how things are going, Higgins takes Eliza to the Ascot races.

Eliza's accent is perfect, but her grammar and expressions are still Cockney. Her aristocratic companions listen respectfully, a bit puzzled at times, but never suspecting she is not one of them.

ELIZA (piling up the indictment)
What call would a woman with that strength in her have to die of influenza? What become of her new straw hat that should have come to me? Somebody pinched it; and what I say is, them as pinched it done her in.

What does doing her in mean?

HIGGINS (hastily)
Oh, that's the new small talk. To do a person in means to kill them.

This scene has been called the greatest piece of sustained comedy in English literature.

In the Classroom

To learn more about Lynn Nottage and her use of comedy, see her inteview.

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