Feb 17: Why Satire Isn't Funny

Act I of "Tartuffe" today (from Vol. 26, "Continental Drama" -- Continental, eh? Sounds foreign!)
I've actual seen "Tartuffe," in college, although I remember nothing about it except Austin Pendelton naked. Am I remembering that right? I must be -- there are some things you can't unsee, etc.

Okay, so we know from the get-go that this is not going to be Richard Wilbur's translation, instead it's by Curtis Hidden Page, or, as he ought to have been known, Curtis "Hidden" Page. Or Komedy Killer Kurtis, because this isn't funny. Of course C.H.P. is laboring against a number of difficulties, including but not limited to:

1. This is an old work. The humor of the past is often unfunny in the present. If you don't believe me, go read Petroleum V. Nasby, one of Lincoln's favorite humorists. Readers of Joey Adams in the New York Post may have had the same experience.

2. It's in another language. The French, Jerry Lewis, etc. -- nuff said.

3. Finally, it's satire. My own feeling about satire is that you must never show your cards; and, in fact, the more fervent you are in your desire to satirize, the more you must hide that desire. Moliere disagrees:

And as I find no kind of hero more
To be admired than men of true religion,
Nothing more noble or more beautiful
Than is the holy zeal of true devoutness;
Just so I think there’s naught more odious
Than whited sepulchres of outward unction,
I guess the justification is that there was no Western Union in those days, so they actually did have to send the message in the middle of the play.

Maybe Moliere is more like the Aaron Sorkin of his day.

The other noteworthy thing is this:
While with delight our master sees him eat
As much as six men could; we must give up
The choicest tidbits to him; if he belches, (’tis a servant speaking)
Master exclaims: “God bless you!”
And the footnote tells us about the stage direction:
Molière’s note, inserted in the text of all the old editions. It is a curious illustration of the desire for uniformity and dignity of style in dramatic verse of the seventeenth century, that Molière feels called on to apologize for a touch of realism like this. Indeed, these lines were even omitted when the play was given.
One often wearies of living among Americans with their frequently crappy manners and young people with the pants hanging off their butts and such. But at least our characters can belch unapologetically. Something to remember on Presidents' Day weekend.

0 comments: