COMEDY AGAINST ITSELF
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If Millamant and Mirabell took too seriously the factors they confront in the proviso scene – his invasion of her liberty, her inevitable ageing, the dying of love – they might well decide not to get married at all. It is comedy that allows them to control these fears, trivializing them just enough to make them endurable. But in reminding themselves of these things, mocking each other in the process, they are playing a potentially dangerous game. If they were not kept steady by their underlying need and desire for each other, their relationship could well break down. Comedy helps, but only if comedy itself is kept under control. It is widely recognized that there is something destructive in laughter: it ‘would seem to require the obliteration of a something or somebody.’1 Even the person being made to laugh, who might expect to share the superiority of the joker, may end up sharing the discomfort of the victim. It is significant that while it is conventional to think of the pleasures of laughter, uncontrolled laughter is a physical ordeal. Peter Shaffer records that on the opening night of Black Comedy (1965) a ‘sternlooking middle-aged man’ fell into the aisle ‘and began calling out to the actors in a voice weak from laughing, “Oh stop it! Please stop it!”’2 Shaffer was of course delighted. The humorist Stephen Leacock goes further, reporting that during one of his lectures a red-faced man keeled over from laughter and there were calls for a doctor: ‘my heart beat high with satisfaction. I was sure that I had killed him.’3 Like Ben Jonson’s promise in the Prologue to Volpone to rub the audience’s cheeks with salt, this reveals (jokingly, so as to get under our defences) that the entertainer who makes us laugh is in some way out to get us. The joker has control not just over his victim but over his audience.