Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic
by Henri Bergson

Presented by

Public Domain Books


We have studied the comic element in forms, in attitudes, and in movements generally; now let us look for it in actions and in situations. We encounter, indeed, this kind of comic readily enough in everyday life. It is not here, however, that it best lends itself to analysis. Assuming that the stage is both a magnified and a simplified view of life, we shall find that comedy is capable of furnishing us with more information than real life on this particular part of our subject. Perhaps we ought even to carry simplification still farther, and, going back to our earliest recollections, try to discover, in the games that amused us as children, the first faint traces of the combinations that make us laugh as grown-up persons. We are too apt to speak of our feelings of pleasure and of pain as though full grown at birth, as though each one of them had not a history of its own. Above all, we are too apt to ignore the childish element, so to speak, latent in most of our joyful emotions. And yet, how many of our present pleasures, were we to examine them closely, would shrink into nothing more than memories of past ones! What would there be left of many of our emotions were we to reduce them to the exact quantum of pure feeling they contain, by subtracting from them all that is merely reminiscence? Indeed, it seems possible that, after a certain age, we become impervious to all fresh or novel forms of joy, and the sweetest pleasures of the middle-aged man are perhaps nothing more than a revival of the sensations of childhood, a balmy zephyr wafted in fainter and fainter breaths by a past that is ever receding. In any case, whatever reply we give to this broad question, one thing is certain: there can be no break in continuity between the child’s delight in games and that of the grown-up person. Now, comedy is a game, a game that imitates life. And since, in the games of the child when working its dolls and puppets, many of the movements are produced by strings, ought we not to find those same strings, somewhat frayed by wear, reappearing as the threads that knot together the situations in a comedy? Let us, then, start with the games of a child, and follow the imperceptible process by which, as he grows himself, he makes his puppets grow, inspires them with life, and finally brings them to an ambiguous state in which, without ceasing to be puppets, they have yet become human beings. We thus obtain characters of a comedy type. And upon them we can test the truth of the law of which all our preceding analyses gave an inkling, a law in accordance with which we will define all broadly comic situations in general. ANY ARRANGEMENT OF ACTS AND EVENTS IS COMIC WHICH GIVES US, IN A SINGLE COMBINATION, THE ILLUSION OF LIFE AND THE DISTINCT IMPRESSION OF A MECHANICAL ARRANGEMENT.

1. THE JACK-IN-THE-BOX.--As children we have all played with the little man who springs out of his box. You squeeze him flat, he jumps up again. Push him lower, and he shoots up still higher. Crush him down beneath the lid, and often he will send everything flying. It is hard to tell whether or no the toy itself is very ancient, but the kind of amusement it affords belongs to all time. It is a struggle between two stubborn elements, one of which, being simply mechanical, generally ends by giving in to the other, which treats it as a plaything. A cat playing with a mouse, which from time to time she releases like a spring, only to pull it up short with a stroke of her paw, indulges in the same kind of amusement.

We will now pass on to the theatre, beginning with a Punch and Judy show. No sooner does the policeman put in an appearance on the stage than, naturally enough, he receives a blow which fells him. He springs to his feet, a second blow lays him flat. A repetition of the offence is followed by a repetition of the punishment. Up and down the constable flops and hops with the uniform rhythm of the bending and release of a spring, whilst the spectators laugh louder and louder.

Now, let us think of a spring that is rather of a moral type, an idea that is first expressed, then repressed, and then expressed again; a stream of words that bursts forth, is checked, and keeps on starting afresh. Once more we have the vision of one stubborn force, counteracted by another, equally pertinacious. This vision, however, will have discarded a portion of its materiality. No longer is it Punch and Judy that we are watching, but rather a real comedy.

Many a comic scene may indeed be referred to this simple type. For instance, in the scene of the Mariage force between Sganarelle and Pancrace, the entire vis comica lies in the conflict set up between the idea of Sganarelle, who wishes to make the philosopher listen to him, and the obstinacy of the philosopher, a regular talking-machine working automatically. As the scene progresses, the image of the Jack-in-the-box becomes more apparent, so that at last the characters themselves adopt its movements,--Sganarelle pushing Pancrace, each time he shows himself, back into the wings, Pancrace returning to the stage after each repulse to continue his patter. And when Sganarelle finally drives Pancrace back and shuts him up inside the house--inside the box, one is tempted to say--a window suddenly flies open, and the head of the philosopher again appears as though it had burst open the lid of a box.

The same by-play occurs in the Malade Imaginaire. Through the mouth of Monsieur Purgon the outraged medical profession pours out its vials of wrath upon Argan, threatening him with every disease that flesh is heir to. And every time Argan rises from his seat, as though to silence Purgon, the latter disappears for a moment, being, as it were, thrust back into the wings; then, as though Impelled by a spring, he rebounds on to the stage with a fresh curse on his lips. The self-same exclamation: “Monsieur Purgon!” recurs at regular beats, and, as it were, marks the TEMPO of this little scene.

Let us scrutinise more closely the image of the spring which is bent, released, and bent again. Let us disentangle its central element, and we shall hit upon one of the usual processes of classic comedy,--REPETITION.

Why is it there is something comic in the repetition of a word on the stage? No theory of the ludicrous seems to offer a satisfactory answer to this very simple question. Nor can an answer be found so long as we look for the explanation of an amusing word or phrase in the phrase or word itself, apart from all it suggests to us. Nowhere will the usual method prove to be so inadequate as here. With the exception, however, of a few special instances to which we shall recur later, the repetition of a word is never laughable in itself. It makes us laugh only because it symbolises a special play of moral elements, this play itself being the symbol of an altogether material diversion. It is the diversion of the cat with the mouse, the diversion of the child pushing back the Jack-in-the-box, time after time, to the bottom of his box,--but in a refined and spiritualised form, transferred to the realm of feelings and ideas. Let us then state the law which, we think, defines the main comic varieties of word-repetition on the stage: IN A COMIC REPETITION OF WORDS WE GENERALLY FIND TWO TERMS: A REPRESSED FEELING WHICH GOES OFF LIKE A SPRING, AND AN IDEA THAT DELIGHTS IN REPRESSING THE FEELING ANEW.

When Dorine is telling Orgon of his wife’s illness, and the latter continually interrupts him with inquiries as to the health of Tartuffe, the question: “Et tartuffe?” repeated every few moments, affords us the distinct sensation of a spring being released. This spring Dorine delights in pushing back, each time she resumes her account of Elmire’s illness. And when Scapin informs old Geronte that his son has been taken prisoner on the famous galley, and that a ransom must be paid without delay, he is playing with the avarice of Geronte exactly as Dorine does with the infatuation of Orgon. The old man’s avarice is no sooner repressed than up it springs again automatically, and it is this automatism that Moliere tries to indicate by the mechanical repetition of a sentence expressing regret at the money that would have to be forthcoming: “What the deuce did he want in that galley?” The same criticism is applicable to the scene in which Valere points out to Harpagon the wrong he would be doing in marrying his daughter to a man she did not love. “No dowry wanted!” interrupts the miserly Harpagon every few moments. Behind this exclamation, which recurs automatically, we faintly discern a complete repeating-machine set going by a fixed idea.

At times this mechanism is less easy to detect, and here we encounter a fresh difficulty in the theory of the comic. Sometimes the whole interest of a scene lies in one character playing a double part, the intervening speaker acting as a mere prism, so to speak, through which the dual personality is developed. We run the risk, then, of going astray if we look for the secret of the effect in what we see and hear,--in the external scene played by the characters,--and not in the altogether inner comedy of which this scene is no more than the outer refraction. For instance, when Alceste stubbornly repeats the words, “I don’t say that!” on Oronte asking him if he thinks his poetry bad, the repetition is laughable, though evidently Oronte is not now playing with Alceste at the game we have just described. We must be careful, however, for, in reality, we have two men in Alceste: on the one hand, the “misanthropist” who has vowed henceforth to call a spade a spade, and on the other the gentleman who cannot unlearn, in a trice, the usual forms of politeness, or even, it may be, just the honest fellow who, when called upon to put his words into practice, shrinks from wounding another’s self-esteem or hurting his feelings. Accordingly, the real scene is not between Alceste and Oronte, it is between Alceste and himself. The one Alceste would fain blurt out the truth, and the other stops his mouth just as he is on the point of telling everything. Each “I don’t say that!” reveals a growing effort to repress something that strives and struggles to get out. And so the tone in which the phrase is uttered gets more and more violent, Alceste becoming more and more angry--not with Oronte. as he thinks--but with himself. The tension of the spring is continually being renewed and reinforced until it at last goes off with a bang. Here, as elsewhere, we have the same identical mechanism of repetition.

For a man to make a resolution never henceforth to say what he does not think, even though he “openly defy the whole human race,” is not necessarily laughable; it is only a phase of life at its highest and best. For another man, through amiability, selfishness, or disdain, to prefer to flatter people is only another phase of life; there is nothing in it to make us laugh. You may even combine these two men into one, and arrange that the individual waver between offensive frankness and delusive politeness, this duel between two opposing feelings will not even then be comic, rather it will appear the essence of seriousness if these two feelings through their very distinctness complete each other, develop side by side, and make up between them a composite mental condition, adopting, in short, a modus vivendi which merely gives us the complex impression of life. But imagine these two feelings as INELASTIC and unvarying elements in a really living man, make him oscillate from one to the other; above all, arrange that this oscillation becomes entirely mechanical by adopting the well-known form of some habitual, simple, childish contrivance: then you will get the image we have so far found in all laughable objects, SOMETHING MECHANICAL IN SOMETHING LIVING; in fact, something comic.

We have dwelt on this first image, the Jack-in-the-box, sufficiently to show how comic fancy gradually converts a material mechanism into a moral one. Now we will consider one or two other games, confining ourselves to their most striking aspects.

2. THE DANCING-JACK.--There are innumerable comedies in which one of the characters thinks he is speaking and acting freely, and, consequently, retains all the essentials of life, whereas, viewed from a certain standpoint, he appears as a mere toy in the hands of another who is playing with him. The transition is easily made, from the dancing-jack which a child works with a string, to Geronte and Argante manipulated by Scapin. Listen to Scapin himself: “The MACHINE is all there"; and again: “Providence has brought them into my net,” etc. Instinctively, and because one would rather be a cheat than be cheated, in imagination at all events, the spectator sides with the knaves; and for the rest of the time, like a child who has persuaded his playmate to lend him his doll, he takes hold of the strings himself and makes the marionette come and go on the stage as he pleases. But this latter condition is not indispensable; we can remain outside the pale of what is taking place if only we retain the distinct impression of a mechanical arrangement. This is what happens whenever one of the characters vacillates between two contrary opinions, each in turn appealing to him, as when Panurge asks Tom, Dick, and Harry whether or no he ought to get married. Note that, in such a case, a comic author is always careful to PERSONIFY the two opposing decisions. For, if there is no spectator, there must at all events be actors to hold the strings.

All that is serious in life comes from our freedom. The feelings we have matured, the passions we have brooded over, the actions we have weighed, decided upon, and carried through, in short, all that comes from us and is our very own, these are the things that give life its ofttimes dramatic and generally grave aspect. What, then, is requisite to transform all this into a comedy? Merely to fancy that our seeming, freedom conceals the strings of a dancing-Jack, and that we are, as the poet says,

... humble marionettes The wires of which are pulled by Fate. [Footnote: ... d’humbles marionnettes Dont le fil est aux mains de la Necessite. SULLY-PRUDHOMME.]

So there is not a real, a serious, or even a dramatic scene that fancy cannot render comic by simply calling forth this image. Nor is there a game for which a wider field lies open.

3. THE SNOW-BALL.--The farther we proceed in this investigation into the methods of comedy, the more clearly we see the part played by childhood’s memories. These memories refer, perhaps, less to any special game than to the mechanical device of which that game is a particular instance. The same general device, moreover, may be met with in widely different games, just as the same operatic air is found in many different arrangements and variations. What is here of importance and is retained in the mind, what passes by imperceptible stages from the games of a child to those of a man, is the mental diagram, the skeleton outline of the combination, or, if you like, the abstract formula of which these games are particular illustrations. Take, for instance, the rolling snow-ball, which increases in size as it moves along. We might just as well think of toy soldiers standing behind one another. Push the first and it tumbles down on the second, this latter knocks down the third, and the state of things goes from bad to worse until they all lie prone on the floor. Or again, take a house of cards that has been built up with infinite care: the first you touch seems uncertain whether to move or not, its tottering neighbour comes to a quicker decision, and the work of destruction, gathering momentum as it goes on, rushes headlong to the final collapse.

These instances are all different, but they suggest the same abstract vision, that of an effect which grows by arithmetical progression, so that the cause, insignificant at the outset, culminates by a necessary evolution in a result as important as it is unexpected. Now let us open a children’s picture-book; we shall find this arrangement already on the high road to becoming comic. Here, for instance--in one of the comic chap-books picked up by chance--we have a caller rushing violently into a drawing-room; he knocks against a lady, who upsets her cup of tea over an old gentleman, who slips against a glass window which falls in the street on to the head of a constable, who sets the whole police force agog, etc. The same arrangement reappears in many a picture intended for grownup persons. In the “stories without words" sketched by humorous artists we are often shown an object which moves from place to place, and persons who are closely connected with it, so that through a series of scenes a change in the position of the object mechanically brings about increasingly serious changes in the situation of the persons. Let us now turn to comedy. Many a droll scene, many a comedy even, may be referred to this simple type. Read the speech of Chicanneau in the Plaideurs: here we find lawsuits within lawsuits, and the mechanism works faster and faster- -Racine produces in us this feeling of increasing acceleration by crowding his law terms ever closer together--until the lawsuit over a truss of hay costs the plaintiff the best part of his fortune. And again the same arrangement occurs in certain scenes of Don Quixote; for instance, in the inn scene, where, by an extraordinary concatenation of circumstances, the mule-driver strikes Sancho, who belabours Maritornes, upon whom the innkeeper falls, etc. Finally, let us pass to the light comedy of to-day. Need we call to mind all the forms in which this same combination appears? There is one that is employed rather frequently. For instance, a certain thing, say a letter, happens to be of supreme importance to a certain person and must be recovered at all costs. This thing, which always vanishes just when you think you have caught it, pervades the entire play, “rolling up” increasingly serious and unexpected incidents as it proceeds. All this is far more like a child’s game than appears at first blush. Once more the effect produced is that of the snowball.

It is the characteristic of a mechanical combination to be generally REVERSIBLE. A child is delighted when he sees the ball in a game of ninepins knocking down everything in its way and spreading havoc in all directions; he laughs louder than ever when the ball returns to its starting-point after twists and turns and waverings of every kind. In other words, the mechanism just described is laughable even when rectilinear, it is much more so on becoming circular and when every effort the player makes, by a fatal interaction of cause and effect, merely results in bringing it back to the same spot. Now, a considerable number of light comedies revolve round this idea. An Italian straw hat has been eaten up by a horse. [Footnote: Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie (Labiche).] There is only one other hat like it in the whole of Paris; it MUST be secured regardless of cost. This hat, which always slips away at the moment its capture seems inevitable, keeps the principal character on the run, and through him all the others who hang, so to say, on to his coat tails, like a magnet which, by a successive series of attractions, draws along in its train the grains of iron filings that hang on to each other. And when at last, after all sorts of difficulties, the goal seems in sight, it is found that the hat so ardently sought is precisely the one that has been eaten. The same voyage of discovery is depicted in another equally well-known comedy of Labiche. [Footnote: La Cagnotte.] The curtain rises on an old bachelor and an old maid, acquaintances of long standing, at the moment of enjoying their daily rubber. Each of them, unknown to the other, has applied to the same matrimonial agency. Through innumerable difficulties, one mishap following on the heels of another, they hurry along, side by side, right through the play, to the interview which brings them back, purely and simply, into each other’s presence. We have the same circular effect, the same return to the starting-point, in a more recent play. [Footnote: Les Surprises du divorce.] A henpecked husband imagines he has escaped by divorce from the clutches of his wife and his mother-in-law. He marries again, when, lo and behold, the double combination of marriage and divorce brings back to him his former wife in the aggravated form of a second mother-in-law!

When we think how intense and how common is this type of the comic, we understand why it has fascinated the imagination of certain philosophers. To cover a good deal of ground only to come back unwittingly to the starting-point, is to make a great effort for a result that is nil. So we might be tempted to define the comic in this latter fashion. And such, indeed, seems to be the idea of Herbert Spencer: according to him, laughter is the indication of an effort which suddenly encounters a void. Kant had already said something of the kind: “Laughter is the result of an expectation, which, of a sudden, ends in nothing.” No doubt these definitions would apply to the last few examples given, although, even then, the formula needs the addition of sundry limitations, for we often make an ineffectual effort which is in no way provocative of laughter. While, however, the last few examples are illustrations of a great cause resulting in a small effect, we quoted others, immediately before, which might be defined inversely as a great effect springing from a small cause. The truth is, this second definition has scarcely more validity than the first. Lack of proportion between cause and effect, whether appearing in one or in the other, is never the direct source of laughter. What we do laugh at is something that this lack of proportion may in certain cases disclose, namely, a particular mechanical arrangement which it reveals to us, as through a glass, at the back of the series of effects and causes. Disregard this arrangement, and you let go the only clue capable of guiding you through the labyrinth of the comic. Any hypothesis you otherwise would select, while possibly applicable to a few carefully chosen cases, is liable at any moment to be met and overthrown by the first unsuitable instance that comes along.

But why is it we laugh at this mechanical arrangement? It is doubtless strange that the history of a person or of a group should sometimes appear like a game worked by strings, or gearings, or springs; but from what source does the special character of this strangeness arise? What is it that makes it laughable? To this question, which we have already propounded in various forms, our answer must always be the same. The rigid mechanism which we occasionally detect, as a foreign body, in the living continuity of human affairs is of peculiar interest to us as being a kind of ABSENTMINDEDNESS on the part of life. Were events unceasingly mindful of their own course, there would be no coincidences, no conjunctures and no circular series; everything would evolve and progress continuously. And were all men always attentive to life, were we constantly keeping in touch with others as well as with ourselves, nothing within us would ever appear as due to the working of strings or springs. The comic is that side of a person which reveals his likeness to a thing, that aspect of human events which, through its peculiar inelasticity, conveys the impression of pure mechanism, of automatism, of movement without life. Consequently it expresses an individual or collective imperfection which calls for an immediate corrective. This corrective is laughter, a social gesture that singles out and represses a special kind of absentmindedness in men and in events.

But this in turn tempts us to make further investigations. So far, we have spent our time in rediscovering, in the diversions of the grownup man, those mechanical combinations which amused him as a child. Our methods, in fact, have been entirely empirical. Let us now attempt to frame a full and methodical theory, by seeking, as it were, at the fountainhead, the changeless and simple archetypes of the manifold and transient practices of the comic stage. Comedy, we said, combines events so as to introduce mechanism into the outer forms of life. Let us now ascertain in what essential characteristics life, when viewed from without, seems to contrast with mere mechanism. We shall only have, then, to turn to the opposite characteristics, in order to discover the abstract formula, this time a general and complete one, for every real and possible method of comedy.

Life presents itself to us as evolution in time and complexity in space. Regarded in time, it is the continuous evolution of a being ever growing older; it never goes backwards and never repeats anything. Considered in space, it exhibits certain coexisting elements so closely interdependent, so exclusively made for one another, that not one of them could, at the same time, belong to two different organisms: each living being is a closed system of phenomena, incapable of interfering with other systems. A continual change of aspect, the irreversibility of the order of phenomena, the perfect individuality of a perfectly self-contained series: such, then, are the outward characteristics--whether real or apparent is of little moment--which distinguish the living from the merely mechanical. Let us take the counterpart of each of these: we shall obtain three processes which might be called REPETITION, INVERSION, and RECIPROCAL INTERFERENCE OF SERIES. Now, it is easy to see that these are also the methods of light comedy, and that no others are possible.

As a matter of fact, we could discover them, as ingredients of varying importance, in the composition of all the scenes we have just been considering, and, a fortiori, in the children’s games, the mechanism of which they reproduce. The requisite analysis would, however, delay us too long, and it is more profitable to study them in their purity by taking fresh examples. Nothing could be easier, for it is in their pure state that they are found both in classic comedy and in contemporary plays.

1. REPETITION.-Our present problem no longer deals, like the preceding one, with a word or a sentence repeated by an individual, but rather with a situation, that is, a combination of circumstances, which recurs several times in its original form and thus contrasts with the changing stream of life. Everyday experience supplies us with this type of the comic, though only in a rudimentary state. Thus, you meet a friend in the street whom you have not seen for an age; there is nothing comic in the situation. If, however, you meet, him again the same day, and then a third and a fourth time, you may laugh at the “coincidence.” Now, picture to yourself a series of imaginary events which affords a tolerably fair illusion of life, and within this ever-moving series imagine one and the same scene reproduced either by the same characters or by different ones: again you will have a coincidence, though a far more extraordinary one.

Such are the repetitions produced on the stage. They are the more laughable in proportion as the scene repeated is more complex and more naturally introduced--two conditions which seem mutually exclusive, and which the play-writer must be clever enough to reconcile.

Contemporary light comedy employs this method in every shape and form. One of the best-known examples consists in bringing a group of characters, act after act, into the most varied surroundings, so as to reproduce, under ever fresh circumstances, one and the same series of incidents or accidents more or less symmetrically identical.

In several of Moliere’s plays we find one and the same arrangement of events repeated right through the comedy from beginning to end. Thus, the Ecole des femmes does nothing more than reproduce and repeat a single incident in three tempi: first tempo, Horace tells Arnolphe of the plan he has devised to deceive Agnes’s guardian, who turns out to be Arnolphe himself; second tempo, Arnolphe thinks he has checkmated the move; third tempo, Agnes contrives that Horace gets all the benefit of Arnolphe’s precautionary measures. There is the same symmetrical repetition in the Ecole des marts, in L’Etourdi, and above all in George Dandin, where the same effect in three tempi is again met with: first tempo, George Dandin discovers that his wife is unfaithful; second tempo, he summons his father-- and mother-in-law to his assistance; third tempo, it is George Dandin himself, after all, who has to apologise.

At times the same scene is reproduced with groups of different characters. Then it not infrequently happens that the first group consists of masters and the second of servants. The latter repeat in another key a scene already played by the former, though the rendering is naturally less refined. A part of the Depit amoureux is constructed on this plan, as is also Amphitryon. In an amusing little comedy of Benedix, Der Eigensinn, the order is inverted: we have the masters reproducing a scene of stubbornness in which their servants have set the example.

But, quite irrespective of the characters who serve as pegs for the arrangement of symmetrical situations, there seems to be a wide gulf between classic comedy and the theatre of to-day. Both aim at introducing a certain mathematical order into events, while none the less maintaining their aspect of likelihood, that is to say, of life. But the means they employ are different. The majority of light comedies of our day seek to mesmerise directly the mind of the spectator. For, however extraordinary the coincidence, it becomes acceptable from the very fact that it is accepted; and we do accept it, if we have been gradually prepared for its reception. Such is often the procedure adopted by contemporary authors. In Moliere’s plays, on the contrary, it is the moods of the persons on the stage, not of the audience, that make repetition seem natural. Each of the characters represents a certain force applied in a certain direction, and it is because these forces, constant in direction, necessarily combine together in the same way, that the same situation is reproduced. Thus interpreted, the comedy of situation is akin to the comedy of character. It deserves to be called classic, if classic art is indeed that which does not claim to derive from the effect more than it has put into the cause.

2. Inversion.--This second method has so much analogy with the first that we will merely define it without insisting on illustrations. Picture to yourself certain characters in a certain situation: if you reverse the situation and invert the roles, you obtain a comic scene. The double rescue scene in Le Voyage de M. Perrichon belongs to this class. [Footnote: Labiche, “Le Voyage de M. Perrichon."] There is no necessity, however, for both the identical scenes to be played before us. We may be shown only one, provided the other is really in our minds. Thus, we laugh at the prisoner at the bar lecturing the magistrate; at a child presuming to teach its parents; in a word, at everything that comes under the heading of “topsyturvydom.” Not infrequently comedy sets before us a character who lays a trap in which he is the first to be caught. The plot of the villain who is the victim of his own villainy, or the cheat cheated, forms the stock-in-trade of a good many plays. We find this even in primitive farce. Lawyer Pathelin tells his client of a trick to outwit the magistrate; the client employs the self-same trick to avoid paying the lawyer. A termagant of a wife insists upon her husband doing all the housework; she has put down each separate item on a “rota.” Now let her fall into a copper, her husband will refuse to drag her out, for “that is not down on his ’rota.’” In modern literature we meet with hundreds of variations on the theme of the robber robbed. In every case the root idea involves an inversion of roles, and a situation which recoils on the head of its author.

Here we apparently find the confirmation of a law, some illustrations of which we have already pointed out. When a comic scene has been reproduced a number of times, it reaches the stage of being a classical type or model. It becomes amusing in itself, quite apart from the causes which render it amusing. Henceforth, new scenes, which are not comic de jure, may become amusing de facto, on account of their partial resemblance to this model. They call up in our mind a more or less confused image which we know to be comical. They range themselves in a category representing an officially recognised type of the comic. The scene of the “robber robbed" belongs to this class. It casts over a host of other scenes a reflection of the comic element it contains. In the end it renders comic any mishap that befalls one through one’s own fault, no matter what the fault or mishap may be,--nay, an allusion to this mishap, a single word that recalls it, is sufficient. There would be nothing amusing in the saying, “It serves you right, George Dandin,” were it not for the comic overtones that take up and re-echo it.

3. We have dwelt at considerable length on repetition and inversion; we now come to the reciprocal interference [Footnote: The word “interference” has here the meaning given to it in Optics, where it indicates the partial superposition and neutralisation, by each other, of two series of light-waves.] of series. This is a comic effect, the precise formula of which is very difficult to disentangle, by reason of the extraordinary variety of forms in which it appears on the stage. Perhaps it might be defined as follows: A situation is invariably comic when it belongs simultaneously to two altogether independent series of events and is capable of being interpreted in two entirely different meanings at the same time.

You will at once think of an equivocal situation. And the equivocal situation is indeed one which permits of two different meanings at the same time, the one merely plausible, which is put forward by the actors, the other a real one, which is given by the public. We see the real meaning of the situation, because care has been taken to show us every aspect of it; but each of the actors knows only one of these aspects: hence the mistakes they make and the erroneous judgments they pass both on what is going on around them and on what they are doing themselves. We proceed from this erroneous judgment to the correct one, we waver between the possible meaning and the real, and it is this mental seesaw between two contrary interpretations which is at first apparent in the enjoyment we derive from an equivocal situation. It is natural that certain philosophers should have been specially struck by this mental instability, and that some of them should regard the very essence of the ludicrous as consisting in the collision or coincidence of two judgments that contradict each other. Their definition, however, is far from meeting every case, and even when it does, it defines--not the principle of the ludicrous, but only one of its more or less distant consequences. Indeed, it is easy to see that the stage-made misunderstanding is nothing but a particular instance of a far more general phenomenon,--the reciprocal interference of independent series, and that, moreover, it is not laughable in itself, but only as a sign of such an interference.

As a matter of fact, each of the characters in every stage-made misunderstanding has his setting in an appropriate series of events which he correctly interprets as far as he is concerned, and which give the key-note to his words and actions. Each of the series peculiar to the several characters develop independently, but at a certain moment they meet under such conditions that the actions and words that belong to one might just as well belong to another. Hence arise the misunderstandings and the equivocal nature of the situation. But this latter is not laughable in itself, it is so only because it reveals the coincidence of the two independent series. The proof of this lies in the fact that the author must be continually taxing his ingenuity to recall our attention to the double fact of independence and coincidence. This he generally succeeds in doing by constantly renewing the vain threat of dissolving partnership between the two coinciding series. Every moment the whole thing threatens to break down, but manages to get patched up again; it is this diversion that excites laughter, far more than the oscillation of the mind between two contradictory ideas. It makes us laugh because it reveals to us the reciprocal interference of two independent series, the real source of the comic effect.

And so the stage-made misunderstanding is nothing more than one particular instance, one means--perhaps the most artificial--of illustrating the reciprocal interference of series, but it is not the only one. Instead of two contemporary series, you might take one series of events belonging to the past and another belonging to the present: if the two series happen to coincide in our imagination, there will be no resulting cross-purposes, and yet the same comic effect will continue to take place. Think of Bonivard, captive in the Castle of Chillon: one series of facts. Now picture to yourself Tartarin, travelling in Switzerland, arrested and imprisoned: second series, independent of the former. Now let Tartarin be manacled to Bonivard’s chain, thus making the two stories seem for a moment to coincide, and you will get a very amusing scene, one of the most amusing that Daudet’s imagination has pictured. [Tartarin sur les Alpes, by Daudet.] Numerous incidents of the mock-heroic style, if analysed, would reveal the same elements. The transposition from the ancient to the modern--always a laughable one--draws its inspiration from the same idea. Labiche has made use of this method in every shape and form. Sometimes he begins by building up the series separately, and then delights in making them interfere with one another: he takes an independent group--a wedding-party, for instance--and throws them into altogether unconnected surroundings, into which certain coincidences allow of their being foisted for the time being. Sometimes he keeps one and the same set of characters right through the play, but contrives that certain of these characters have something to conceal--have, in fact, a secret understanding on the point--in short, play a smaller comedy within the principal one: at one moment, one of the two comedies is on the point of upsetting the other; the next, everything comes right and the coincidence between the two series is restored. Sometimes, even, he introduces into the actual series a purely immaterial series of events, an inconvenient past, for instance, that some one has an interest in concealing, but which is continually cropping up in the present, and on each occasion is successfully brought into line with situations with which it seemed destined to play havoc. But in every case we find the two independent series, and also their partial coincidence.

We will not carry any further this analysis of the methods of light comedy. Whether we find reciprocal interference of series, inversion, or repetition, we see that the objective is always the same--to obtain what we have called a MECHANISATION of life. You take a set of actions and relations and repeat it as it is, or turn it upside down, or transfer it bodily to another set with which it partially coincides--all these being processes that consist in looking upon life as a repeating mechanism, with reversible action and interchangeable parts. Actual life is comedy just so far as it produces, in a natural fashion, actions of the same kind,-- consequently, just so far as it forgets itself, for were it always on the alert, it would be ever-changing continuity, irrevertible progress, undivided unity. And so the ludicrous in events may be defined as absentmindedness in things, just as the ludicrous in an individual character always results from some fundamental absentmindedness in the person, as we have already intimated and shall prove later on. This absentmindedness in events, however, is exceptional. Its results are slight. At any rate it is incurable, so that it is useless to laugh at it. Therefore the idea would never have occurred to any one of exaggerating that absentmindedness, of converting it into a system and creating an art for it, if laughter were not always a pleasure and mankind did not pounce upon the slightest excuse for indulging in it. This is the real explanation of light comedy, which holds the same relation to actual life as does a jointed dancing-doll to a man walking,--being, as it is, an artificial exaggeration of a natural rigidity in things. The thread that binds it to actual life is a very fragile one. It is scarcely more than a game which, like all games, depends on a previously accepted convention. Comedy in character strikes far deeper roots into life. With that kind of comedy we shall deal more particularly in the final portion of our investigation. But we must first analyse a certain type of the comic, in many respects similar to that of light comedy: the comic in words.


Preface  •  I  •  II  •  III  •  IV  •  V  •  I  •  II  •  I  •  II  •  III  •  IV  •  V  •    • 

[Buy at Amazon]
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7) (Deluxe Edition)
By J. K. Rowling
At Amazon