Madness, Masks, and Laughter: An Essay on Comedy
Madness, Masks, and Laughter: An Essay on Comedy is an exploration of narrative and dramatic comedy as a laughter-inducing phenomenon. The theatrical metaphors of mask, appearance, and illusion are used as structural linchpins in an attempt to categorize the many and extremely varied manifestations of comedy and to find out what they may have in common with one another. As this reliance on metaphor suggests, the purpose is less to produce The Truth about comedy than to look at how it is related to our understanding of the world and to ways of understanding our understanding. Previous theories of comedy or laughter (such as those advanced by Hobbes, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Bergson, Freud, and Bakhtin) as well as more general philosophical considerations are discussed insofar as they shed light on this approach. The limitations of the metaphors themselves mean that sight is never lost of the deep-seated ambiguity that has made laughter so notoriously difficult to pin down in the past.
The first half of the volume focuses in particular on traditional comic masks and the pleasures of repetition and recognition, on the comedy of imposture, disguise, and deception, on dramatic and verbal irony, on social and theatrical role-playing and the comic possibilities of plays-within-plays and "metatheatre," as well as on the cliches, puns, witticisms, and torrents of gibberish which betray that language itself may be understood as a sort of mask. The second half of the book moves to the other side of the footlights to show how the spectators themselves, identifying with the comic spectacle, may be induced to "drop" their own roles and postures, laughter here operating as something akin to a ventilatory release from the pressures of social or cognitive performance. Here the essay examines the subversive madness inherent in comedy, its displaced anti-authoritarianism, as well as the violence, sexuality, and bodily grotesqueness it may bring to light. The structural tensions in this broadly Hobbesian or Freudian model of a social mask concealing an anti-social self are reflected in comedy's own ambivalences, and emerge especially in the ambiguous concepts of madness and folly, which may be either celebrated as festive fun or derided as sinfulness. The study concludes by considering the ways in which nonsense and the grotesque may infringe our cognitive limitations, here extending the distinction between appearance and reality to a metaphysical level which is nonetheless prey to unresolvable ambiguities.
The scope of the comic material ranges over time from Aristophanes to Martin Amis, from Boccaccio, Chaucer, Rabelais, and Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton, John Barth, and Philip Roth. Alongside mainly Old Greek, Italian, French, Irish, English, and American examples, a number of relatively little-known German plays (by Grabbe, Tieck, Buchner, and others) are also taken into consideration.
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