The Ironic Victory of Defeat in Irish Comedy

  • David Krause
Part of the Macmillan Literary Annuals book series (MLA)


It is the function of all great comedians to libel their countries, to libel the intimidating world, as Shaw pointed out in his defense of Synge. This type of liberating libel often stems from the artist’s rejection of his country’s idealistic image of itself, as Yeats believed. The libel of comic dramatists is usually based upon their desecration of whatever becomes too sacred and therefore too repressive in society, and it is sustained by the cheerful and eloquent way their jester characters thrive on their protective masquerades as outcasts or failed men and women. In Irish comedy the gadfly clowns take comfort from their condition of farcical defeat because it liberates them from the terrible burden of responsibility and respectability. Successful men the world over are so busy straining and striving that they have little time for the ironic truths that are hidden in the laughter of failure. There is no room for comedy in the work ethic, and theatre audiences may well consist of people who arc seeking a vicarious escape from the spectre of the sacred job. Some nervous governments grudgingly recognize the need to provide an emotional release for their regimented people, as William Empson revealed in his observation about the function of comedy in Russia: “1 believe the Soviet Government in its early days paid two clowns, Bim and Bom, to say as jokes the things everybody else would have been shot for saying.”1


Main Plot Comic Character Comic Dialectic Comic Emotion Modern Drama 
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    Synge’s letter to Lady Gregory, II September 1904, quoted in Ann Saddlemyer’s Introduction to J. M. Synge’s Collected Works, vol. I (1968), p. xxii. For a more bitter and characteristic illustration of this “Neo-patriotic-Catholic” attitude toward Synge’s plays, see the views of Arthur Griffith inGoogle Scholar
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    William Dunbar’s “The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie” (c. 1505), a long poem of 522 lines, written in octosyllabic couplets in dialogue form, is a formal flyting or comic debate between two word-battling poets. John Small, in his three-volume edition of The Poems of William Dunbar (1893), comments in his Introduction: “The group of vituperative poems consists of the singular ‘flyting’ with Kennedy, where the abuse is probably chiefly mock, a sort of poetical tournament or contest of wit, and a few where the censure was certainly real…. The ‘Flyting’ belongs to a form of poetry of which the literature of almost every nation has examples. The ‘Ibis,’ in which Ovid, or some like Roman poet, abused an unknown rival, was copied from the poem of the same name and purpose by Callimachus against his former pupil Apollonius Rhodius” (pp. cix–cx). Small also cites as examples of fly tings “The Loki Sennar,” an early Scandinavian work, and refers to a number of Italian Renaissance and sixteenth-century Scottish Gaelic poets who used the flyting in their satires. As a proper Victorian gentleman, however, Small disapproves of the flyting because it is too abusive and vulgar, and he concludes: “Modern poets have taken to lauding instead of abusing each other. Byron was perhaps the last of the ‘flyters.’” (p. cxii) Well, not quite the last.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Robert G. Lowery 1982

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  • David Krause

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