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The Ironic Victory of Defeat in Irish Comedy

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

Abstract

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

Keywords

Main Plot Comic Character Comic Dialectic Comic Emotion Modern Drama 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (1935; 1950 ed.) p. 30.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    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
  3. David Krause’s Sean O’Casey, The Man and His Work (1960; 1975) pp. 61, 343–4.Google Scholar
  4. 16.
    Sean O’Casey, Collected Plays, vol. I (1949) p. 157. I am thinking of Harry Brogan’s brilliant performance as Shields at the Abbey Theatre during the 1950s and 1960s. By telegraphing his Joxer-like shoulder-shrug before he delivered his curtain line, he prepared the audience for the conclusion in which a comic twist is superimposed upon a tragic scene.Google Scholar
  5. 21.
    T. S. Eliot, Poetry and Drama (1951) p. 32.Google Scholar
  6. 22.
    Enid Welsford, The Fool (1935; Anchor ed., 1961) p. 322.Google Scholar
  7. 23.
    George Santayana, Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (1922) p. 141.Google Scholar
  8. 24.
    James Agate, Sunday Times, 16 November 1925; reprinted in Sean O’Casey (1969), ed. Ronald Ayling, p. 76.Google Scholar
  9. 27.
    Hugh Kenner, Samuel Beckett, A Critical Study (1961) pp. 134–5.Google Scholar
  10. And Jan Kott, in Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1966), makes a similar point about grotesque characters: “In Shakespeare’s world prose is spoken only by grotesque and episodic characters; by those who are not a part of the drama proper” (p. 275). The contemporaneous point is that in the plays of O’Casey and Beckett the grotesque and episodic characters themselves become the drama proper, while their poetic and social betters are discredited or hidden in the wings.Google Scholar
  11. 28.
    J. L. Styan, The Dark Comedy: The Development of Modern Comic Tragedy (1968) p. 284.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 29.
    W. B. Yeats, “Emotion of Multitude,” Ideas of Good and Evil (1903) pp. 339–41.Google Scholar
  13. 30.
    W. B. Yeats, Plays in Prose and Verse (1922); Google Scholar
  14. reprinted in The Variorum Edition of the Plays of W. B. Yeats (1969), ed. Russell K. Alspach, p. 254.Google Scholar
  15. 31.
    W. B. Yeats, “A People’s Theatre: A Letter to Lady Gregory,” published in the Irish Statesman (1919); reprinted in Explorations (1962) pp. 254–5.Google Scholar
  16. 32.
    Lady Gregory, Seven Short Plays (1903; 1909 ed.) p. 207.Google Scholar
  17. 33.
    W. B. Yeats, Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1917); reprinted in Mythologies (1959) P. 331.Google Scholar
  18. 34.
    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
  19. 35.
    See John Dollard, “The Dozens: Dialect of Insult,” The American Imago I (1939). Google Scholar
  20. See also Robert C. Elliott, The Power of Satire (1960) pp. 73 – 4. The flytings or verbal games, Elliott writes, “have entertainment value (socialized ridicule seems always to provide popular entertainment), and they act, as Dollard says of the Dozens, as a safety value for aggression” (p. 74). Probably the dramatized flytings in Irish comedy serve a similar purpose.Google Scholar
  21. 36.
    Hugh MacDiarmid, “Slainte Churamach, Sean,” in Sean O’Casey (1969), ed. Ronald Ayling, pp. 255–6.Google Scholar
  22. 37.
    W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand (Vintage, 1968) p. 383.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Robert G. Lowery 1982

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Krause

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