Humor, Hysteria and the Holidays

Alan Ayckbourne (1939- )

God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.
Corinthians, 1: 27.

Given that we live in a friendly Universe it doesn’t make sense to become overwrought at the moment-to-moment challenges life presents. The problem with human beings throughout history is that they have not known that the Universe is friendly—hence the human condition. Since we do not know the most important aspect of reality, little is left to us but to maintain our sense of humor. That is, perhaps, the message of the plays of Alan Ayckbourn. “If I’ve contributed anything to the sum of modern playwriting it has been to encourage comedy and drama to exist together, as they used to in days of old.”

Ayckbourn’s writing style has an ancient genesis that takes us back to the Golden Age of Greece and before. “Farce is one of the oldest forms of comic drama. It is the predecessor of high comedy, having evolved from the primitive slapstick and folk drama of the ancient Greeks. As early as the fifth century BCE, farcical playlets full of foolishness and bawdy humor were being performed and inspired such writers as Aristophanes (445-385 BCE) who borrowed their jokes, antics and broad hilarious style. However, the word “farce” derives from the Latin farcire meaning “to stuff”—a reference apparently to the padding used to exaggerate the bellies and bosoms of the ancient actors.” The farce that we find in Ayckbourne’s plays is this same form of exaggerated form of comedy that takes its impetus from illogical and complicated fast action, slapstick and convolutions of plot. Thus Aychbourn has been inspired by Aristophanes, 16th century Italian commedia dell’Arte, Moliere, Shakespeare, Shaw, Wilde, Feydeau, Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and the Marx brothers.

“Why has farce persisted for more than 2,000 years? First, farce takes a particular perspective upon certain unchanging qualities in human beings and their relationship with each other and the world around them. The characters are usually pursuing either basic needs [security] or those that society makes desirable: love, sex, food, money, power and glory.” [Notice here that the author groups all of the false-self energy centers together. Love, sex and glory [sensation], power [power and control], and money [security]. “Secondly, farce attacks in the simplest way, a physical way with a kick in the pants or a knock on the head … Finally, farce goes for the belly and the backside; it makes us laugh at the fact that we look funny when we’re at a disadvantage, when we’re caught with our pants down.”

The plays of Ayckbourn are profound and very funny which is why they are so popular. It is as if he is encouraging us to wake up to the folly of the way we attempt to live our lives. “If one were to generalize about his large body of work that now covers practically five decades, it would be that he writes about men and women, their relationships and their general inability to live with each other.”

It is as if Ayckbourn is appealing to the audience to retain its sense of humor at all costs if life is to be anything but grim. And perhaps it is the British most of all who are out of touch with reality and therefore most in need of a good laugh. “He explores the famous British ‘unflappability’ in the face of mounting pressures and incongruities until that façade cracks.” This British “stiff upper-lip” façade was explored to great effect in the 2006 film The Queen starring Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II. The film ended on a wry note of humor as the Tony Blair character was about to be caught with his pants down.

Hell is Christmas with the family

Ayckbourn’s play Seasons Greetings is about that most challenging of holidays. Why is it that we revert to childhood when we gather with the people that we know best? “He [Ayckbourn] is not referring to the little kids who are unseen throughout Seasons Greetings—but  to the taller, older ones on view—those currently going through the ‘awkward’ age, the 25-to 70-year-olds. They’re all there: fighting over their toys, clamoring for attention, bullying, sneaking and crying, then kissing and making up and generally getting far too overexcited, as they always do every year at Christmas.”

Although conventional psychology is of limited use to humanity when addressing the more profound causes of human suffering, it can help move us in the right direction. Ayckbourn sees more deeply into the dysfunction of British society than most psychologists and, of course the British dilemma is only a slightly different version than the human condition in general. “Seasons Greetings is by no means ideological but it reflects, in microscope, a continuing sense of middle-class sterility that Ayckbourn had observed in English society.”

Not only the British are leading lives of “quiet desperation” but in Ayckbourn’s plays they do so in a wonderful, farcical way. “Because it’s sad-sack schlubs don’t know how to cope, Seasons Greetings can seem to simmer into something Chekovian. Because this gaggle of crass, utterly unexceptional people lead lives of isolation and loneliness, their confusion and desperation can seem Thoreauesque.”

Seasons Greetings is a play about love and about how unfair it is. And success and failure. And jealousy and self-deception. And greed and envy and lust and gluttony. Just an average family Christmas.”

As is true of P-B in general Seasons Greetings is filled with paradox. “Ayckbourn’s pitiless gaze challenges people to look at what they have become or are in danger of becoming. It’s a fundamental paradox of Ayckbourn’s works—whatever you call them—that they tell the unpleasant truth and simultaneously dismiss it as an absurdity, a joke.” While we can laugh at the folly of human behavior, we make a fatal mistake if we treat the absurdity of the human condition as a joke.

There is no question that in the process of globalization combined with unrelenting unconsciousness that humanity occupies an increasing unsustainable position on this planet. Nevertheless, we can choose to wake up to the nature of reality at any time. “My biggest recurrent theme is that people do care about each other; it’s just that they handle each other with boxing gloves half the time and not with kid gloves. I think that people should treat each other well. And unfortunately, in this world, it’s getting more and more difficult to treat people nicely, because the suspicions are growing rather than diminishing. That is greatly sad.”

Of course, all of this farce and the human condition revealed by farce takes place in the context of P-B with the human false-self playing the lead. Until the characters on the global stage wake up we can expect the human comic/tragedy to continue giving playwrights plenty of material for decades to come.

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References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

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