Lent (Day 14) — an Interlude…

Last night, as part of the Kansas City Public Library’s “Winter Reading Program 2014,” I got to introduce and watch and discuss Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  And it is as funny now as it ever has been.  The premise of the show was to recycle some of the plots of the Roman comic playwright, T. Maccius Plautus (c.254 – c.184 BCE) and weave them into a new play.  It is what Plautus himself had done.  As one of the oldest Latin authors (and the oldest of whom we have entire works), Plautus looked to Greek originals for inspiration and material.  Classical scholars used to assume that Plautus, in reusing the material, was not as good as the originals he borrowed from.  They claimed that the Greek New Comedy (a situation comedy form, different from the Old Comedy which was highly political and topical) authors like Menander must have been geniuses, if only we had their works.  What we have of Menander and his contemporaries suggests that Plautus was his own comic genius.  He took what would have seemed tired plots by his day and created his own brand of silliness, with outrageous elements from Italian comic forms (more like skits),  And, if you read Plautus in a translation by someone sympathetic to Plautus’ aims, such as Erich Segal, you find Plautus’ plays were quite funny, laugh out loud funny.  In some ways, when I think of Plautus, I think of the Marx Brothers, who were part of a tradition of vaudeville comedy, but who ramped up the level of silliness and craziness to new heights.  The plots of Marx Brothers films are not so remarkable, but the comedy within is outstanding.  

But what’s the point of all that silliness and craziness?  Well, in the recap of Funny Thing‘s theme tune, “Comedy Tonight,” the company looking directly at the camera, while spinning around on a carousel of some sort, sing “Well, what is the moral?  Must be a moral.  Here is the moral, wrong or right.  Morals tomorrow, comedy tonight.”  It’s not that the play, and the film based on the play, do not address serious subjects (Pseudolus’ desire to be free is a serious theme of the play), but while watching this silly show, better not to worry about serious themes.  Put them on hold for a minute, get in the swing of things, and laugh aloud.  At another point in the musical, the procurer, Marcus Lycus, trying to get information from Pseudolus regarding Philia, his slave girl whom Pseudolus has convinced has the plague, tries to speak with Pseudolus during the singing of “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.”  And after a few vain attempts to speak with Pseudolus while the song is going on, Lycus just joins in.  In other words, forget about the plot, forget about any attempt to appear “real” (something film is supposed to be good at) — just shut up and sing.  It’s a great moment, and I think is the only song to have a sort of coda and a jazz hands ending.  

In Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen, who plays a comedy writer for television who has become dissatisfied and bitter about what he does — in his mind, he should be doing something meaningful in the world.  But as he sinks more and more into depression, and even contemplates suicide (the suicide attempt is both frightening and funny), he wanders around New York and into a rerun house where the Marx Brothers’ film, Duck Soup, is playing.  At first he is barely aware of the film, and then, the film catches him, as does the laughter of those around.  And he has an epiphany — what the Marx Brothers were doing on screen was nothing “serious.”  It had no greater meaning (it wasn’t really comedy as social criticism), but it had got him out of the prison of his mind and its maddening isolation.  He was part of a group sharing a laugh.  With all the absurdity of life, one could despair, or one could laugh, and not some sarcastic, bitter snicker, but a genuine and jubilant belly laugh.  And that epiphany sees his character through.  A character who throughout the film was wont to see only the worst possible scenario, or the worst possible interpretation of any data he might receive, was now saying yes to life.  And the ending of that film, one filled with a fair amount of angst and regret, is truly joyous and celebratory.  

A Funny Thing Happened... does much the same thing.  It has no “moral.”  It is all about celebration, and all about taking some old, tired material (the very title is a play on the hackneyed stand-up line, “A funny thing happened on the way to the theatre tonight, friends…”) and making it fresh.  And that makes it a truly valuable movie (and play).  Does this mean we ignore serious topics and pain and suffering in the world?  No, we should be angry at that, and weep.  But a movie like this, or Duck Soup, reminds us that pain and suffering is not everything in the world.  And if we find ourselves in a pickle, and wonder what we’re going to do — we can always think of the clever slave in this play, who refused to be labeled by others, but was always in the process of recreating himself, and say “What would Pseudolus do?”  It may not offer a solution to our problems, but likely will get us to laugh, and that will give us some room to find a solution, and not be defined by our troubles. 

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