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Midsummer, Mid-May, or, How Shall We Find the Concord of This Discord?

Like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I can gleek upon occasion. But tonight, for whatever reason, I’m in a serious mood, and I’d like to say some serious things: about comedy. I’d like to touch upon the expectations of comedy, and also explore — briefly, briefly — the comic spirit. Does this sound like any fun at all? I’ll end, I promise, with pina coladas.

My students and I have spent part of this week thinking about ways to stage the Pyramus and Thisbe scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Should it be played solely for laughs? It could be; it often is. But consider the ending of the play within a play: Pyramus, thinking his lover Thisbe dead, has killed himself; he lies on stage with a sword sticking out of his side. The very-much-alive Thisbe approaches the body and asks, “Asleep, my love?” The Athenian court (and we, the readers or spectators) explode with laughter, a laughter that only increases with Thisbe’s next line: “What, dead, my dove?” But what if, as the audience prepares to continue laughing, everything changes? What if Thisbe’s grief becomes momentarily real? This bit of misdirection is convincingly put forward in Michael Hoffman’s 1999 film version of the play. The male actor playing Thisbe takes off his wig (an action that should make him appear even less the grieving lover, but which works in just the opposite way); Hippolyta, laughing a half-minute earlier by Theseus’s side, has to wipe a tear from her cheek. The suddenness of this shift is remarkable; we see why Keats, when forming his idea of Negative Capability, looked to Shakespeare. Benjamin Lehmann, in his essay “Comedy and Laughter,” finds competing tendencies throughout Shakespeare’s work:

Yet from the earliest Shakespearean comedies, there is also a troubled note. Winter as well as spring sound at the close of Love’s Labour’s Lost; in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the wonderful spoofing covers but does not conceal the sadness of Pyramus’ and Thisbe’s fate; in Much Ado brother John’s punishment is merely postponed till tomorrow; Jacques is alone; Feste is alone, finally.

The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe is advertised as “very tragical mirth.” That paradox, a seeming mistake on the part of the mechanicals, proves potent. The audience’s giggles turn to gasps (and finally to transfixed silence). And don’t we want, finally, such collisions, such conundrums? Tragical mirth! As Theseus notes (in a figure that’s meant as a bit of drollery, but which I take as profound), “That is hot ice and wondrous strange black snow.”

Which leads us to the comic spirit. How does one react to uncertainties, mysteries, doubts; to tragical mirth; to hot ice and black snow? If you’re possessed of the comic spirit, if you value flux over fixity, you roll with it. Take Bottom as an example. His friends abandon him in the forest! The Queen of the Fairies seduces him! (“to bed, and to arise”). And what does this shapeshifter, this wonderful weaver, do? He makes witty small-talk with Master Cobweb and Monsieur Mustardseed. He asks for hay. He takes a nap.

The comic spirit is one of adjustment, of Weeble-wobbling. As George Santayana writes in his essay “Carnival”:

The mishaps, the expedients, the merry solutions of comedy, in which everybody acknowledges himself beaten and deceived, yet is the happier for the unexpected posture of affairs, belong to the very texture of temporal being; and if people repine at these mishaps, or rebel against these solutions, it is only because their souls are less plastic and volatile than the general flux of nature. The individual grows old and lags behind; he remembers his old pain and resents it when the world is already on a new tack.

Two more examples, then: one from literature, one from music. In Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, the unnamed narrator finds himself talking to a Polish guy on a Seattle ferry. “Do you ride the motorcycle? I do,” the Polish guy says.

I ride the small, the one, we say, ah, yes, motorscooter, you call it. The big Hell’s Angels have the motorcycles, no, I ride the small motorscooter, excuse me. In Warsaw, my city, we drive in the park after twelve in the night, but the rules are saying no, you must not go to the park after this time, 12 p.m. middle-night, yes, ah, midnight, exact, precisely, it’s against the rule, the law. It is a law, the park is clawsded. Closed, yes, thank you, it is a law for one months in jail if you try it. Oh, we have a lot of fun! I put it on my helmet, and if the polices are catching, they will — bung! bung! — with their sticks! But it doesn’t hurt. But we always get away, because they walk, the polices, they have no transportation for that park. We always win! After the middle-night, it is always dark there.

Then the Polish guy excuses himself to go to the bathroom and buy beer. Johnson’s narrator continues: “He came back with the pitcher and poured my glass full and sat down. ‘Ah hell,’ he said. ‘I’m not Polish. I’m from Cleveland.’

I was shocked, surprised. Really. Not for one second had I thought of something like this. “Well, tell me some stories about Cleveland, then,” I said.

Which the guy does. (“‘The Cuyahoga River caught on fire one time,’ he said.”) It’s an amazing response on the narrator’s part, a comic adjustment to the world’s new tack. I’ve been thinking about it, and wanting to write about it, for months. And here’s what I’ve wanted to pair it with:

Can the comic spirit be any further distilled? I mean, Rupert Holmes is going to cheat on his wife! And his wife is going to cheat on him! And then in some sort of diabolical O Henry-type twist, they wind up together at the same bar! And any normal person would freak out or die of embarrassment! But instead his wife says, “Oh, it’s you,” and they “laugh for a moment,” and then it’s back to the chorus! It is — as Bottom would say, with nary a gleek — a most rare vision!