Introduction, Part Deux: Seriously Funny
Why farce? Why comedy at all?
If only in terms of commercial hits at the movies, comedy is much beloved. But not since Annie Hall (1977) has it been a winner. Sure, in 2009, the Academy made room for our vulgar propensities by expanding the field of nominees for Best Picture, the better to acknowledge films that were huge box-office draws. There's art; and there's art that people really like.
Medieval and Renaissance French people really liked farce.
Farce was popular culture. It was a forerunner of the sitcom. It anticipated the variety sketches of Saturday Night Live and the mockumentaries of The Daily Show. It was even a harbinger of the spouse-swapping spectacles of reality TV. And yet, farce remains the black sheep of the theatrical family and the runt of the comic litter. It's the "also-ran." It's the ne'er-do-well flip side of tragedy. It's the long forgotten Side B of that old 45-rpm record, dwarfed by the Top 40 smash of Side A. Flip that record, though, and many a highbrow scholar has been known to flip out upon encountering politically incorrect humor that left no stone unturned. Medieval farce had the stones to engage every hot-button issue in the book even as books themselves were only beginning to enjoy mass dissemination: the inequities of the legal system, the separation of church and state, access to education, gender roles, the very definition of marriage. Joyously and relentlessly, in send-up after hysterical send-up, early satirists shone their harshest spotlight upon the deep instability that underlies any veneer of social stability. They poked, prodded, and palpated the dark underbelly of life. Old age meets youth, holy roller meets nympho, servant meets master, snake-oil salesman meets mark, moron meets Ph.D., doctor meets patient, foreigner meets local, artisan meets artless, seducer meets prude. And, for the most part, funny meets unfunny as farce rubs everybody's noses in the malodorous fruits of its asinine labors—albeit not as literally as it did in The Farce of the Fart—perhaps nowhere more so than when it takes on an institution that to this day is deemed paramount to the social fabric: marriage.
In fifteenth- and sixteenth-century plays, love and marriage did not exactly go together like a horse and carriage. Plus, one of them tends to be sexless. For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, for male or for female, things just don't seem to work out. Frustration, fear, anxiety, jealousy, disappointment, and despair are matched only by the eagerness with which everybody sings, dances, and cavorts in the pursuit of deception, trickery, and adultery. What with all those arranged matches of child brides to doddering geezers on one hand and all those vestigial fantasies of courtly love on the other, farce definitely had its hands full. Hands down, it was hands-on. Whence the dozen anonymous plays assembled here, all devoted to the depressingly hilarious—and hilariously depressing—state of holy deadlock.
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the quest for the perfect partner has given us everything from eHarmony to sitcoms to the reality TV of the Bachelor and the Bachelorette. Noble? No. Sacramental? Hardly. A latter-day pilgrimage? Maybe. A quest for fifteen minutes of fame and fortune? You bet. I mean, way back when:
Wasn't it romantic?
"You've got sheep? I've got looms. Let's get hitched and go into the sweater business" (or, more realistically: "Let's get our kids hitched and get them into the business").
"What's that you say? Lord Moneybags has got a son too? He'll see my looms and raise me 15 hectares of flowering fields and a dairy?"
The marriage negotiation is soon out to pasture and, for the losing party, this is no bargain. But, for farce, it's the deal of the century and the origin of some of its trademark wackiness. Once more into the breach—and into the breeches—says farce, as it storms the palace gates. It's on the scene, ever ready to mock the marital ties that bind with its umpteen representations of marriage unbound. It too was boundless as it overstepped any apparent limits of subject, space, place, or time.
In France, the farcical repertoire comprises some two hundred extant fifteenth-century plays that were reimagined, recirculated, performed, and published throughout the sixteenth century and beyond. All over Europe, farce was in everybody's face as it flew in the face of convention. The medieval face. The Renaissance face. Even the seventeenth-century face of theatergoers who were eventually to amuse themselves with much more than Molière. Our final play, Marriage with a Grain of Salt, was published in Rouen in 1600, all making for one very long Middle Ages that defies standard historical periodization. Put that together with Donald Perret's work on the late sixteenth-century "rediscovery" of the Greek classics, and we are talking about an unparalleled history of comic continuity.
Comedically speaking, this was no renaissance. Farce had never left the building—and that was before it even had a building to leave, such as the first Parisian theater per se, the Hôtel de Bourgogne, erected in 1548. Indeed, no building could be erected to contain it, particularly in regions with strong traditions of civic ceremony. In France, in Italy, in the Low Countries, it spilled into public squares, marketplaces, church steps, impromptu open-air stages, and a host of other sites, public and private, about which we'll never know. We do know unequivocally that, much as is the case today—if for very different reasons—farce was preoccupied with rendering unsacrosanct the sanctity of marriage and the family.
The cultural obsession with the scope, status, and legal standing of marriage is scarcely a new phenomenon. In fact, as I was preparing this book, the institution was much in the news with a series of momentous events: the reversal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013 (United States v. Windsor), the landmark Supreme Court ruling of 2015 legalizing same-sex unions (Obergefell v. Hodges), and the (un)civil disobedience of a seemingly obscure Kentucky county clerk who declined to issue newly mandatory, reformulated marriage licenses to gay couples (Kim Davis). As Jacqueline Murray points out regarding the sociocultural politics of medieval marriage, "it is only when we examine the marital complications of the House of Windsor, or when we confront the challenge to conventional marriage posed by same-sex unions that we moderns encounter something of the tensions and urgency that surrounded love, marriage, and family in medieval society" (Love, Marriage, and Family, xi). For some, it's a ticking time bomb; for others, it's fabulous timing. But the reality is that, like clockwork, we are called upon to revise our thinking about what it means to be a family in changing times. So too, in the Middle Ages, the times, they were always a-changin', and farce captures that.
Or does it?
In a dazzling study on The Household and the Making of History, Mary Hartman reviews the earlier work of demographers and economic historians, which leads her to a number of radical conclusions that are at variance with what many of us first learned about the Middle Ages. True, she acknowledges, arranged marriages were the norm in "southern and eastern Europe, India, the Middle East, China, and parts of Africa." In those regions, she explains, "few persons remained single throughout their lifetimes" and couples "typically married early, with brides being seven to ten years younger than grooms," upon which "newlyweds most often moved into the existing residence of the groom's parents, carrying on multifamily or joint households of two or more married couples" (6). Hartman goes on to state, however, that "[y]oung persons in northwestern Europe . . . followed a different path, and for a long time. In England, the Low Countries, much of Scandinavia, northern France, and the German-speaking lands, most women as well as men from the medieval era on married comparatively late and were much closer in age than their counterparts in early-marriage societies. A significant number, 10 to 20 percent—and more women than men—never married at all." She is also explicit that, "from medieval times until the late eighteenth century or so, young persons in their late teens and twenties played the major role in selecting their own partners" (6; my emphasis). Why is this important?
Because that would mean that the stock characters of farce—those doddering geezers and child brides invoked above—are contrary to historical reality, prompting us to ask: If satire depends on recognition of the object of imitation—even the most postmodern among us can usually agree with Aristotle on that one from Poetics 1448a-b—then what is farce imitating? If all those marriageable young people were able to exercise some liberty in their choice of a lifelong partner, then why zoom in so indefatigably on the opposite of liberty? Why does so the allegedly lighthearted genre persist in representing so uniformly the stultifying oppression of a conjugal heart of darkness? By the same token, if new feminist historiographies suggest counterintuitively that marriage might not have been as dark and sinister as we have imagined, then why would medieval comic playwrights perpetuate a stereotype that might have evolved and moderated? Why the hysterical anachronism just as times were getting better? Could it have been a question of regional rivalry (North vs. South)? Did the revival of Aristophanes and "the old New Comedy"—come of age more quickly than we thought?
Needless to say, in a volume such as this, I can scarcely do justice to the vast historical scope of marriage. What I can do is hint where we're going with all this, and it's where marriage inevitably takes us: home.
In Murray's compendium alone, we hear a chorus and a cacophony of medieval voices on the subject of matrimony, from troubadour to saint, from Jewish merchant to pope, from housewife to cleric. Women and men married at all socioeconomic levels: noble aristocrats, working peasants, the working poor, the occasional priest. Marriage was a sacrament, for God's sake—and in an era no less when nascent Protestant sects were increasingly skeptical about the Catholic stronghold on the sacramental. Regardless of religious sensibilities, everybody recognized the matrimonial object of imitation. In the French farcical corpus, we have a distinctly bourgeois perspective on what was going on behind the closed doors of holy wedlock as couples tore asunder what God hath joined together and as theater brought their fights to the public.
Farce is a homebody. It is inordinately fond of the body. And it forms a body of work that, time and time again, declares that social change begins at home with the family and with changing values about love and marriage. It is also distinctly politically incorrect. But one of the points of this "Introduction" is to show that it cannot be otherwise. Begging your pardon for my split infinitive, its mission is to politically correct whatever is wrong. I submit that it is high time to follow it home, so we can hit it where it lives and, in so doing, to let it come home. To get there, we shall take several intertwined routes that are not unlike those navigated in the play whose pilgrimage lends its name to the title of this anthology: #7, Holy Deadlock, or, The Pilgrimage of Marriage. One route leads us to the nature of farcical verisimilitude, another to the possibility of comic catharsis, yet another to a theory and practice of translation as feminist appropriation (see "About This Translation"). For all roads, this historiographical caveat applies: if historians are to understand what the medieval populace thought and felt about marriage, they must turn not only to official records from the realms of law, politics, or theology (many of which preserve antitheatrical legislation); they must turn also to more unofficial literary records. But here's the rub: if dramatists endlessly ridiculed the institution of marriage, it was mostly upwardly mobile young men doing the talking. Lots of talking.
The marriage farces are bawdy, blasphemous, and bursting at the seams with a frenetic energy that erupts with all the glee of a Broadway musical. Blustering, bellowing, and bristling with pent-up sexual tension, they are somehow exuberant in their depiction of arguments, abuse, anger, assault, and aggression. Catch and release, release and catch; everybody's caught, everybody clamors for an escape valve. Everywhere we look, we are slammed by the imminence, dominance, illusion, or reality of containment, entrapment, suffocation, or imprisonment. The same held true in Cooch E. Whippet (FF, 348-49), which opens with a husband locking up his wife inside the marital home in a spatialization of the myth of the chastity belt (FF, 348-49). And yet, as the walls seem to close in on farce's long-suffering characters, what do we do?
A lot of us do what the medieval spectators did: burst out laughing at all the outbursts. In fact, there is something desperately tragic about farce. So it was that Mark Lawson, a theater critic for The Guardian, referred to the assessment of a fellow reviewer who, upon attending One Man, Two Guvnors, "feared he might stop breathing because he was laughing so much. It's this sense of helplessness—that laughter is controlling us rather than the other way around—that is the special pleasure of farce, the fear that it may not only be prat-falling actors who need attention from paramedics" ("Farce Is Everywhere"). Lawson also hastened to cite John Caird's Theatre Craft, which set forth that "a good farce obliges the audience to believe both in the characters and the events to the point where laughter is their only recourse" (267). To believe in them body and soul is to believe in their souls and their bodies. And, body and soul, the stock characters of farce are on fire, on the verge of physical and emotional explosion at every turn. Explode they did, detonated by the learned legal apprentices and clerks who were, by and large, the authors, actors, and directors of the genre in late medieval France: the Basochiens (FF, 4-17).
Accustomed as they were to public speaking, members of the professional society known as the Basoche were first and foremost lawyers in training and masters of the art of rhetoric. With a rapier wit, they turned to theater as a vehicle by which to lampoon the very hegemony to which they longed to belong, letting loose with all their might on social injustice and income inequality. As far as marriage was concerned, there was way too much at stake for a quiet riot. And were they ever prepared to make some noise about it. It is no coincidence that their society's name is said to have derived from the Greek basochein, which denoted loquacity and chatter, to say nothing of histrionics, theatricality, playfulness, and all-around noisemaking (ROMD, 130-31). Nor is it happenstance that, even today, the French expression for suing someone is still chercher des noises à quelqu'un ("to seek to make noise for someone.") As a merry band of actors and litigators, they were not in the habit of going quietly into that good night. From the minute they banged on the tribunal doors for entry to their legal playing space at the Châtelet, they caused such a ruckus that a formal complaint was lodged against them in 1553. "Quietly" was not how they did things. And anything was fair fodder, anything was up for grabs: bodies of law, bodies of wisdom, the body politic, and, above all, the politically incorrect human body impolitic.
Bottom line: farce is all about the body, and, pace Gail Kern Paster, this was no "body embarrassed." It was a body in motion and commotion, grotesque in its sneezing, sniffling, coughing, farting, pissing, and shitting. Take it from Cindy Lou in Husband Swap (#10) or Penny in Extreme Husband Makeover (#11). One need only look, listen, and occasionally sniff in order to come face to face with the output of a corpus replete with leaky vessels. And we're not talking about a slow drip (although many of the characters are indeed slow drips). Still, for all the seepage, the contents of farcical character are ever under pressure: witness the extensive discussion of how to vent a full head of steam in Bitches and Pussycats (#8). With or without the assistance of enemas, farce is utterly desperate for the relief of a cathartic evacuation. It stands on its hind legs, turns downwind, and shows its backside as it moons the public. And it jeers at the noble, purifying purge of pity and fear, which is the soul of tragedy and the technical definition of catharsis. According to a sixteenth-century Latin translation of Poetics 1449b, tragedy functions "not through narrating the thing, but through pity and fear expressed by the deeds, in that way purging and relieving all such violent disturbances of the soul (vehementes animorum perturbationes)." For the Basochiens, "grin and bear it" becomes "bare it and grin." The promise of a good purge was even part of their marketing plan, as in this piece of advertising for one of their mock trials (causes grasses) of as late as 1634:
You will see eloquence in the flesh, stripped to the bone[r], totally naked: alive, male, and virile [toute nue, en chair et en os, vive, masle et hardie]. . . . The intention of the litigators is always to stimulate the audience's laughter, not their empathy [commisération]: indeed, who wouldn't laugh at the judges alone of this momentous trial, practically pissing themselves trying to hold back their laughter with all their might? Or at the lawyers who have the honor of litigating there, speaking gravely and seriously of the most ridiculous things in the world?
Grin and bear it; bare it and grin. Some were to bear—and to bare—more than others. If connubial bliss was not in the cards and not in the stars, then the fault couldn't possibly lie in the Church, could it? Of course not. That would be heresy (which is the main theme, by the way, of my intended next volume). Clearly, the fault had to lie in us. Make that half of us
. In a culture notoriously prone to scapegoating, this was no laughing matter but farce laughed out loud anyway, especially at women.
I can offer no better way to sum up the sexism of farcical humor than a witticism attributed to the nineteenth-century American politician and railroad attorney Chauncey Mitchell Depew: "A pessimist is a man who thinks all women are bad. An optimist is a man who hopes they are." With a profound misogyny that sometimes verges on the protopornographic, medieval male deliberators sat in judgment, indisputably absorbed by containing and disciplining that unremittingly leaky vessel known as the female body—even as they soiled themselves, as in the passage above, while losing it. That is not to say that we won't meet several male vessels that spew with rage or ooze like crazy: Cindy Lou's unnamed husband in #10, Husband Swap: Calvin, in #11, Extreme Husband Makeover. But, in farce, it is the female characters who bear the brunt of containment as they endure beating after beating. Nor does that stop farce from reversing the polarity by configuring victims as abusers, blasting its women physically and spiritually as the (un)fairer sex. At the same time, the theatrical experience was obviously a blast. For over three centuries, audiences split their sides and turned out in droves to revel in the pleasures of painful spousal brawling (or is that the pains of its pleasure?). It was all in the service of cathartic laughter. Medieval French farce was a literal hit parade, a movable fist. The question is, to what end? Does farce achieve a bona fide comic catharsis? Or, in an end run, does it just purge in its pants?
While comic catharsis is pretty much a given for contemporary theater critics—Mark Lawson's "Farce Is Everywhere" readily invoked "the cathartic release of laughter" regarding the revival of farce on London's West End—the term has long been contested for the medieval theater. Thanks, however, to the insights of such scholars as Maria Jacobelli, Noah Guynn, and Carol Symes, it needn't be. Jacobelli has documented the scandalous eroticism of clerical laughter in Il Risus paschalis, and Guynn a complex politics of psychic deliverance ("Translating Catharsis," 87-95). Elsewhere, in an exquisite essay, Symes returns to a fascinating but little-known manuscript fragment of "what appears to be the (lost) second book of Aristotle's Poetics" known as the Tractatus Coislinianus ("Media and Memory,"). You heard her right: this is no murder mystery à la Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose, no modernist fantasy that medieval comedy was literally to die for. No way, counters Symes: the Tractatus survives only "because it was copied and kept in a monastic library." Presumably copied in the tenth century based on a sixth-century exemplar, the text is an epitomē or digest that establishes that "comedy, like tragedy, was considered to be a dramatic art designed to produce catharsis." The two genres are two sides of the same theatrical coin of the realm, one the distorted mirror image of the other, both born of the cathartic admixture of pleasure and pain. While tragedy "takes away the soul's fearful passions through compassion and awe," comedy is "'an imitation of an act laughable and lacking in grandeur' which 'through pleasure and laughter accomplishes the purifying of the same passions [as tragedy does].'" Moreover, the Tractatus Coislinianus begets a bona fide theatrical genealogy: tragedy "has sorrow for a mother" but "comedy has laughter for a mother"—to which farce says "yo mama." So too do Wayne and Beau in #6, Match, Point, Counterpoint when holding forth on the relative merits of women. They manage to agree only on the virtue of their own mamas. Forget the Virgin Mary—she had miracle plays for her playground. Farce sees tragedy's noble maternity and raises it two motherfuckers. It does not have a poker face. Instead, with a song and dance routine, it purges and purifies any residual animus related to whatever it must get out of its system. This comedic release is catharsis, pure and simple, impure but not simple.
Tragedy is famous for its men who are better than we are (Poetics, 1448a-b); comedy is infamous for those who are much worse. Both foundational principles were disseminated by Isidore of Seville (ca. 560-636), for whom comic writers and actors rendered private things public when they "represented by song and gesture the doings of men in private life" (comoedi sunt qui privatorum hominum acta dictis aut gestu cantabant). And both art forms required recognition of the object of imitation; both are larger than life. But, in farce, larger tends to be smaller as the dramatis personae get beaten up and beaten down; then they pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and—Wylie Coyote-like—they start all over again. In a handful of plays, they even rise from the dead, parodically Christlike, in one helluva resurrection. It's just that, if only faith assists believers in suspending their disbelief enough to believe in miracles like walking on water or being raised from the dead, no reasonable medieval person would believe that a man could get pregnant. Farce is not populated by reasonable people. That's why a premise like the knocked-up husband works so well in a play like Le Galant qui a fait le coup or, for that matter, in a 2005 episode of Grey's Anatomy. Indeed, the reader of farce often wonders whether the proverbial reasonable person is but a fiction of American jurisprudence. If anything, serious observers might protest that, as a genre, farce is entirely unreasonable, the bastard child of unreasonable parents. Recall now the umbrage taken by one of the first modern historians of the Basochiens. For Adolphe Fabre, the intellectual emissions of their lawyerly antics had prostituted the theatrical Muse:
There exist certain monstrous couplings that nature finds repugnant, marriages of reason that the imagination cannot conceive. . . . Who among us has not seen pieces of poetry enclosed in a vase . . . pitiful poetry, tortured by a barbarous father like a contorted clown being forced to go through a narrow hoop! We will seek out and ask the clerics, jurists, and even poets of a certain renown, whether or not they have in fact prostituted the muse by delivering her (as it were) to the caresses of the legal process. . . . (Fabre, Les Clercs du Palais , 37-38)
Isidore of Seville had said as much: the plots of "writers of comedy . . . represent the defiling of virgins and the love affairs of courtesans" (Barney et al., 369). Theater just couldn't leave the side of its whores, particularly those prone to the obscenities with which they dramatized its fantastical stories (fabulae
). When Basochial actors later embodied that wantonness, practicing transvestism on the stage, they too unburdened themselves all over women. They'd show 'em, all right. And a great deal of what they showed 'em, often violently, is that farcical interpretation is interpenetration
Farcical (il)logic ties itself up in knots. Farce is itself a Gordian knot of sexism, politics, economics, class, and religion that no "unknotting" of any denouement can disentangle. Its sexist eroticism is political, consumerist, socially stratified, and sacrilegious. Its gendered politics are sexist, consumerist, classist, and blasphemous. Its domestic economies are eroticized, politicized, disenfranchised, and theologized. And its theology is sexist, political, classist, and pietistic. Farce peers into public and private spaces, a voyeur at the threshold of marital and extramarital bedrooms, municipal bodies, churches, and marketplaces, all of which conceal as much as they reveal. From behind the curtains, it splits everything wide open to expose the truism that nothing is what it seems: shitty britches are tucked inside sealed butter pots at market (historical reality); an easy mark sticks his head into a mysterious soot-colored box and blows (theatrical fiction). What farce hath joined together let no man or woman tear asunder. Its sexual, pretextual politics were for real. And that, I submit, is the true object of farcical imitation.
When Fabre took a whiff, he disliked the stinky essence; but what farce distills is the crazy, absurd, ridiculous, nonsensical, over-the-top-ness of life. Whereas good old Aristotelian verisimilitude is fine fare for drama overall, farce depends on the realities of exaggeration. Those realities include poverty, neglected children, abused servants, and brutalized wives. In other words, exaggeration is the truest thing that farce does. Its zany behaviors are all too recognizable and eminently consonant with the very ontology of drama: they are verisimilar. As Caird turns the phrase in Theatre Craft, "farce is like comedy on acid. It has to be fast from the very start and must finish fast and furious, but it must be accurate throughout. . . . Farce is a serious business" (267). It was hardly sound and fury signifying nothing.
The highly educated Basochiens were masters of the rhetoric of law and laughter, empowered to do what any good rhetorician does: deploy words and acts to permeate public opinion, public sentiment, and public action. When they incited an audience to behave (or to misbehave) as it ought or ought not to, farce was their medium; and their message, staged in fraught domiciles innumerable, was a thoroughly modern one—they pulled out all the stops to demonstrate that it's the status quo that is unreal. A similar phenomenon obtains for the ubiquitous performance of violence. What seems insufferably unreadable on the page becomes enjoyably hyperreal on the stage. I have seen this happen multiple times in the classroom when students crack up at the enacted sights and sounds of a text that they had found unredeemable in print. By way of analogy, think what it must have been like to calibrate the comic potential of the Three Stooges from the scripts alone. Counterintuitively, when farce is at its most real—played by real bodies in real space in real time—it seems the most unreal. Or should one say that, at its most unreal, farce seems the most real? My point is that, by dint of exaggeration, its looney-tunes events seem all the more convincing—and all the more amusing—because of the verisimilitude of their impossibility. But how does farce do it? And do it so well?
The why is surely a matter for psychologists; the how is a matter for comedians, whose farcical fantastic creates a new vision—a revision—of the real, a re-creation that is recreation. In what I can only think to call the genius of the genre, these second dozen farces repeatedly showcase a peculiar capacity to be extremely literal and infinitely metaphorical all at once. They meld the real and the fantastic, the physical and spiritual, the corporeal and the verbal. And they thereby incarnate a debate that would dominate the Reformation, a time when more symbolically minded Protestants came to dispute the more literal-minded Catholics about perhaps the greatest doctrinal issue of the age: What really—as opposed to symbolically—happened during Transubstantiation? Did the Eucharist and the sacramental wine become the literal body and blood of Christ? Or was this metaphor? A more symbolic act? Within that broader religious framework, farce incarnates literal symbolism and symbolic literalism and, if that formulation doesn't ring any bells for you, then, behold: in both Figure 6 and #11, Extreme Husband Makeover, a bell maker will do it for you. He will literally melt down the raw material and symbolically forge comedy anew. What has gone far too long unacknowledged is that this uniquely medieval brand of comedy refashions the theory and practice of verisimilitude as farce agitates for social change. If life on the home front is a laugh riot, then laughter need not be a synonym for social inertia. So, take their wives, please.
Yessiree. Centuries before American popular culture betrayed its own engrossment with the "wife swaps" and "extreme makeovers" of reality TV, the farceurs had already figured out how couples might make a spectacle of their amorous selves. Be it by swapping wives (#9, Wife Swap), swapping husbands (#10, Husband Swap), or commissioning makeovers for both sexes (#11, Extreme Husband Makeover and #12, Marriage with a Grain of Salt), farce recommends: swap now or forever hold your peace. True, peace has never been its strong suit. But something else is. Farce is consumed by the comedy of doubling up, doubling down, and doubling over with laughter. In our closing four spouse-swapping plays, it's always two couples who are swapping, two sides of the marital coin, two interpretations. A more interesting line of inquiry concerns why, in light of all the animated agitation and advocacy, we seem to find so little real change.
At first glance, farce does seem to forsake all other rhetorical calls to action and cleave only unto laughter. Even the great nineteenth-century French theater historian and editor, Louis Petit de Julleville—scarcely a protofeminist—divined that, although farce hosts countless invectives against marriage, it rarely culminates in a recommendation for change (RTC, 135). So, at some level, it has been normal to surmise that farce can but reinforce—nay, celebrate—the status quo. It has likewise made sense to determine that, in farce, the dramatic illusions that solicit a comic catharsis make audiences feel as though a citizenry's problems have been resolved (largely violently) when they have not. Thus, Sandra Swart astutely reviewed the work of the social anthropologist, Mary Douglas, when describing the double-edged sword of humor. Albeit in the context of the very different social upheaval in South Africa, she writes that "a joke works as an 'anti-rite,' destroying hierarchy and order. . . . [I]t is an expressive, symbolic formation devoid of impact on real world affairs: it does not do anything." Quite to the contrary, she continues, it "offer[s] not rebellion but only its illusion, while underneath fostering further resignation and acquiescence. . . . Humor can release tension and thus actually maintain the status quo" ("Terrible Laughter," 899). Once upon a time, such a distinguished philosopher of rhetoric as Kenneth Burke averred that laughter is essentially antirhetorical or, at minimum, anti-interventionist: "A good humorist does not want to 'make us go out and do something about it'" but, rather, to have us feel, "Well, things may not be so bad after all. It all depends on how you look at them." As Burke put it, "Pure humor is not protestant but acquiescent" (Philosophy of Literary Form, 320-21; Bevis, Comedy, 81). But, again, as the Catholic sacrament of marriage came under the harsh and growing scrutiny of new sects arguing for symbolism even as they bore the literal moniker of "Protestants," did audiences merely laugh, cry, protest, or feign offense, only to forget about it? Seriously: Did farce open its big fat mouth only to howl at the moon?
Not bloody likely. Not in an age of reform and Reformation. It was legitimate, of course, for postmedieval scholars to have embraced the critical commonplace that laughter forestalls the empathic response in favor of stasis: in 1634, that's exactly what the Basochial advertisers of that cause grasse said it did. But that has never been the end of the social story. Nor is it sufficient to revert to another piece of conventional wisdom—namely, that authors frequently critique their repressive governments from beneath a protective veil of satire—and call it a day. Let's say instead that the party's never over, and we'll call it a farce.
Vicious though medieval satire can be, it cannot be relegated to a vicious circle. Nor does it follow that laughter voids intervention or performativity in the Austinian sense. In acting up and acting out, farce was also a speech act. To view it as anything less is to ignore some of the more compelling adumbrations of medieval satire. That is to say that the antirhetorical assessments just don't jibe with the farcical calling, as touted by early commentators. For instance, Jean Bouchet (1476-1557), one of the great theorists and practitioners of law, rhetoric, and theater, once announced that the Basochiens aimed "to declare by grave tragedy, rude satire and feigned comedy, the good of the good and the evil of the wicked." Earlier in the thirteenth century, John of Garland had indicated that "the law of satire is to laugh at vice, and to dance about." Farce laughs hardest—and best—when it gives the public a real song and dance: more often than not, a musical one. French fairy tales end with tout finit par des chansons ("everything ends with songs"): that is how French people say "and they all lived happily ever after." But farce is no fairy tale; and its protagonists are more than likely to live unhappily ever after. Nevertheless, as it crescendos toward its final flourish, farce laughs happily ever after.
As we shall see in the plays of this anthology, the unsubtle farce imparts, with surprising subtlety, an ethical universe that demands ethical reflection—even when such reflection seems very far away from what everybody involved is doing: laughing. In taking humor seriously, medieval farceurs produced an art form that was—and is—seriously funny. Louise D'Arcens agrees that humor and laughter are "inherently ethical practices which can have direct and even urgent ramifications for the coherent functioning of the social body" ("Medievalist Laughter," 118); and, for his own part, Noah Guynn affirms that, under the right circumstances, farces "did not awaken resentments in order to dampen them but rather mediated social tensions without resolving them. In the process, they opened a space for political dialogue, including overt and covert expressions of resistance and dissent" ("Translating Catharsis," 85). Therefore, rather than posit an energy-draining and purgative cathartic release that empties out its ethics along with its bowels, or that signals acceptance of all the pain and suffering, we might prefer to entertain the possibility that the genre led to a rethinking of social contracts and not simply their reinforcement.
George Orwell once remarked that "every joke is a tiny revolution," and Swart agrees that "some jokes may have been little revolutions, private challenges to the status quo." What the cathartic laughter of farce cannot do, it can perhaps undo. Let's face it: when farce placed threatened and battered women center stage, it might well have reinforced the politics of the medieval oppressor as it theatricalized the pseudoperspective of women; but, with a major axe to grind, it also liked to give it to you straight up as it took you straight down. In the twenty-first century, we would have no trouble at all imagining the following: a given spectator is appalled by peals of laughter at the comic staging of the tragedy of spousal abuse. He or she then resolves—even having joined in the laughter—to do something about it: work for a shelter, run for office, go into public policy. Are we really prepared to assume that medieval people were so very dissimilar? Is it really so improbable that a male spectator delighted in a farcical assault while concurrently deciding to be kinder to his wife? Is there no universe in which, after a good round of cathartic laughter, a battered woman figured out a way to leave her abusive husband (difficult though that might have been)? Or that somebody came to her aid?
Any contemporary performance theorist readily avows that theater is a great societal good and that grass-roots, community-based theater promulgates change for the better. Then again, for all the good intentions expressed ad infinitum by even the most entrenched medieval French town council authorizing a play, we know disappointingly little from reliable sources about any specific good behavior that theater facilitated. We almost never hear about the positive results of theater. Naturally, history records the extraordinary deeds that impelled record-keeping in the first place (as when something illegal, immoral, or otherwise noteworthy happened in theater's wake). But was posttheatrical good behavior so really so ordinary?
I doubt it.
Consider for a moment the highly visible farcical offerings of our own era, which, by and large, have migrated to television. Indeed, another theater critic for The Guardian, Alfred Hickling, noted wistfully that, while "it seems that the farcical impulse itself will never be extinguished, it has simply transferred to television. Classic farce as Plautus or Molière might recognise it is still to be found in a particularly perfect episode of Fawlty Towers or Frasier" ("Ooh-la-la, There Go My Trousers"). Now consider the praise lavished upon American sitcoms like Will and Grace, Ellen, or Modern Family for having participated in dismantling stereotypes of the family. It is no exaggeration to state that comedic entertainments have the power to seduce us, betray us, trick us, or cajole us into believing that a beloved gay character, a cameo by Oprah, or a postheterosexual family can aid and abet the larger sociocultural receptivity to a redefinition of marriage. Regardless of whether our fictional friends are responsible for the shift in attitudes toward homosexuality, it is nothing if not tempting to believe that they are: to believe that art can change the world. And, though we might no longer hang in there spiritually for the physics of a miracle like walking on water, we'll happily believe in the miracle of social change. And we'll adore the miracle of physics comedy on The Big Bang Theory. An intangible optimism breaks through, teasing and tantalizing us with the harebrained notion that comedy can shape and reshape public opinion and move it in new directions.
I suspect that something of the sort was going on in the Middle Ages but that, for a variety of reasons owing to the vagaries of the historical record, we just can't see it. Maybe the good went unseen or unnoticed. Maybe we're not finding the evidence because we're not looking for it. Maybe we're looking for it in the wrong places. Or just maybe we're so busy sitting in judgment about early laughter that we're missing the potential of farce to do a body—and a body politic—some good. In matters of justice and injustice—the bread and butter of domestic comedy—the gregarious farce insists that, if marriage was deadlocked, humor was not. The challenge for the translator is to recapture the myriad benefits of comic catharsis in today's politically correct world.
What has been lost in translation can be found only when we rethink political correctness. Lest there be spoken in jest certain vile truths that can no longer be held to be self-evident, current guidelines for sensitivity in language dominate the discursive scene. Critics, theorists, journalists, and everyday citizens have rightly sought to alter the institutionalized language that has fomented deeply ingrained cultural biases about gender, class, race, color, or creed. These admirable efforts to redress past and present inequalities have done much good by substituting inclusionary for exclusionary discourse. Be that as it may, when postmedieval political correctness is imposed upon medieval literature, it runs several grave risks:
On one hand, politically correct language can place history itself in jeopardy when we apply it categorically. For example, if, when speaking of a Basochien, I were to say "he or she," that would be historically inaccurate. As far as we know, there were no female Basochiens. By the same token, in the "Production Notes" to each play, it is sometimes more expedient—and infinitely more clear—to say "actress" rather than the gender-neutral "actor," which many modern thespians now favor. For the most part, I too will employ "actor." But, when I have occasion to explain that a given role will resonate very differently depending on whether a man or a woman is cast, it strikes me as both unwieldy and silly to lucubrate with "female actor."
On the other hand, the automatic utilization of politically correct language can dangerously drive the good underground with the evil, flattening and obscuring the indeterminacy of medieval laughter. Imagine that I were to eradicate some of the more sexist and classist salvos of farce. That would run the risk of confining hatred and prejudice to the realm of the virtual, denying theater's capacity to perpetrate performative evil. Furthermore, when scholars avoid, misread, dismiss, or preemptively politicize what the apparently single-minded sexism of farcical humor complexifies, they also deny the possibility that some reactive good might have come from the theatrical unfunny. One thing is for sure: when push comes to shove—and it customarily does—we have no hope for answers about all the violent, sexualized battery of farce if we refuse to ask what's so funny.
Medieval laughter need not be any more sinister or unsympathetic than our own. It makes us human, distinguishes us from the beasts. Thus spake François Rabelais: le rire, c'est le propre de l'homme ("It is laughter that becomes man best" [Complete Works, Frame, 2]). So maybe the key here is to laugh not at one or the other but at one and the other. Maybe laughter is both altruistic and morally bankrupt. Or maybe it's none of the above. Remember: farce is roughly contemporaneous with Nicolas of Cusa, who took humanism by storm with his philosophy that "it either is or it is not. It is and it is not. It neither is nor is not." Laughter is not permanently destined to be the standard-bearer for social conservatism. That's an old husbands' tale.
When wrapping up her exquisite work on pardon tales, Natalie Zemon Davis meditated on dark humor. Were excuses in order and, if so, whose?
In writing this book, I have often wondered whether I should ask pardon of my long-dead subjects. In retelling their accounts of bloodshed, which may often have left sorrow, terror, and regret in their wake, I found I was sometimes laughing. . . . If my readers are like my listeners, they may have laughed as well. What makes them funny? . . . [T]he mixture of laughter and horror was hardly foreign to the sixteenth century. . . . Montaigne wrote of "how we cry and laugh at the same thing"; priests were accused by Calvin of making "pleasant tales" of their penitents' confessions, and even Friar Benedicti worried about their "taking pleasure in them." (Fiction in the Archives, 114; my emphasis)
Montaigne had nothing on Blotto the Cobbler from Monk-ey Business
, who also gathered that people could be "[l]aughin' one minute, cryin' the next: both at the same time" (FF
, 290). To laugh until one cries and to cry until one laughs is the quintessence of farcical storytelling.
Is this heartlessness, queries Davis, or schadenfreude? "[P]erhaps," she answers herself, "there is something deeper here than the listener relishing a story of what happened to someone else. Remember that Benedicti said people were confessing their sins 'as if they were telling a story.' Turning a terrible action into a story is a way to distance oneself from it, at worst a form of self-deception, at best a way to pardon the self" (Fiction in the Archives, 114; my emphasis).
Steeped in deceptions, farce is also a story, as rife with Davis's "terrible action" as it is with Swart's "terrible laughter." It is also terribly ambiguous and indeterminate. Although the alleged safety of Davis's distance has informed the definition of theater since Aristotle, it is that very distance that, through humor, makes for both an artistic advantage and a historiographical disadvantage. In the evaluation of comedy, it likewise makes for an artistic disadvantage and a historiographical advantage. Here is what I mean by that:
In farce, we recognize the theatrical building blocks of social change, which is definitely an artistic advantage; but we are usually unable to find the evidence of any greater art-borne good for the medieval communities in question (historiographical disadvantage). Meanwhile, the violence of medieval comedy is not immediately funny today (artistic disadvantage)—in part because we already know way too much about the horrors of the era's violence (historiographical advantage). Davis wondered whether she should beg her long-dead subjects' pardon. As for moi, I seek not to beg your pardon (although, by the last page of this book, I might have to): I want to ask the questions and tell the stories. Translation is a story too, even when what it recaptures is a communication that seems unpardonable in a politically correct world.
Meanings get lost; languages, texts, gestures, and acts become unreadable over time; people forget; audiences, readerships, and witnesses multiply exponentially. We can debate till we're blue in the face (or, for farce, blue somewhere else) what it is all meant to do. After all, people are what they do (or so goes the preeminent theory of medieval character). In the end, audiences do with it what they will. As historians interested in seeing their will, we are obliged to see what they do. And one of the best places to watch what they do—and what on earth they think they're doing—is at the theater. The topsy-turvy world of farce embodies what people do. Or what they cannot do. Or what they would prefer to undo. Or what they hope to do. In which case, we might inquire: How's that hopey-changey stuff working out for them?
Medieval audiences laughed heartily at horrific materials: alcoholism, servitude, poverty, xenophobia, ageism, repression, deceit, disease, despair, and virtually nonstop violence as husband after husband brutally beats his wife. There is an artistic problem if they don't but a moral problem if they do. They laugh till they hurt and hurt till they laugh. But farce's favorite sexist subjects should hurt. It is when they stop hurting that we have a problem not of theory but of practice. And, to hurt, they must speak.
If the past couple of decades are any indication, a clutch of interesting and suggestive studies have helped us, slowly but surely, to hear all that medieval laughter: to name but a few, Lisa Perfetti's Women and Laughter, Louise D'Arcens's Comic Medievalism, Sara Beam's Laughing Matters, and such edited collections as Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg's A Cultural History of Humour, Albrecht Classen's Laughter in the Middle Ages, and Zenia Sacks DaSilva and Gregory Pell's At Whom Are We Laughing?. Plus let's not forget Jelle Koopmans's reedition of the fifty-three medieval farces of the and Nathaniel Dubin's groundbreaking translation of The Fabliaux, the fabliau being a narrative version of what farce acts out. Although scholars still tend to focus less on farce per se than on other genres and media, and although the Brits generally do a far better job with slapstick across the pond, a bona fide medieval sense of humor is at long last leaking out as it militates on the margins. If we want to see what a vision of medieval social change might have looked like, then we can no longer neglect farce. To deny admission, to refuse to listen, or to sanitize it is to camouflage precisely what most needs to be heard out. Laughter is de rigueur and defies rigidity. By its very nature, farcical advocacy must be "politically incorrect." It cannot be otherwise: the politics of daily life is its target.
In the final analysis, there is no reason whatsoever to exclude the voices of medieval farce from modes of theatrical advocacy for genuine societal change. So how about if we give farce the last laugh? Instead of marrying our fortunes to being "politically correct" in our approach to comedy, we might prefer—again, with that split infinitive—to "politically correct." We might prefer to understand, from the uses and abuses of gallows humor, that the most vile and violent subjects are themselves subject to correction, however fantastical, by the accessible exaggeration of farce. In the immortal words of George Bernard Shaw, "Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh" (Doctor's Dilemma, 109). In these days of hypersensitive pedagogies and thin-lipped humorlessness, there's a breadth, depth, and pleasure to this early humor that is tremendously liberating. It doesn't stop us from seeing everything that might be wrong with the objects of satire. But there's an awful lot that's right with it. For better, not for worse, farce has the capacity to turn your whole world upside down. I say we let it.