The Philosophy of Farce
The Speaker, February 16, 1901
We have never been able to understand why certain forms of art should be marked off as something debased and trivial. A comedy is spoken of as "degenerating into farce;" it would be fair criticism to speak of it "changing into farce;" but as for degenerating into farce, we might equally reasonably speak of it as degenerating into tragedy. Again, a story is spoken of as "melodramatic," and the phrase, queerly enough, is not meant as a compliment. To speak of something as "pantomimic" or "sensational" is innocently supposed to be biting; Heaven knows why, for all works of art are sensations and a good pantomime (now extinct) is one of the pleasantest sensations of all. "This stuff is fit for a detective story" is often said, as who should say "This stuff is fit for an epic."
Whatever may be the rights and wrongs of this mode of classification there can be no doubt about one most practical and disastrous effect of it. These lighter or wilder forms of art, having no standard set up for them, no gust of generous artistic pride to lift them up, do actually tend to become as bad as they are supposed to be. Neglected children of the great mother they grow up in darkness, dirty and unlettered and when they are right they are right almost by accident, because of the blood in their veins. The common detective story of mystery and murder seems to the intelligent reader little except a strange glimpse of a planet peopled by congenital idiots, who cannot find the end of their own noses or the character of their own wives. The common pantomime seems like some horrible satiric picture of a world without cause or effect, a mass of "jarring atoms," a prolonged mental torture of irrelevancy. The ordinary farce seems a world of almost piteous vulgarity, where a half-witted and stunted creature is afraid when his wife comes home and amused when she sits down on the doorstep. All this is, in a sense, true, but it is the fault of nothing in heaven or earth except the attitude and the phrases quoted at the beginning of this article. We have no doubt in the world that, if the other forms of art had been equally despised, they would have been equally despicable. If people had spoken of "sonnets" with the same accent with which they speak of "music-hall songs," a sonnet would have been a thing so fearful and wonderful that we almost regret that we cannot have a specimen; a rowdy sonnet is a thing to think about. If people had said that epics were only fit for children and nursemaids, "Paradise Lost" might have been an average pantomime: it might have been called "Harlequin Satan, or How Adam 'Ad 'em." For who would trouble to bring to perfection a work in which even perfection is grotesque? Why should Shakespeare write "Othello" if even his triumph consisted in the eulogy- "Mr. Shakespeare is fit for something better than writing tragedies."
The case of farce, and its wilder embodiment in harlequinade, is especially important. That these high and legitimate forms of art, glorified by Aristophanes and Moliere, have sunk into such contempt may be due to many causes: we ourselves have little doubt that it is due to the astonishing and ludicrous lack of belief in hope and hilarity which marks modern aesthetics, to such an extent that it has spread even to the revolutionists (once the hopeful section of men), so that even those who ask us to fling the stars into the sea are not quite sure that they will be any better there than they were before. Every form of literary art must be a symbol of some phase of the human spirit: but whereas the phase is, in human life, sufficiently convincing in itself, in art it must have a certain pungency and neatness of form, to compensate for its lack of reality. Thus any set of young people round a tea-table may have all the comedy emotions of Much Ado about Nothing or Northanger Abbey, but if their actual conversation were reported, it would possibly not be a costly addition to literature. An old man sitting by his fire may have all the desolate grandeur of Lear or Pere Goriot, but if he comes into literature he must do something besides sit by the fire. The artistic justification, then, of farce and pantomime must consist in the emotions of life which correspond to them. And these emotions are to an incredible extent crushed out by the modern insistence on the painful side of life only. Pain, it is said, is the dominant element of life; but this is true only in a very special sense. If pain were for one single instant literally the dominant element in life, every man would be found hanging dead to his own bed-post by the morning. Pain, as the black and catastrophic thing, attracts the youthful artist, just as the schoolboy draws devils and skeletons and men hanging. But joy is a far more elusive and elvish matter, for it is our reason for existing, and a very feminine reason; it mingles with every breath we draw and every cup of tea we drink. The literature of joy is infinitely more difficult, more rare and more triumphant than the black and white literature of pain. And of all the varied forms of the literature of joy, the form most truly worthy of moral reverence and artistic ambition is the form called farce- or its wilder shape in pantomime.
To the quietest human being, seated in the quietest house, there will sometimes come a sudden and unmeaning hunger for the possibilities or impossibilities of things; he will abruptly wonder whether the teapot may not suddenly begin to pour out honey or sea water, the clock to point to all hours of the day at once, the candle to burn green or crimson, the door to open upon a lake or a potato-field instead of a London street. Upon anyone who feels this nameless anarchism there rests for the time being the abiding spirit of pantomime.
Of the clown who cuts the policeman in two it may be said (with no darker meaning) that he realises one of our visions. And it may be noted here that this internal quality in pantomime is perfectly symbolised and preserved by that commonplace or cockney landscape and architecture which characterises pantomime and farce. If the whole affair happened in some alien atmosphere, if a pear tree began to grow apples or a river to run with wine in some strange fairyland, the effect would be quite different. The streets and shops and door-knockers of the harlequinade, which to the vulgar aesthete make it seem commonplace, are in truth the very essence of the aesthetic departure. It must be an actual modern door which opens and shuts, constantly disclosing different interiors; it must be a real baker whose loaves fly up into the air without his touching them, or else the whole internal excitement of this elvish invasion of civilisation, this abrupt entrance of Puck into Pimlico, is lost. Some day, perhaps, when the present narrow phase of aesthetics has ceased to monopolise the name, the glory of a farcical art may become fashionable. Long after men have ceased to drape their houses in green and grey and to adorn them with Japanese vases, an aesthete may build a house on pantomime principles in which all the doors shall have their bells and knockers on the inside, all the staircases be constructed to vanish on the pressing of a button and all the dinners (humourous dinners in themselves) come up cooked through a trapdoor. We are very sure at least that it is as reasonable to regulate one's life and lodgings by this kind of art as by any other.
The whole of this view of farce and pantomime may seem insane to us; but we fear that it is we who are insane. Nothing in this strange age of transition is so depressing as the merriment. All the most brilliant men of the day when they set about the writing of comic literature do it under one destructive fallacy and disadvantage, the notion that comic literature is in some sort of way superficial. They give us little knicknacks of the brittleness of which they positively boast; although two thousand years have beaten as vainly upon the follies of The Frogs as on the wisdom of the Republic. It is all a mean shame of joy. When we come out from a performance of the Midsummer Night's Dream we feel as near to the stars as when we come out from King Lear. For the joy of these works is older than sorrow, their extravagence is saner than wisdom, their love is stronger than death.
The old masters of a healthy madness, Aristophanes or Rabelais or Shakespeare, doubtless had many brushes with the precisians or ascetics of their day, but we cannot but feel that for honest severity and consistent self-maceration they would always have had respect. But what abysses of scorn, inconceivable to any modern, would they have reserved for an aesthetic type and movement which violated morality and did not even find pleasure, which outraged sanity and could not attain to exuberance, which contented itself with the fool's cap without the bells?