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The Comic Virus

The Comic Virus

Comedy and the Public Sphere: The Rebirth of Theatre as Comedy and the Genealogy of the Modern Public Arena. Arpad Szakolczai. New York: Routledge, 2013.


Comedians play a central role in contemporary politics. We are bombarded by political comedy on popular television programs such as Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report, and Bill Maher’s Real Time. But some comedians are no longer content to stay on the sidelines as commentators, and are choosing to be directly involved in government instead.

Arpad Szakolczai begins Comedy and the Public Sphere by discussing Al Franken, a founding writer of Saturday Night Live who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008 (xi). Comedians are becoming increasingly political and politicians are becoming increasingly comic, contributing to what Szakolczai calls a “commedification” of politics (xii). This commedification is fueled by the media, which demands complete “transparency,” including intimate details about public officials and their private lives. Such an environment determines the quality of people who choose to enter public life. Politicians must be willing to be exposed like circus clowns, suggesting that anyone who goes into politics must already possess a personality inclined towards buffoonery.

It is platitudinous to say that contemporary politics is a circus, but Szakolczai provides a serious historical examination to show exactly why this is the case. The “commedification” he identifies is all around us, yet it is so pervasive that we barely see it. Following Nietzsche, Szakolczai takes a genealogical approach to reveal that our current state has a distinct history.  As such, Comedy and the Public Sphere is an admirable and daring work, opening up a much-neglected field of study that deserves further investigation and discussion.

The “central thesis of the book,” according to Szakolczai, “is that the public ‘sphere’ is not simply an ideal, fully free and open ‘space’ … for rational discussion; rather, it has fundamental theatrical qualities, and that a central – even in a way the pivotal – mode of achieving dominance in this arena is by using the force of laughter through ridicule and mocking” (5). Szakolczai critiques Habermas’ account of the post-Enlightenment public “sphere” as a perfect space for reasonable dialogue; instead, modernity has culminated in a noisy public “arena,” characterized by irrational, comic spectacles. For Szakolczai, our condition resembles what Plato called a “theatrocracy” (31-33). Most sociologists of modernity have focused on the austere and disciplinarian aspects of modern life, as symbolized by Foucault’s “Panopticon,” in which modernity is understood as the epoch of surveillance, restraint, and totalitarianism (296). But this disciplinarian trend has had a “schismogenic counterpart in the ‘commedifation’ of social relations” (5). If the first half of the past century was inclined toward the Panopticon, the second half has gone to the circus.

It is impossible to do full justice to Szakolczai’s historical analysis in a brief review.  I will focus on the heart of the text: his provocative claim that European political space was “infected” during the Renaissance by Byzantine culture. Quite literally, Europe was invaded by clowns.  These clowns came in the form of Byzantine mimes, who performed at the Hippodrome in Constantinople. The mimes fled to Venice with other Byzantine refugees after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453.

For nearly a millennium, theatrical performances and clowns were mostly forbidden in Europe. The last anemic residue of theatre in the West before the rise of Christianity is found in the mythological pantomime performances staged at the Circus Maximus in Rome, which started around the first century AD. Within a few centuries, these performances came to an end, but remnants of this pantomime tradition continued in the Byzantium, where pantomime was transformed into pure mime, and mime-clowns performed in village squares. Eventually, these mimes became central to the spectacles at the Hippodrome. In this massive arena, “mocking and terrorizing mime performances” (90) took place: public figures and criminals, sometimes on their way to execution, were degraded by the mimes who employed obscenity and scatological humor (86).

At the same time, Byzantine “humanism” emerged, which Szakolczai claims descended from the Second School of Sophistic that flourished during the Roman Empire. The teachings of these Byzantine humanists infiltrated Italian cities like Ferrera and Venice, starting with the arrival of Manuel Chrysoloras in Italy in the late 14th century.  Byzantine humanism, with its emphasis on rhetoric, method, and practical skills for public officials, offered sophistic readings of ancient Greek and Roman texts; as such, it corrupted the Renaissance humanism that was thriving in Italy. Byzantine humanism also created an interest in ancient comedies, which led to the creation of “humanist comedies” in Italy starting in the late fourteenth century. All of this prepared the way for the eventual invasion of the clowns in 1453 – an event Szakolczai refers to as the moment of “acute infection” (157). By 1520 comic theatrical spectacles were being mounted in Venice with some regularity after nearly a millennium.  The “Byzantine ‘virus’” had fully infected its European host (198).

The invasion of Byzantine sophists and Hippodrome mimes had an enormous impact.  First, it “stamped a Byzantine ‘spirit’ on Europe,” the ramifications of which continue to this day (74).  In the short term, the sophists and mimes initiated the collapse of the European Renaissance.  Secondly, theatre was reborn in Europe primarily as comedy, not as tragedy.  The newfound desire for comic performances in public spaces would eventually lead to the birth of “commedia dell’arte” in sixteenth century Italy – the moment when comic theatre became an officially recognized, and commercially viable, profession.  Commedia dell’arte created theatrical “stock-types” worthy of ridicule, rather than genuinely complex characters deserving our sympathy.  Eventually, Harlequin (the acrobatic trickster) and Pierrot (the naïve, sad clown) emerged as the most popular comic stock-types.  The rise of commedia dell’arte in Italy would have major ramifications for European culture, generating the revival of theatre in both France and England.  Furthermore, the figure of Pierrot as a “suffering victim” would hold particular appeal for artists and revolutionaries in Europe right up to the twentieth century.

The Byzantine spirit, according to Szakolczai, essentially upended the Platonic consciousness of harmony and measure, which is discovered through human awareness of participating in a divinely grounded cosmos (293). Comedy encourages a detached sensibility, alienating the spectators from the stock characters they see on stage, and inspiring mocking laughter. In this sense, comedy “absolutised the experience of the spectator” (151); it moved European audiences towards Cartesian consciousness, emphasizing the detached gaze of the subject over the Platonic sense of participation in a cosmos. Comedy, thus, played a role in the rise of secularization, displacing the experiences of participation and transcendence with the experience of the “pure spectator.” At the same time, comedy “subliminally” promoted immoral and dissolute behavior by presenting disreputable stock characters on stage and depicting “negative incidents” as “endemic” to society (143). Szakolczai claims that the depictions of romantic love and sexual intrigue in commedia dell’arte were “a frontal assault on the institution of marriage” (206). Furthermore, commedia dell’arte presented “dualistic confrontations” between parents and children, masters and servants, and rival lovers, instilling “at the very heart of European society the idea that human behavior is fundamentally conflictual” (201).

This “commedic revolutionary virus” would, centuries later, be disseminated in the political and artistic avant-gardes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, discernible in Wagner’s operas, Diaghilev’s ballets, and Meyerhold’s theatre (10). It has culminated in our current media saturated age, which Szakolczai characterizes as a state of “permanent liminality” (296) – the complete suspension of stable social frameworks, resulting in a “culture” of non-stop conflict, sexual intrigue, social turbulence and constant revolution. The carnival season has extended beyond its traditional limits, turning public space into a perpetual circus. Our age “increasingly approaches the frightening nightmare of a permanent apocalyptic carnival” (298).

One might wonder if the comic nihilism that emerged in Europe is simply the result of a Byzantine “virus” that invaded the West, or whether the European host itself was already afflicted with a type of nihilism that made it susceptible to the most virulent elements of Byzantine culture. Szakolczai does not consider this possibility in enough detail, but I leave this concern aside. There is no question that Szakolczai provides an impressive genealogy, and his knowledge of the materials is outstanding. However, the book is occasionally crushed by a surfeit of historical detail, and one wishes that Szakolczai would spend more time clarifying some of the theory that underlies his analysis. For example, as noted earlier, “participation” is a key term in the text. Readers of Eric Voegelin will know that Szakolczai is referring to the metalepsis, the divine-human participation in the order of being.  Szakolczai speaks of “participation” in relation to theatre at various points, but an extended discussion would have been helpful to reveal the unique ways in which theatre can make the metalepsis “luminous” to human consciousness. Certainly Szakolczai thinks that theatre can be “a central sacred community experience.” Ancient Greek theatre “was not entertainment in the sense of spectacle and fun; rather it was a sacred ritual where … theatre had an educative purpose” (99). But throughout Szakolczai’s text, it is not clear whether this is only true of tragedy and its variants, or whether it applies to comedy as well.

After reading Comedy and the Public Sphere, a reader may be forgiven for asking a very simple question: Is there such a thing as “good” comedy? That is, can there be comedy that educates and tutors the soul, and helps instill a sense of participation in a sacred order of being? Near the end of the book, Szakolczai identifies two ancient sources of European culture: the first is the solemn poetry of Archilochus and Homer, which touches the “most profound layers of human existence”; the second is comedy, which can be traced back to Greece in the seventh-century BCE and belongs to “a most superficial and disdained field of human culture” (295). The general sense one gets is that comedy is corruptive from its very origins. It is not clear if there is a paradigm that can be emulated by genuine comic artists.  Szakolczai’s chapter on laughter is not particularly helpful in this regard. He mentions Plato, who he claims was not opposed to laughter per se, but to violent and mocking laughter. The majority of the chapter, however, concentrates on Baudelaire’s description of laughter as “satanic” and Bergson’s account of laughter as “ridicule”; though other types of “innocent” laughter are suggested, Szakolczai does not discuss them at length.

Given all this, what are we to make of the great comedies of Aristophanes or Shakespeare? Szakolczai only mentions Aristophanes in passing, but he does offer a brief and somewhat complex chapter on Shakespeare. There is no question that Szakolczai holds Shakespeare in high regard: “With Shakespeare, this most un-Platonic genre [popular theatre] becomes a vehicle of the Socratic way of life” (216). But the chapter focuses on how Shakespeare gradually came to realize “with a great deal of regret” that he had been infected by the virulent bug of commedia dell’arte as a young man, and that his own works were unintentionally spreading the disease (230). Even his tragedies might contain too much of the comic virus.

Shakespeare, on this interpretation, is both a victim and an agent of infection, a playwright trying to affect a cure by using the virus against itself – that is, using theatre to demonstrate the corrupting influence of theatre. After reading Szakolczai, one is left with the impression that Shakespeare’s works – and in particular his comedies – are the product of youthful indiscretion. Shakespeare’s genius, it seems, could have been put to better use in another medium.

But is this the best way to understand Shakespeare?  And is comedy simply a destructive virus? It is important to remember the final words attributed to Socrates in Plato’s Symposium: that the same man should know how to write both tragedy and comedy. Szakolczai refers to this passage briefly (31), but he does not consider what it might mean. It certainly illuminates the art of Plato himself, whose dialogues contain both tragic and comic elements. Socrates is not just a tragic hero but also a comic one: an ugly barefooted outcast, a self-described gadfly, who, in some ways, resembles a clown – but one who refutes through argument, not mockery. In the Symposium, Alcibiades states that Socrates’ outer appearance is similar to silenuses and satyrs, figures often associated with comedy, but whose inner soul contains divine beauties. Given the importance of Plato to Szakolczai, it might have been helpful to consider in detail the possibility of comedy and laughter rooted in the Socratic way of life. Though Szakolczai suggests that Shakespeare was such an artist, his interpretation of Shakespeare’s comedies is far too ambivalent.

A final word must be said about the conclusion. Earlier in the text, when discussing Hamlet, Szakolczai claims that our purpose in life should not be to “change the world” but to realize our possibilities and limits in the world as constituted by “divine love.” The world cannot be set right by further acts of revolutionary hubris (228). In the last paragraph of the book, Szakolczai proposes we take a passive stance towards the current comedic cataclysm. The permanent apocalyptic carnival, he says, “does not matter that much” and “we as humans can indeed do very little on our own to fix it.” The claim that our current condition “does not matter” comes as a surprise, given the tone of moral outrage that pervades much of the book. Szakolczai assures us that “we are not on our own”; we have the ultimate experience of “Divine Love . . . that is omnipresent, omnipotent and indestructible” (298).

Szakolczai claims that poets such as Blake and Auden responded to this Divine Love in their works, and he concludes: “We, social theorists and scholars, must follow them if we do not want to be cast out, since ultimately ‘the readiness is all’” (298, my italics). Thus, the book ends with a Hamlet reference and a faith statement, containing language evocative of final judgment and suggesting only God can save us now. To be fair, Szakolczai’s account of “Divine Love” requires elaboration. However, the conclusion of his book resembles Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which also depicts a world trapped in permanent liminality, inhabited by Pierrot-inspired clowns awaiting a God-like figure to save them.  As Beckett so keenly demonstrated, this too is a nihilistic position.

If our current age has a comedic virus, it also suffers from apocalyptic fever, in which apocalyptic responses – both active and passive – are offered to deal with conditions that appear apocalyptic. But consciousness of the divine does not need to take an apocalyptic direction. We must struggle to find our place in the primordial order of the world – an order that, in Szakolczai’s own words, can “be forgotten and ignored but never lost” – and recover our sense of divine-human participation without the specter of an apocalypse (293). This is not an easy task. Certainly tragic art can play a role in bringing this order to consciousness. It may also be that there are types of comedy that can help us in this life-affirming endeavor.

Paul CoreyPaul Corey

Paul Corey

Paul Corey is Professor in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Humber College in Toronto. He is author of Messiahs and Machiavellians: Depicting Evil in the Modern Theatre (Notre Dame, 2008).

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