“Ken Ludwig on Comedy” is a new, re-occurring series on [Breaking Character], penned by playwright Ken Ludwig, winner of two Laurence Olivier Awards and three Tony Award Nominations. For more information about Ken Ludwig and his plays, visit kenludwig.com
Last month I was in Paris for a week, meeting a new French literary agent and a new translator, and I had the good luck to get a seat for the Saturday matinee performance at the Comédie-Francaise. The Comédie-Francaise was founded in 1680, and in its early days was called The House of Moliere. The theater now has a repertoire that includes the works of dozens of playwrights, but I was fortunate enough to see one of Moliere’s greatest plays that day, Le Malade Imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid). As it turned out, the performance was not only outstanding in itself, but also the perfect reminder of how comedy is created out of certain essential building blocks that haven’t changed in hundreds of years.
Le Malade Imaginaire is about a man named Argan who is the quintessential hypochondriac. He spends night and day buying new medicines, and as the play begins, he has come up with his newest idea for saving himself:forcing his daughter Angélique to marry his doctor’s son, a disgusting, cadaverous young man who has nothing going for him but his father’s profession. Argan’s notion is that having a doctor in the family will not only save him money, but maintain the kind of medical presence that the household needs. What better resource for a hypochondriac than a doctor in the house?
Angélique, meanwhile, wants to marry a handsome, loyal suitor named Cléante, and her father’s insistence on a wedding with the doctor’s son fills her with dread. At the same time, Argan has a scheming second wife who encourages him to make out a new will, leaving her everything and cutting out her step-daughter Angélique. Finally, Argan has a cheeky maidservant named Toinette who taunts him for his foolish behavior and ultimately saves the day.
Watching the production last month was like being transported back to the play’s premiere in 1673. The stage pictures, like still photographs of a race, were all perfectly composed, belying hundreds of years of accumulated skill. More than that, the performances themselves were filled with lazzi, those comic routines that form the mainstay of a type of improvisational comedy that began in Italy during the Renaissance, commedia dell’arte. Imagine seeing Argan, howling like a madman, chasing Toinette around the room because she makes fun of his medical remedies. Imagine Toinette huffing and puffing across the stage disguised as a doctor wearing enormous glasses. Imagine Argan playing dead at Toinette’s insistence so that she can expose his wife’s villainy and prove the loyalty of Angélique.And all of it executed with split-second timing performed, or so it seemed, with complete ease.
But here’s the remarkable thing: for all the embellishments of the actors, for all the exaggeration of the costumes, the silliness of the props and the zaniness of the routines, the performance somehow plumbed the very depths of what serious comedy is all about.
What happened that day went to the heart of great comedy because comedy first and foremost lives by tradition.What comedy is not is a series of jokes. It is not just laughter, though there should certainly be a lot of it. It is not just happy endings, though comedies usually contain happy endings, one way or the other. Comedy is a form of drama that contains certain recurring tropes that seem to have some elemental hold upon us as human beings; and our identity with those tropes makes us live through the characters so that we worry with them, suffer with them, cry with them, and then, ultimately, laugh with them.
Le Malade Imaginaire exhibits at least four of the most basic motifs in all of comedy. First, it is about the older generation trying to thwart the sexual urges of the young – often, as here, involving a father and a daughter. Now let’s see, where have we seen that before? A Midsummer Night’s Dream? The Man Who Came To Dinner? Nearly every Roman comedy ever written? (I used it myself in one of my first plays, Lend Me A Tenor.)
Second, there is the scheming servant who outwits his master. Moliere is full of them (Scapin being the most famous); and we see them again and again down through the ages, from Volpone to The Marriage of Figaro, from The Lying Valet to One Man, Two Guvnors. (I tried this one out in Leading Ladies.)
Third comes the shrewish wife, in this case Argan’s second, Béline. This tradition goes all the way back to Plautus again (see Mrs. Manaechmus) and Noah’s wife in the medieval mystery cycles. Then there’s The Taming of the Shrew, The School for Scandal, and When We Are Married. (Shrewish wives are not quite the stuff of modern comedy, Fawlty Towers notwithstanding, but I tiptoed around it in The Fox on the Fairway.)
Fourth, there’s the lover-disguised-as-a-teacher so that he can get close to daughter of the house and woo her behind her father’s back. The Taming of the Shrew again. The Barber of Seville. The list goes on and on.
If all this sounds a bit pedantic, the point is crucial: Comedy is made up of strong, time-tested, traditional motifs that somehow go to the depths of who we are as social beings.Writers of dramatic comedy stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before them.Shakespeare.Goldsmith.Wilde.Coward.We learn from them, we practice their artistry and, hopefully, we pass their traditions on to the next generation.For me, this is one of the very best parts of being a playwright.
Check out Ken’s plays, available from Samuel French Be My Baby, The Beaux’ Stratagem, The Fox on the Fairway, The Game’s Afoot, Leading Ladies, Lend me a Tenor, Midsummer/Jersey, Moon Over Buffalo, Postmortem, Shakespeare in Hollywood, Sullivan & Gilbert, The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, and Twentieth Century.