The New York Times, March 30, 1952
QUERY: WHAT MAKES COMEDY HIGH?
By S. N.
Dramatist, Scenarist, Biographer
One’s relatives are apt to be censorious, and a close one of
mine protested to me rather explosively years ago: "When are
you going to get out of that drawing-room?" To that generic
locale he applied an epithet not generally used in
drawing-rooms and which I omit here.
I believe I told him that I'd be glad to move, but that one
had to live some place and I didn't have another room handy.
Did he have a suggestion? He made a large gesture in the
general direction of the universe. "There's a great big
teeming world out there!" he said indignantly, with a
baleful intimation that I was snubbing it. Somerset Maugham
says somewhere—or perhaps he just said it to me—that a
writer is a man who never can think of a good answer on the
spot; he thinks of what he should have said when he gets
back to his desk. If my critical relative will pardon the
delay, I'll try to put up a ramshackle defense here for that
There is a certain confusion about three categories of
plays: high comedy, drawing-room comedy, comedy of manners.
In a sense every play is a comedy of manners, even if it
only represents the playwright's. The category "drawing-room
comedy" is arbitrary and actually meaningless; it has come
to be employed as synonymous with high comedy when,
essentially, it has nothing to do with it.
Any kind of play can—and has —taken place in a drawing-room:
farces, melodramas, spooky plays (although they generally
run to libraries). Some drawing-room plays might more
properly be called bathroom comedies. A high comedy can take
place anywhere. "The Playboy of the Western World" is a
wonderful high comedy and doesn't remotely take place in a
drawing-room. Two of my favorite plays, "The Importance of
Being .Earnest" and "Blithe Spirit," have most of their
action in drawing-rooms; they are both farces.
The Real Ingredients
What makes the essence of high comedy is not the furniture
of the room where the action takes place but the
articulateness of the characters, the plane on which they
talk, the intellectual and moral climate in which they live.
There is an idea that the characters of high comedy must be
rich, well-dressed and socially elevated. This is also not
necessarily true; I have done several in which the heroes
were poor, badly dressed and from the wrong side of the
tracks. The immediate concerns of the characters in a high
comedy may sometimes be trivial; their point of view must
never be. Indeed, one of the endless sources of high comedy
is seriousness of temperament and intensity of purpose in
contrast with the triviality of the occasion.
Any playwright who has been up against the agony of casting
plays will tell you that the actor who can play comedy is
the fellow to shoot for; you will get the best performance
of a serious part from an actor who can play comedy. The
essence of the comic sense is awareness: awareness of the
tragedy as well as of the fun of life, of the pity, the
futility, the lost hopes, the striving for immortality, for
permanence, for security, for love. The comic intuition gets
to the heart of a human situation with a precision and a
velocity unattainable in any other way. A great comic actor
will do it for you with an inflection of voice as adroit as
the flick of the wrist of a virtuoso fencer.
In London I saw Dame Edith Evans as Cleopatra in
Shakespeare's play. She played it for high comedy. In an
early scene Cleopatra is informed by Antony that his wife,
Fulvia, is dead. Cleopatra's line is: "Can Fulvia die?" The
Dame's reading of that line was delicious; it sent a ripple
of laughter through the audience. She read it with a rising
inflection of incredulity and pleasure, with a peculiar
overtone of the last word which raced you through
Cleopatra's mind. You heard her also saying: "Well!
.Evidently, I have always underestimated Fulvia. I never
suspected that she had the resource or the tact for a
gesture, like this!" Ever since then, when I see this play,
I listen for the actress who plays Cleopatra to read this
line; usually it comes out as a simple request for
information like: "Do you play canasta?"
Shakespeare was an excellent writer of drawing-room comedy;
he did a lovely one in "Hamlet," although he called many of
his sets ramparts. The "play within a play" is a
drawing-room charade. The tragedy of Hamlet—and it is well
for a high comedy if it has a tragic core—is not that nearly
everybody in it dies. There is nothing tragic about death;
it is merely inevitable. The tragedy is that Hamlet, who
really has a mind to make up, is incapable of assembling it.
It is a long comedy of vacillation when decision is
imperative—nicely written, of course. Hamlet suffers from a
deep-seated metaphysical neurosis; Gide's remark is
pertinent—that it is useful, when you are thinking about
Hamlet, to remember that he attended a German university.
Some years ago I was asked to adapt an idea of Franz
Werfel's which became the play, "Jacobowsky and the
Colonel." I met Elia Kazan, who was excited about the
idea—and when Elia is excited he carries you along. The
story was played against a background of life-and-death
desperation — the flight of a French girl and a German and
Polish refugee from the invading Nazis in France. I didn't
go ahead with it till I got the notion of making the German
refugee, Jacobowsky, a humorous and cultivated man, nurtured
in the humanities; the Pole, a noble, elegant, humorless and
literal man, nurtured in the tradition of military glory.
The French girl they both love finds that she can laugh with
Jacobowsky; this laughter drives the Pole crazy. He cannot
break the magic circle of this laughter; he finds it more
difficult than storming a redoubt. The play was, therefore,
high comedy, though there were sinister Nazis and
hairbreadth escapes in it.
It is amusing to read in the papers of the Russians'
desperation over their comedic output and their
dissatisfaction with their machines for impressing joy. How
true to type the dictatorships run! It is "Kraft durch
Freude" over again. The fanatics know dimly that there
might be something to laugh at hovering around somewhere if
they could only find it. But they are really afraid to find
it because of their terror that it might shatter some of
their basic assumptions. For laughter is the most
humanizing—as well as the most critical—agency in the world.
The ability to laugh at its own pretensions and shortcomings
is the true mark of the civilized nation, as it is of the
civilized man. It will take the Russians a thousand years—if
they're snappy—to develop anybody like Gilbert and Sullivan.
When Gilbert made fun of the House of Lords and threatened
its members with the disaster of "competitive examination"
he did them in, long before Asquith got around to it.
I know that the press agent for my new play at the Coronet
Theatre will be unhappy if I don't mention "Jane," and it is
a primary function of the playwright to keep the press agent
in amiable spirits. Maugham's short story, on which the play
is based, tells about an elderly frump from Liverpool who
marries a very young and very attractive man. Miss Theresa
Helburn of the Theatre Guild wished me to adapt it. Mr.
Maugham, who is one of the canniest of men, has sold the
film rights to everything he has ever written—he has
recently even been selling the rights to his fascinating
personality; but he never sold the film rights to "Jane,"
although it is over thirty years old; because he felt that
it would one day make a play.
Although he is a brilliant playwright, he did not want to
dramatize it himself because he has long since quit the
theatre, which is perhaps an even profounder demonstration
of his canniness. It looked to me like an attractive job but
it was very hard to do. The theatre is the most naked of
mediums; it is a two-and-a-half-hour close-up, and questions
which Maugham never had to answer—nor even to raise—in the
compass of a short story, pop up uncomfortably when you come
to write a play. Why does a sensible woman like Jane marry a
man so much younger? Maugham describes her as witty and as
making a sensation by always telling the truth. Nice work if
you can get it!
Also, and this is the nub, instead of the young man's
eventually leaving Jane, as everyone predicts, Jane leaves
the young man. This was a puzzler. Why? I gave this as much
thought as Newton and Satan gave the apple—with somewhat
less epochal results. One line gave the play to me and the
answer. When Gilbert asks Jane why she is leaving him, she
says: "Because you are too old for me!" This line was,
originally, the curtain of Act Two, the climax of the play.
In the prolonged neurasthenic hypochondria which constitutes
a try-out tour, I allowed this line to be shifted to Act
Three. The point I wanted to make in the play is that youth
is a question of vitality, generosity, warmth and general
sympathy in point of view. A stuffed shirt may be old at 20.
Jane is alive and vital and will be young at 80.
Probably, after he reads this, my critical relative will say
what he said long before: "When are you going to get . . .
," etc. I will still have to answer: "Probably never." Nor
do I feel cramped. When the Captains and the Kings depart,
their stories will be told in drawing-rooms, even if they
are merely living rooms or libraries or studies or just