Saturday 10 August 2013

Laughing with the Victorians: Staging 19th Century Comedy

Alfred Bryan's illustration for Charley's Aunt
I've directed two Victorian comedies in the past few years – Brandon Thomas’s Charley’s Aunt (1892) and Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance (1841). Both were incredibly popular in their time - Thomas’s play for instance had a staggering initial run of over 1400 performances – and both are far from obscure today, as Charley’s Aunt remains an amateur dramatic favourite and London Assurance enjoyed an acclaimed revival at the National in 2010. Yet, despite their enduring appeal, the experience of directing these plays forced me to consider what the Victorians found funny, and how it resembles and differs from what audiences want today.

1. Character Types: There are certain character types which are naturally butts in Victorian comedies, and some of these fulfill a similar role in modern comedy. Lawyers spring naturally to mind (Spettigue in Charley’s Aunt, Meddle in London Assurance). In both plays they are stereotyped as immoral, money-grabbing and manipulative (all stereotypes found in modern humour also). Jokes which rely on assuming all lawyers are social climbers and men who are sexually repulsive to women however (found in both plays), don’t sit quite so well in the current climate where the Law is an aspirational career, rather than bourgeois, and women have formed more than half the entrants to the profession each year since 1993. Older lovers are also subject to derision (Sir Francis Chesney and Sir Harcourt Courtly), but modern audiences can find the sight of old men wooing teenage girls more distasteful than funny.

2. Money: Although the plots of both plays are romantic, it is money – not sex (the stalwart of modern comedy) - which is central to them. Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez’s fortune (from ‘Brazil where the nuts come from’) enables the action and conclusion of Charley’s Aunt, while Charles’s debts set in motion the opening and close of London Assurance. Modern audiences get it…to a degree…but there’s a lot that’s lost. Most people’s point of reference (if any) for how much was a lot in the nineteenth century is the fortune of Pride and Prejudice’s Mr Darcy, so jokes which rely on discussing marriage portions and forging bills fall a little flat.

3. Gender play: The sight of a man in a dress is still funny – maybe even more so, unused as we are to layers of petticoats and veils. So is seeing Grace Harkaway get one over on her suitor Charles – not because we think women are stupid, but because we are tuned into what is expected generically of the comedic heroine. I think it was the same then.

4. Servants: Modern audiences love servant characters. So do adaptors and TV writers (think Downton Abbey). Working class characters are seen as more like us – they say risqué things, and are often shown as more sexually active, while liking them is more democratic, not tinged with guilt. Charley’s Aunt features a servant – the scout, Brassett – who is cleverer than his master, and so does London Assurance – the valet, Cool. Audiences now and then find this funny. The difference is that audiences today laugh a little self-righteously, aware that they disapprove of domestic servitude.

5. Comic timing: Both plays need editing to be enjoyable in performance. Not because the language is obscure – it’s not. But because modern audiences are impatient. They’re nervous until the first laugh. And they’re not used to waiting for a comic situation to be set up. Nineteenth-century audiences must have been better at sitting through Act One expectantly. As it is, I ended up trying to get through the first scenes quickly and introducing more physical humour.

Do you still laugh at Victorian theatre? Or is comedy tied to its time? Get in touch here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

1 comment:

  1. Where has the best of British gone, Galton and Simpson’s Steptoe, Only Fools and Horses, Fawlty Towers, and why has ‘Dad’s Army’ been on our screens every Saturday since 1968. No, this is not an outpouring of nostalgia. Galton and Simpson have long since retired. Younger audiences have no idea what a rag bone man was, let alone the world they inhabited, and the desperate Cockney life style of Del Boy and Rodney are distant memories. The spark and energy of post war comedy are embers raked over by more cynical writers and comedians. Speaking to The Stage magazine, Barry Cryer said: "There is a lot of IQ around in some modern comedy, but not a lot of warmth."
    So, we drag ourselves back to the security of plays stuffed with maiden aunts in frilly blouses. I guess if nothing else they do they actually do have warmth. But how many times in a lifetime do we really want to roll out the same lavender scented works? We know the jokes, and wait and fidget through soporific Victorian dialogue for the occasional laugh; that well worn yet elusive grain of humour. The rest is anti-climax because we already know the ending. Wilde, for example, was writing for a contemporary world, should we Philistines really be impressed by the solitary member of the audience who’s ‘look how clever I am’ incongruous laughter indicates he has spotted one of Oscar’s more obscure nineteenth century political nuances? It’s hard work, and I don’t need it.
    Yes, ‘It was good, but not as good as the one where Hillary Jenkins played the maid and Tom what’s his name, played the butler. For better or worse life moved on since the 1890s. For heaven’s sake, let’s see more of the trials and tribulations of contemporary life on the comedy stage....