Friday, November 28, 2008
Some Things Are Better Than Funny
I recently finished reading Jincy Willett's Winner of the National Book Award. I selected this book at the store with trepidation, because almost all the comments on the back of the book were things like "A wonderful dark comedy! Hilarious!" "Very dark and very funny! Excellent book!" and "This black comedy will have you rocking in your chair with laughter!"
It's never good when the best thing you can say about something is that it's a "dark comedy." Fortunately, Jincy Willett's book is much better than all this suggests, mostly because it's not really a dark comedy at all. It's just a light-hearted and humorous treatment of some troubling and real life things.
I think people like to say "dark comedy" when they encounter something that is clearly troubling that is presented in anything less than a tragic way. It's like they think that to praise a work of art that treated a subject like rape or murder in anything but tragic terms would somehow make them into moral cretins or something. So they weasel out by saying "dark comedy."
I see this at the opera all the time and it drives me crazy. You know, a lot of those comic operas, like Così fan Tutte and Don Giovanni have a lot of serious parts in with the wise-cracking, flirting, and general swaggering around. Così fan Tutte is about the fleetingness of love. Don Giovanni is about a seducer, manipulator, and rapist who refuses to repent and goes to hell. So it's weird to have the audience guffawing like they're at a showing of the movie Dodgeball.
The genius of these operas is that they interweave the funny and the tragic together. But the audience—and even the directors—treat them as "dark comedies," and it just isn't right. At a recent performance of Don Giovanni I attended, the director staged the performance so that it seems like that Don Giovanni's first victim, Donna Anna, is complicit; then it seems kind of funny later when she is in an angry rage about what happened. But actually, he's had his way with her, against her wishes. And this is back when a sex act was a sex act, people! The servant Leporello, who tries to tell his master that what is is doing is wrong, is treated as a buffoon, making his complaints seem like whines.
The audience thought it all a laugh riot. Look at that Donna Anna, so upset! Leporello, so distraught! Donna Elvira's going to spend the rest of her life in a convent? Ha ha ha! Hilarious!
As I said, Jincy Willett's novel is better than a dark comedy. It's a light and occasionally amusing treatment of the age old human tragedies: life, death, love, sex, jealousy, manipulation, murder. It's not a laugh-riot. Thank heaven.