Well, death is easy in the arts. And it sure gives you a built-in advantage when it comes to critical consideration. Comedy, on the other hand, is not only hard to do, it’s hard to get cred for.
Let’s pretend, for instance, that the Oscars have any kind of relevance in terms of actual quality and wonder: When was the last time they rewarded a comedic role? I’d argue that Steve Carell is as good if not better in The 40-Year Old Virgin as Daniel Day-Lewis is in There Will Be Blood, but one actor has a statuette and the other doesn’t. (Actually DDD has two, having already scored with an eminently predetermined Oscarable part in My Left Foot.) And Hilary Swank, a two-time winner, could never dream of offering a performance as nuanced and unpredictable as Molly Shannon’s in last year’s tragically underrated Year of the Dog.
This train of thought was prompted by the prospect of this weekend’s broadcast: Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, a funny opera staged in a funny manner by Laurent Pelly, with funny performances by an ultra-game cast. Of course, many in New York found the production too broad, too over the top. I wonder if this reaction had something to do with the fact that this particular production isn’t ashamed of pulling all the stops—including manic running around and mugging—in its quest for laughs. I may be wrong, but it’s much rarer to read this kind of feedback in relation to more somber subjects: Are La Traviata, Madama Butterfly or Salome ever accused of being too dramatic? Didn’t think so.
Pelly did unabashedly go for the humor jugular, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to those lucky enough to catch his goofy, busy stagings of Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers (also with Natalie Dessay), La Belle Hélène and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, all of which have been critical and commercial hits in France. Offenbach and Donizetti meant to amuse, and I for one find it refreshing to see a director and cast embrace that goal, and apply their considerable skills to making an audience laugh. Incidentally, is the disdain for humor in a supposedly serious high art one of the reasons Offenbach is so under-produced in New York? We only see his Tales of Hoffmann here, and honestly it’s time to give it a break and bring on the aforementioned Belle Hélène or La Périchole.
Julian Gough argued for the need for humor and satire in fiction in a Prospect magazine essay titled “Divine Comedy.” “I don’t want everybody to write comedies,” he explained. “I just don’t want everybody to write minor, anxious, banal tragedies, without thinking about why they’ve chosen such a crowded mode. Why all cluster under the one tree when there’s a forest to explore?”
Still, there’s signs of hope. For instance, Mark Rylance recently won a Tony for his crazed performance in the delirious, old-fashioned farce Boeing-Boeing; the actors he beat included Patrick Stewart playing Macbeth and Laurence Fishburne playing Thurgood Marshall. Hopefully, Carell, Kristen Wiig and, yes, Will Ferrell won’t have to start playing dour to get nominations.