Humour is defined by the Penguin English Dictionary as, ‘Capacity for seeing the funny side of things, cheerful and good tempered amusement.’ Humour is now used in a very wide sense ranging from response in smiles to the feelings connected with the comic.
As Carlyle says,
“True humour springs not more from the head than from the heart, it is not contempt, its essence is love, it issues not in laughter but in smiles which lie far deeper.”
Thackeray calls it ‘a mixture of love and wit.’
Hegel puts the same idea in different wording :
“What… is inseparable from the comic as distinguished from the merely laughable is an infinite geniality and confidence capable of rising superior to its own contradiction, and experiencing there in no taint of bitterness of sense of misfortune whatever.”
We may call this humour as “the consummation of the instinct of laughter.”
So we can see that laughter, wit, satire and humour are various elements of comedy. When laughter becomes sophisticated and philosophical we know it is caused by humour. Comedy may not, then, laugh at anyone man: it may say, Lord, what fools these mortals be ! “Comedy mimics the deeds of men so as to appeal largely to our sense of humour.” The whole of mankind is thus the field of comedy.
Comedy, as Mark Twain puts it, “keeps the heart sweet.” Humour is essential in comedy as it is in life and comedy extracts humour from situations in life and thus shows how rich human life is. Humour, at its best, is free from malice and the laughter arising out of it, is the genial laughter of love, pleasure, and sometimes every envy.
Meredith has drawn a very subtle distinction between humour and the comic. The comic spirit is censorious and critical ‘but the humorist…. has an embrace of contrasts beyond the scope of the comic poets’. Thus we have laughter arising from the comic and from humour but humour is the consummation of the instinct of laughter.
Purely comic scenes give us superficial laughter at the expense of some butt of ridicule but humour teaches us to smile philosophically at the superiorities and inferiorities of mankind.
Thus a good comedy must depend upon humour as its main-spring of amusement and not upon the ludicrous. A good comedy can always take any aspect of life and reveal the humorous aspects of men and deeds and thus appeal to our sense of humour. Satire, ridicule, whimsicality, nonsense and wild exaggerations, may be pressed into service by a good comic dramatist. In fact, any angle of life at any level can be a subject of comedy so long as it appeals to our sense of humour.
Importance of Humour in Life
In fact tragedy and comedy both have equal importance in the philosophy of life. Tragedy teaches us wisdom and moves our emotions deeply while comedy touches our head, our intellect and sweetens the sorrows of tragedy by sunny rainbows of smiles. If tragedy teaches men to learn to die for a principle, comedy teaches them forbearance saying “It takes all sorts of people to make the world.” Life is not all sombre, all sorrowful; it has sunny spells of laughter and sheer joy in living
Thus tragedy is necessary in life in so far as it teaches us compassion, pity and wisdom of life, comedy is beneficent and recuperative and points out the health and spiritual sweetness of life. Life without humour would be dull and boring.
How does comedy operate then? It appeals to our intellect and not to our emotions. It looks benignly at the absurdity, incongruity, folly and obsessions of men and its weapons are words, gestures and mimicry, song, dance, grimace, punning even sheer buffoonery-but its aim is always one-to delight, to amuse.
The modern man sees comedy in two ways on the stage and in the book. A good comedy must be both stageworthy and readable.
Comedy, of course, thus more dependent on the stage because a part of its comic appeal depends upon gestures, mimicry and even dress, which can best be appreciated and enjoyed when seen on the stage. At the same time comedies like Congreve’s The Way of the World, or Shaw’s Candida or Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton are equally enjoyable in print.
Comedy exudes the joy of life for people of all ages. The Don Quixotes, Uncle Tobies, Mr. Pickwicks, Mrs. Malaprops with Millamants Violas, Bottoms, Rosalinds, Candidas, of our times make this mad world full of laughter and fun and of course tears.
We are aware that really good comedies are so rare, so few. The reason is that ‘to touch and kindle the mind demands more than sprightliness, a most subtle delicacy.’
It is easy to create rough laughter and tomfoolery but to create subtle sophisticated laughter, a comic artist requires all the resources of his art. In the audience there may be people who are, as Meredith puts it non-laughters or laughter-haters and also there may be persons who are excessive laughters. Then there are moralists who are ready to find morality violated in any loose laughter. Of course under the name of realism the comic writers have sometimes violated all norms of decency. For example in The Old Bachelor the husband and wife use imbecile connubial epithets between each other. The Femmes Savantes of Moliere is a good instance of using comedy to teach the world to understand what ails it. In this he ridiculed the absurdity of excessive purity of grammar and diction.
Another point to be noted is that comedy flourishes only in a higher type of civilization where some sort of equality of sexes exists. This by itself is not necessarily on absolute truth, but cultivated women like Millamant or Candida are produced in an advanced type of civilization only. And without a conflict, an intellectual conflict, of sexes comedy cannot have its proper humour impact.
Men alone can produce only farce or low type of comedy but sophisticated comedy, moral or immoral demands equal participation of women too. To quote Meredith again:
“But where women are on the road to an equal footing with men, in attainment and liberty…. there… pure comedy flourishes.”
We can know the degree of refinement of a person by the matter at which he laughs. A vulgar joke will leave only raised eyebrows among the highly cultured people.
Jokes, puns and such cheap tricks may bring smiles but do not make comedy. Comedy addresses itself to wit for laughter and sometimes sluggish wits may need some training to appreciate the sharp repartee of comedy. But puns, Johnsonian polysyllables, and such verbal acrobatics are used even in good comedies, including those of Shakespeare, but these form the baser part of the comic laughter. Even contempt-out of which satire is born-is a lower type of comic device in which there is malicious laughter. Similarly dullness also arouses comic laughter as in The Centenarian of Aristophanes, in which the comic is capped by the grotesque and irony tips the wit.
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