Comedy Vs Satire
Alfred Michaels lists four elements of the comic spirit-
(1) The perception of an imperfection;
(2) A rapid and a very lively intuition of the ideal principle against which the imperfection offends;
(3) A disdain, secret or open, for the imperfection and;
(4) A secret satisfaction with ourselves in that we believe ourselves exempt from the imperfection in question.”
To these may be added ‘malice’ and ‘derision.’
The key-note of the real comic element lies in being able to detect the ridicule of those whom we love without loving them the less.
Meredith in his essay on The Idea of Comedy has explained satire, irony and humour thus:
“If you detect the ridicule, and your kindliness is chilled by it, you are slipping into the grasp of Satire.”
If instead of falling foul of the ridiculous person with a satiric rod, to make him writhe and shriek aloud, you prefer to sitting him under semi-caress, by which he shall in his anguish be rendered dubious whether indeed anything has hurt him, you are an engine of Irony.
“If you laugh all round him, tumble him, roll him about, deal him a smack and drop a tear on him, own him likeness to you and yours to your neighbour, spare him as you shun, pity him as much as you expose it is a spirit of Humour that is moving you.”
Thus the satirist is a correcting agent whereas irony is the humour of satire. But when the humorist makes you laugh, heart and mind also laugh out at Falstaffs, Quixotes and Pickwicks. This laughter is the laughter of love and compassion.
Poverty according to the satirist, makes man ridiculous, but poverty is never ridiculous to the comic poet unless it makes a poor attempt at decency and ostentation. It can at the most be gross comedy.
We find such humour in Moliere, Chaucer, Shakespeare and a host of other writers. In a way the comic spirit like the harmless wine, conduces to sobriety.
Satire implies a kind of moral indignation which is not compatible with the spirit of the comedy. Satire has always a tinge of contempt in it a type that is ‘humanely malign.
It also implies a complete absence of kindliness. That is why satire should be kept under check in a comedy. Ben Jonson’s Volpone and Wycherley’s The Plain Dealer are quite full of satire. In the early old comedy of the Greeks, the personal satire dominated the plays. Aristophanes, Menander and others also used satire in their plays, but it is found in a very mellowed form in Plautus and Terence.
No doubt satire had its own uses. When an author wanted to attack a particular class of men, he put them in his plays in very unfavourable roles. For example Paramore is a satire on doctors in Shaw’s The Philanderer. Volpone is a satire on avarice.
In spite of all this common ground, comedy and satire cannot in the last analysis be reconciled. The comic writer need not spare anything in nature, but he must not fall out with Nature herself. The satirist writes only from his own feelings, the comic writer must partly go outside his own feelings to a conception of nature. Their techniques are in part interchangeable; but in idea they conflict.
One more thing to be noted about satire is that it is characterized by an inherent lack of balance. The comic dramatist is satisfied with the presentation of evidence and leaves judgement to the audience. This is better art. A comic writer who uses satire has lost his balance, he already has taken sides. Satire shows delight in and contempt for the follies of mankind. In fact, the theory of satiric comedy rests on a narrow definition of humour that, it is aroused by the ugly and the inferior. To quote Thorndike,
“It is the duty of comedy to expose folly by ridicule and thus cure the social body of disease. Ben Jonson was the first to set forth this conception fully, and on the basis of classical models he attempted a realistic comedy of manners that should comprehensively diagnosed and purge the society of his day. In Congreve’s hands this comedy of manners sought to exemplify the difference between false and true wit, between the affectations and absurdities of fashionable society and a rational and well-mannered mode of life.”
The comedy of sentiment tried to soften the element of satire till Murphy and Sheridan revived the comedy of manners with a limited use of satire. Gilbert restored satire and in the plays of Shaw satire acquired a sense of purpose by ridiculing the fundamental foundations of society.
Yet, we rarely find a comedy with no satire at all. Wycherly and Barrie are not always without satire, nor is Shaw without non-satirical humour.
“If one laughs because in possession of a superior gift, he perceives the inferiorities of others, and if another laughs because he likes to laugh, the result may be the same, an extensive and variegated resistibility. The verdict of English comedy, however, has been clearly against a narrowing of its scope to satire and realism and in favour of a wide range for the sense of humour.”
But again we have to go back to the point that ‘Contempt is a sentiment that cannot be entertained by comic intelligence.’ (Meredith) Potts emphasizes that ‘good nature is really essential to the comic muse’ and Athene Seyler adds, “comedy is inextricably bound up with kindliness.”
It is just because of this realization that good critics put comedies based on satire in a lower category.
A. Nicoll : “The pursuit comedy usually rules satire in any form out of its province.”
L. J. Potts: “Comedy and satire cannot in the last analysis be reconciled.”
N.W. Sawyer: “……..High Comedy does not propose to be satire.”
Satire lacks warmth of heart and geniality and therefore the highest type of comedy, leaves it alone. The fiercer the satire, the less suited it is for comedy. The comic spirit has outgrown its dependence on satire. This does not mean that the use of satire is all gone today. It only means that the less a comedy depends upon satire, the better it is. It needs humour more than satire.