Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What Makes Us Laugh -- Part Two: Romantic Comedies, when Opposites Attract


I wonder what the dog is thinking...
My apologies on getting this up a day later than promised, but the best laid plans go to waste and all that jazz.  But anyway here's this week's theoretical post.

I mentioned in our last segment (Part One) in the What Makes Us Laugh series that Comedies are primarily about the sick becoming healthy again. No more is this so true than the genre of the Romantic Comedy where you have not just one sick person but two sick people--who by interacting with one another heal themselves into a healthy, balanced whole. Generally Romantic Comedies are that simple, two "sick" personalities make each other "better" and more "balanced". This is especially true of the good Romantic Comedies of today, but it wasn't always the case.

Romantic Comedies are often critiqued as "chick flicks" but I'd argue that in a lot of Romantic Comedies you could never find a stronger difference between the sexes. Men are typically manly men's men in Romantic Comedies and women are typically whatever the current definition of womanly virtues. And this dichotomy is persistent throughout most of Romantic Comedies, with the exception of a few modern films where the man is made less of a man's man and the love interest might be a guy more obsessed with technology than his physical prowess--still a manly obsession, but it is still considered less manly on the scale of manliness all men hold themselves up to. Yes girls, such a scale exists, just like the scale of femininity exists for you. ;-)

She's leaving him.
One of my personal favourite things about Romantic Comedies is that it blends two things together quite nicely. It blends in the Comedic formula of usually being about two people who fall in love and their struggle to be together. However it takes something from the genre of Romance--which will be discussed further in another essay--which I'll call here the "lost love principle". Romance typically is about love AFTER marriage (along with many other things) when it decides to focus on love as a subject manner. And as such Romance typically deals with the subject of rekindling love that has either faded or been lost. Romantic Comedies take this principle and try and fit that pattern in the pre-marital stages that Romantic Comedies typically live in. And as such the formula which is industry standard came into existence: Boy gets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy gets Girl. How he loses her is usually due to some truth about him being revealed (very often the situation of "The Liar Revealed" occurs here) or the misunderstanding blows up the relationship at this moment, etc. Somehow the relationship will be put into doubt and the two characters will learn that they miss and truly love and appreciate the other.

My second favourite thing about Romantic Comedies, is that it typically keeps the wacky and quirky character list from comedy proper, thus prompting some notable and memorable side-characters who tend to appear in Romantic Comedies, that truly entertain in their own way and sometimes, but not always, they get their own "partner" so to speak. Generally these characters are there to round out the world and provide for us the sense that the Romantic Comedy is inhabited by intriguing and notable characters. Often times they'll attempt to help the protagonists in their lover match, but this isn't always the case.

Commedia costuming.
What about the history of the Romantic Comedy, where did it begin? Well back in Renaissance Italy when travelling theatre troupes performed small improvised mask shows of Commedia dell'arte from town to town, there was such a thing as tropes. These tropes were common characters that were found in most of these improvised scenarios. One of the most central of these characters being the Innamorati, aka the lovers. It should be noted that the "masks" for the Innamorati, was typically lacking. They were the only characters who typically went without a mask of some sort. The lovers main purpose in the improvised scenario is to be in love, and to throw childish tantrums whenever separated, and having to use a clever slave or tricky servant to serve as go-between messengers. The entire point of the Commedia scenario usually was to find a way to keep the lovers separated until the end. This tradition extends back to Roman Comedy and Greek New Comedy, but the Renaissance takes an interesting turn on the entire affair in their plays. The most influential being that of William Shakespeare.

Ol' Billy Shakes.
Now I know what the men in the readership are thinking, Shakespeare created the Romantic Comedy? He created chick flicks?! Well, not exactly him alone, but later playwrights and authors chose him as the inspiration for their works, which then became our modern day Romantic Comedies, but even so, Shakespeare and his contemporaries did lay the groundwork, it's just later people from the 19th Century chose to put Shakespeare on a pedestal in terms of influence.

The two earliest Shakespeare plays that one could argue are Romantic Comedies are:

Taming of the Shrew
Much Ado about Nothing

Now I know I'm offending all the women in the readership with the first choice but hear me out. Shakespeare draws from the Commedia dell'arte tropes, but then he twists them. Usually there's only one pair of lovers, who to be perfectly honest are very bland characters. Shakespeare instead in both plays provides TWO sets of lovers. One set is generally the traditional childish lovers who love to be in love that can be found, and then you have what I lovingly call the "sick pair". And if you view Shakespeare as experimenting and toying with the conventions of his time, you can see a clear evolution from one to the next in the above two plays. As such Taming of the Shrew is an early experiment that like most early experiments is ground breaking but not exactly the perfected formula so to speak. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Shakespeare and his contemporaries played around with the traditional formula by adding additional love interest couples. This wasn't unheard of in Commedia dell'arte as the examples of Arlecchino and Columbina & Pierrot and Pierrette give. however in those cases the couples are various "servants", with the love match between Arlecchino and Columbina being more often about lust & the one between Pierrot and Pierrette the adoration of finding one's sensitive soul mate. What Shakespeare and his contemporaries do is provide what I'd essentially call a rival couple of equal status to the Innamorati. This "rival couple" are typically at odds with one another, and have a lot more problems and issues. Typically they're a bit more cynical of life and love and more practical in how they dispense their heart. As such we typically congregate around them as a couple more than we do the Innamorati equivalents--seeing them as "too young, too naive, and too self-absorbed" to consider our central characters when we read his plays, and that's because Shakespeare and his contemporaries are indeed moving away from the Innamorati and creating their own problematic characters.

Let's look at Taming of the Shrew for a moment. What most people forget is that the play proper is a play performed by a group of travelling actors for a drunken slob named Christopher Sly who's being made fool of by a Lord into thinking he's a Lord. Which means that the characters of the play proper are literally Shakespeare's interpretation of a Commedia dell'arte type play. Using Commedia dell'arte to analyse the play proper briefly, Bianca and Lucentio are easily our Innamorati. Baptista is our father figure who stands in the way of Bianca and Lucentio marrying easily, thus requiring Lucentio to trade places with his Arlecchino-like servant Tranio in order to sneak into Baptista's house under the guise of a servant scholar to woo Bianca. Other suitors for Bianca's hand in marriage fill out the Pantaloon and Braggart roles. However Sheakespeare throws a curve ball at us by including Katherina and Petrucchio who are unlike any characters typically involved in a Commedia dell'arte show. The closest you could argue that they come would be a Punch and Judy puppet show. But even that's limited as they don't stay like that for the entirety of the play. Katherina is arguably the "sick man" of the play. She's the Shrew--which was an archetype all its own in Late Medieval culture, first associated with men and then later with women come the beginning of the Renaissance. And the fact that the archetype was originally associated with men is a factor that should be kept in mind when viewing the play and trying to understand the character of Petrucchio. Petrucchio is thus the "healing" character who "heals" the sick Katherina of her Shrewishness and wins a wife you'd think, right? Well, this is where Shakespeare again likes to tinker. Petrucchio doesn't so much as "heal" her of her Shrewishness, but simply teaches her how to play more than just one role. Petrucchio himself seems to like to play many roles and mind games and recognizes the same ability in Katherina (as they have a battle of wits when they first meet that proves that both have sharp minds and like the back and forth they have going for themselves) and I'd argue he teaches her to like the games he plays just as much as he does by teaching her to play more than one part. These two characters are hard-bitten, much more realistic with their thoughts of how the world works and the expectations placed upon them. Even so, these cynics are both rough around the edges and their love match is more about two people running head long into each other to find love than the simple gentle versions we find in later Romantic Comedies. Petrucchio and Katherina dominate the play after their initial meeting and the whole Commedia-esque plot that Lucentio and Bianca have going pales in comparison. And it should be noted that the true Shrew of the play does get tamed and I'll say that the true Shrew is not Katherina. ;-)

Petrucchio and Katherina meet for the first time in this Commedia dell'arte influenced production of  The Taming of the Shrew.

Continuing our Shakespeare period, after the early experimentation that was Shrew, becomes more refined in Much Ado About Nothing. Here Shakespeare gives us a more tempered example of two characters falling in love in Beatrice and Benedick. Here Shakespeare takes the witty give and take that Kate and Petrucchio had in the above video scene and makes it the defining feature of his "rival couple".


Bragnaugh & Thomson as Beatrice and Benedick match wits in this production of Much Ado about Nothing.

The physical comedy of Commedia dell'arte is taken away from our developing genre and we're given witty repartee. It is from Much Ado About Nothing that we have the Renaissance origin of our "arguing couple"--however where modern tastes have returned to making it simply about two people who are opposites and grind on each other's nerves and balance each other out, Shakespeare here makes it a point to say that such behaviour is an act (Shakespeare's constantly pointing out moments in life when people are "acting" and "playing roles" and comedy and courtship are usually where he finds it the most), and that really, underneath all their cynicism and hard-bitten outer edges are two people in love with one another and very much alike, but afraid of getting hurt. They truly here completely outshine our main paring of Hero and Claudio who still play the Innamorati roles.

Austen in her matronly glory.
Romantic Comedy's next influential evolution comes arguably two hundred years later, from author Jane Austen, the unofficial queen of the genre. While she didn't set out to influence the genre, simply tell stories that would entertain her own family and be worthy of publication, she has been chosen by modern audiences to be the most influential person on the genre since Shakespeare. And obviously the most influential of her works on the genre is Pride and Prejudice, in which we finally get the final crucial ingredient to the Romantic Comedy genre: the misunderstanding. While arguably one could say that the "misunderstanding" was present in Much Ado About Nothing, it isn't as vital to the plot as it is here in Pride & Prejudice, where our hero and heroine, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, have a bad first impression of each other (the alternative title was First Impressions), which goes on to dominate how they interact with one another for most of the book. Eventually events occur which show each other's true merits and character which cause them to realize that they in fact are perfect for one another, and to scrape the horrible first impression . While the modern 2005 version tried to play up how they are an argumentative couple, thus supporting the modern Rom Com bias towards arguing = love, the fact of the matter is that again like with Beatrice and Benedick before them, it's not who they truly are--it's just a part of their misunderstanding of one another that fades as the novel progresses and both come to love one another and see that they have more alike than they first thought

Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam talk and tease as they dance.

It is also here that we find the idea of "opposites attract" that crops up probably for the first time arguably. Both Kate and Petruchio & Beatrice and Benedick were more alike than unalike--but it's here with Elizabeth & Fitzwilliam (yes that's his first name) that we get the lively and gregarious woman partnering with a quiet and reticent man. But even here this division proves to be a false one as Fitzwilliam can be quite gregarious and lively when amongst friends and in an environment he's comfortable in, while Elizabeth can likewise be quiet and reticent when not on her home turf and amongst her family--so to speak. This doesn't preclude that both do have preferences that are differing as Elizabeth speaks her mind when comfortable and Darcy holds his tongue until in private consul, but still they both have more than enough in common for one another, and enough differences to balance each other out without driving each other absolutely crazy like Elizabeth's parents do who are the ultimate example of opposites who've married to find that not enough was there to make the match work well and so have retreated into their own spheres of influence.

Opposites attract like magnets... hmm... perhaps we need a new analogy.
This of course brings me up to modern day where the concept of "opposites attract" has run wild to the point that I have a hard time watching certain modern Romantic Comedies without wondering if the two "lovers" really love one another or that they love arguing with one another. That's not to say that there aren't some really good Romantic Comedies out there today, but too often than not, the relationship gets wheedled down to just the variety of relationship that evolves from the school yard boy pulling the pigtails of the school yard girl. And I have to look around and ask if there is more to love than just that level immaturity in a relationship, or have we redefined our marriage rituals to prescribe that if there isn't this "spark" then that person isn't the "one" that if we don't argue then we're not "truly in love". When did romance become a battlefield? Why do people have to constantly fight? I'm not saying that ALL relationships should be devoid of argument--but expecting there to be this competitive edge in a relationship doesn't always work out for the best. So I truly have to ask, is it healthy to consider "opposites attract" a stand-by policy in romance? Probably not, but we sure do find it full of entertainment gold in Romantic Comedies.

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Next Monday there'll be a surprise theory post, and I'll give you a hint, it's somewhat related to tonight's topic.

Have a good night,

~LCC