Tuesday, 15 January 2008


Aye, in the very temple of Delight
Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine.
(Keats, ‘Ode on Melancholy’)

The strange thing is that, whenever I give a public reading from my book, audiences always react very differently. There's no predicting the reactions my book will elicit. A while back, at a Derbyshire Readers' event, I gave two readings on the same day. The morning audience's reaction was different to the afternoon's. And every time I give a reading - however similarly I perform the same piece - people react differently. Generally, these reactions can be classified into three categories: audience who experience the work as a tragedy (to use the term loosely), audiences who hear the work as a comedy, and audiences who understand it as a tragi-comedy. Some people laugh at the "jokes," some people look stern, distressed, even shocked, some people do both at different times.

I can't help but wonder what causes these different reactions. Given that the reactions are so different to the same words, they're not (in a simple way) caused by the words themselves. And given that I perform those words in a similarish way each time, they're not caused by my performance. So they must be caused by something in the audiences themselves. There must be something about certain audiences which hear Take Me Home as comedy, and something about other audiences which experience it as tragedy.

Someone a while back made a suggestion as to why this might be. She said that the different reactions are caused by different life experiences on the part of the audiences. People who've had similar or analogous experiences to my own would understand the humour; people who hadn't would just see the horror and sadness. If you haven't experienced something like family illness, disease, death, or care first-hand, you can't understand how it might be funny as well as tragic. I think this point of view has something going for it, though I don't think it explains away all of the different reactions I've had to the book.

I think people are sometimes worried, even shocked, when they're confronted with the truth that horrendous things can also give rise to laughter. They forget that laughter and comedy are often very serious matters, caused by cruelty, power, sadism, horror, violence (you only have to look at all the good sitcoms and comic films to see this - and I mean the good ones, not the rubbish that's made in the name of comedy post-1990). They also forget that every human experience is a mixture of emotions - pessimism and optimism, horror and laughter, death and life, indignity and dignity, stupidity and cleverness, bathos and pathos, comedy and tragedy. In the most horrendous things that have happened to the human race, there has always been comedy. Shakespeare realised this - look at the comedy in "Hamlet" and the clown in "King Lear."

In fact, that comedy is essential. If we weren't able to see the comic idiocy of Nazism, we might end up seeing Nazism as a serious tragedy, which would be to elevate the Nazis onto the Wagnerian plane they themselves felt they occupied. Certain cheap t.v. dramas and novels threaten to do this. "The Great Dictator" and "'Allo 'Allo," though, redress the balance, and make us realise how ludicrous the Reich was.

So it's of the utmost importance to see things as tragi-comedies, not simple tragedies. And that's what I tried to show in the book.

.... Tennyson's reading of "Charge of the Light Brigade" - not much to do with this entry, but brilliant all the same.

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