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  • Behind Comedy's Mask
  • Barbara Rosen (bio)
Harry Levin . Playboys and Killjoys: An Essay on the Theory and Practice of Comedy. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987.

The title of Harry Levin's latest work presents us with two rhyming antonyms complicated by a pun. This combination of elegance and ambiguity represents in little the method and conclusions of the whole. As we read through the 12 sections of the opening essay, beguiled by its neat formulations, we find the complexities inherent in the title gradually taking over until section 12 on "Metacomedy" brings us to a sense of the ultimate rapprochement of comedy and tragedy. At the end of additional essay C, Levin quotes Saul Steinberg in a delicate shrug over his own endeavor: "Trying to define humor . . . is one of the definitions of humor." But those initial terms "playboy" and "killjoy," while inadequate to a full examination of comedy, do at least lead us to some important aspects of it. Levin's range of reference is, as usual, international and extraordinary; I shall not attempt to emulate it in this brief discussion of his ideas and their applicability to children's literature.

The instinct to play with life's law's is, as Huizinga, Bakhtin and others suggest, innate and necessary; but the anarchic reversals of the Carnival spirit are rendered innocuous by being confined to their own times, places and forms. In essay I, part 1, and essay A, Levin briefly links drama, ritual play and children's games, reminding us that "where there are playboys, there are likely to be killjoys." From the beginning, he stresses the importance of performance and community to all forms of comedy.

For Levin, the most obvious killjoy is the Elizabethan puritan who opposed the professional theatre, its actors and its boy players. To him, theatre was a time-wasting enterprise based on pretence and sexual confusion which had no redeeming importance of any kind. Playboys were the actors themselves and the boy players who took female roles; but they were also the apprentices who dressed in illegal finery and ran away [End Page 148] from work to swagger in the audience as gentlemen. However, as Levin shows, comedy has from the beginning had its own way of dealing with critics and devotees. Killjoys and playboys have been at war inside romantic or satiric comedies since the days of ancient Greece.

A killjoy may appear as a religious hypocrite in Tartuffe, a heavy father denying his daughter's love-choice in A Midsummer Night's Dream, or Malvalio opposing cakes, ale and ultimately song in Twelfth Night. His fate is to be shown up as the inadequate actor of a mistaken part, an object of folly rather than wisdom. His revenge is to leave the shadow of moral questioning hovering over the triumphant playboys and play girls. Malvalio can never "be revenged on the whole pack of you," but Twelfth Night ends with the lonely figure of the Fool singing of those left outside in the wind and the rain, while golden youth dances within doors. The messenger of death at the end of Love's Labour's Lost, or Prospero's vision of the world's dissolution as he breaks the wedding masque prepared for his daughter—these killjoy elements qualify the light heart of comedy and carry it nearer to tragedy and "the reality principle."

Even the young and careless lovers of Shakespeare's comedies are often seen as in need of some killjoy instruction. The witty Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost must "jest a twelvemonth in a hospital" before he can claim his Rosalind; and another Rosalind gives the romantic Orlando of As You Like It an astringent education in the realities of living with another person. Only in the brittle or brutal city comedies of the late Jacobean and Restoration stage do playboys trick elderly fathers, uncles and guardians out of money and daughters without remorse or reproof; they carry comedy to a dead end before its demise.

In "Metacomedy" Levin says:

It is convention that more or less arbitrarily stops the play when the banns are cried for the hero and heroine, taking...


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pp. 148-151
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