- Comedy Matters: From Shakespeare to Stoppard
The machinations of a cast of characters attempting to reconcile their conflicting ambitions by evening's end is typical grist for the comic mill. Comedies that resolve in favor of the collective will seem to prioritize the status quo, but can these same plots also reward individual desires? In his book Comedy Matters, William Demastes analyzes the comic tension between individual desire and the social good. Drawing upon evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and psychology, Demastes explores the dynamic interplay among nature, society, and the individual that comedy embraces. Comedy "matters"—that is, it both bears relevance and reflects material needs—because it showcases the transformation of society and the preservation of the species, as opposed to tragedy's glorification of principled idealism leading to self-destruction. In the comic agenda, social hierarchies are deconstructed through the dramatization of human interconnection, as exemplified by the "life force." Yet it is the intrinsically selfish behavior of humanity that sets the plots in motion. Herein lies the paradox: narratives of intense individualism underwrite comedy's larger agenda of united social betterment.
Demastes draws upon an evolutionary model of species development to argue that an individual's biological drive for self-preservation undergirds comedy. Susanne Langer, in Feeling and Form, first theorized that a comic character struggles for homeostatic equilibrium and adapts to a changing environment. Society thus can correct for nonconforming behavior by forcing the individual to adjust to mutually beneficial goals. As Demastes explains, "unsociality, rather than immorality, is the subject of comedy" (18). Drawing upon Richard Dawkins's premise of the "selfish gene," Demastes wonders how comedy can work toward reciprocity if we, at the cellular level, are actually programmed to fight for individual survival. Even though a collective has a higher survival rate than an individual, we are not biologically designed to think collaboratively, a trait that disrupts the dramatic resolution of comedy.
Demastes solves this problem by combining Marcel Mauss's analysis of gift-giving, which produces obligatory social bonds through the practice of exchanging gifts, with Timothy Wilson's model of the adaptive unconscious, which posits an unconscious self that secures its survival through a highly conditioned response to its environment. The model of gift-giving allows us to perceive reconciliatory characters such as Prospero and Portia in a new light, because their gifts of forgiveness and mercy, while approaching Derrida's notion of the "pure gift," nonetheless secure their own ends, which happen to be congruent with the community's well-being. A play like American Buffalo, however, does not exemplify comedy's gift-giving nature; according to Demastes, the economic motivation of each individual for himself overwhelms the free circulation of friendship and loyalty in a society represented by the pawn shop. [End Page 147]
Demastes's second approach to comedy, modeled on the adaptive unconscious, illuminates how a character's interaction with his or her environment alters the self so that a comic resolution can be attained; rather than remain in a fixed worldview, as a tragic character might, the comic hero adapts to the way the world truly is, a process that leads to self-revelation. In light of the role-theorist's belief that each person possesses multiple selves, this model of an adaptive unconscious yields new interpretations of various plays, such as The Importance of Being Earnest, where, as Demastes shows, Jack Worthing puts forth the self most suited for any particular social environment. Moliere's character Alceste proves a failed comic character, by contrast, because he refuses to adapt to his hypocritical social milieu.
Demastes further maintains that comedy negates a Cartesian mind–body dualism and draws upon current theories in neuroscience to demonstrate how mental processes are in no way separate from their bodily connections. Taking Shakespeare's Troilus and Hamlet as examples, Demastes argues that these figures are not comic, because not only do they adhere to a mind–body dualistic vision, but they erroneously prioritize the mind at the expense of the body. As the mind is physically embodied in...