- The Ingenious Simpleton: Upending Imposed Ideologies through Brief Comic Theatre by Delia Méndez Montesinos
In The Ingenious Simpleton, Delia Méndez Montesinos analyzes the subversive potential of brief comic theater and popular performance, and documents its persistent ability to resist submission to hierarchical, social stratification. Through comedy, lower and marginalized classes, who often are subjected to a negative self-concept imposed by hegemonic power interested in sustaining itself, find outlets to transgress socially prescribed norms. Méndez Montesinos’s valuable study concerns itself particularly with popular performances that feature a buffoon or comic simpleton, and develops case studies from three geographical [End Page 101] regions (Spain, Mexico, and California) across disparate chronological periods. Ultimately, this study reveals a heritage of subversive comedy in twentieth-century Hispanic popular performance that can be traced to the origins of the comic simpleton figure in sixteenth-century Spain.
The author’s main contention is not that these kinds of politically subversive performances arise only under particular or special social circumstances, but that they can and do exist in a variety of historical, social, and political environments. The subversion of norms through comic performance is a common denominator that reveals a pervasive and enduring tradition across time. Proposing that “theatre can be a powerful tool to provide marginalized groups with a needed sense of solidarity and self-worth” (xi), the book’s brief introduction establishes its central argument by way of the specific historical examples of Lope de Rueda’s pasos as mass entertainment in sixteenth-century Spain, post-Revolutionary Mexican satirical public performance (a tradition the author sees dating to pre-Columbian times), and the Teatro Campesino among the grape-harvesters of California’s San Joaquin Valley in the 1960s.
The book’s first chapter outlines the theoretical parameters of the study, introducing definitions of laughter and comedy in both social and theatrical contexts. Here, Méndez Montesinos provides a brief historical overview of the comic figure of the fool, its relationship to laughter (particularly in the context of the carnivalesque), and its social and theatrical roles, beginning in the early modern period. The author cites Erasmus and Shakespeare as examples of early modern authors who developed the figure of the fool; she might also have discussed equally important Spanish writers, such as Cervantes, or the popular tradition of performed entremeses and teatro breve of early modern Spain in order to provide a firmer foundation for her otherwise sound historical analysis. Méndez Montesinos’s approach to laughter is largely Bakhtinian, although she also includes references to Henri Bergson, Jacques LeGoff, Thomas Hobbes, Sigmund Freud, and others. This relatively schematic overview of the history of theories of laughter summarizes well-known scholarship on the topic and highlights an important connection between the fool’s marginalized perspective and the figure’s ability to express or reveal truths through comic illusion, in keeping with Aritsotle’s conception of eutrapelia.
Throughout this chapter, Méndez Montesinos relies on a distinction between “artificial” and “natural” fools in an early modern context, claiming that the ruling classes allowed social transgression by fools because they considered their mockery to be unintentional, or because they accepted fools as mentally and/or physically “inferior” beings. While this discussion seems overly essentialist at times, it does serve to articulate the importance of the fool’s freedom to speak, and often to speak the truth, which characterizes this stock type from its earliest appearances on the comic stage. Méndez Montesinos then defines various types [End Page 102] of comedy, largely following the six points of Maurice Charney’s “metaphysics” of comedy: 1) the discontinuous, 2) the accidental, 3) the autonomous, 4) the self-conscious, 5) the histrionic, and 6) the ironic. The chapter ends with this list, where this reader would have appreciated a more extensive discussion relating this helpful scheme to the specific contexts to be discussed in the book.
Chapter 2 focuses on Lope de Rueda as the source of the comic progression that ultimately culminates in Cantinflas and...