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From Play to Plays: The Folklore of Comedy Harry Levin “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do,” Mark Twain has written. . . Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” This distinction, as Tom Sawyer learns and lives it, is what stands between being ordered to whitewash a fence and allowing other boys—for a consideration—to whitewash that fence. Comparably, though we might not think of Immanuel Kant as a prime exponent of the pleasure principle, his esthetics were based upon the conception of free play, a purely disinter­ ested mode of activity. That autotelic impetus was expressed more emphatically by his poetic disciple, Friedrich Schiller: “Man plays only when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only a complete human being when he plays.” Man is a playful if not an entirely rational animal, by Aristotelian definition the sole animal who laughs. Schiller speaks of Spieltrieb, the play instinct, the urge toward esthetic pleasure, Spiel signifying game and likewise drama in German: Schauspiel (show-game), Trauerspiel (mourning-game or tragedy), Lustspiel (pleasure-game or comedy). We encounter the same double meaning in the English word play, as well as in the French jeu and the Latin ludus. Though there is no parallel in Greek, it is significant that drama was derived from a root which means act, another ambiguity. Play itself primarily connoted movement or exercise, as in swordplay, and has often been connected with music, as in playing an instrument. During recent years there has been psychological small-talk about the games that people play. Game is etymologically related to concepts of participation and communion. Games­ manship has been reduced to one-upmanship, the habit of maHARRY LEVIN, Irving Babbitt Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, has published widely on Renaissance drama. His first article was published in The Criterion in 1934. 130 Harry Levin 131 neuvering for personal advantage by appealing to social conven­ tions. But there are times when one must appeal against les règles du jeu to life itself, as Alice discovers, waking up from nightmare to reality by telling her adversaries of Wonderland, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” or alternately pulling out the tablecloth from the banquet of chessmen in Through the Looking-Glass. In both conclusive situations the game, in each case a different game, is up. It might well seem that Love is a game, poetry is a game, life should become a game (this is the sole hope for our political struggles), and “the revolu­ tion itself is a game,” as the most conscious among the revolu­ tionists said in May. [So Alain Robbe-Grillet was writing in 1970. Nevertheless, he went on to say,] The rapid recovery from their gesture through moral, humanistic, and ultimately religious values has also shown that our society was not yet quite ready to heed such a watchword. . . . Games have formed a conventional part of the epic, to be sure, and the great mock-epic of Rabelais includes a long catalogue in which we recognize such unheroic sports as dice, cards, checkers, marbles, jackstraws, skittles, tiddledy-winks, shuttle­ cock—not to mention French counterparts of London Bridge and morris dances. The Russian critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, has concretely demonstrated the large extent to which the Rabel­ aisian jests and japes were grounded in the popular customs of the Middle Ages. It should be said that Bakhtin, as a Marxist, emphasizes feasts and fairs and folktales at the expense of Renaissance humanism, which found such eloquent and sar­ donic expression in the same hodgepodge. But it is precisely the intermixture of broad buffoonery and speculative fantasy that makes Gargantua and Pantagruel so unique. The basic seriousness of what might have seemed a frivo­ lous subject was quite convincingly established by the Dutch historian, Johan Huizinga (1872-1945), in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, a comparative sketch of civilization viewed sub specie ludi. “Tell me how they played,” says Huizinga in effect, “and I can tell you what they were.” The mechanism he stresses is the agon, as organized through love or war or...


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