Why do we laugh at tragedies? Probably because they are often funny. It’s sometimes said that tragedies offer scenes of comic relief, away from the pervading atmosphere of horror, but this ought to be treated with suspicion: it’s far too woolly a term and works to keep tragedy and comedy discrete when, in fact, they are often brought into an unsettling unity. But while we should recognize that tragedies are funny, it’s worthwhile thinking about the different ways in which they make us laugh. Yesterday, I watched John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and it got me thinking, again and again, about what constitutes comedy in that play.
Typically, I’ve been beaten to the punch by Pete Kirwan, who notes, rightly, I think, that in the final moments the production elected for the easy and not entirely successful option of laughter. Giovanni, parading Annabella’s bloody heart on a dagger, sang his lines to the tune of Happy Birthday and blew a party whistle, before killing Soranzo and, in turn, meeting his own bloody fate. There’s no doubt that this is an extraordinary display and one which packs comic potential: Giovanni’s entrance represents one gigantic rupture in the decorum of the household banquet, one possible response to this is to laugh. However, laughter demands ethical assessments: if we find Giovanni funny – and plenty of people, egged on by the performances, found much to laugh at – we should also ask what our laughter means. In this instance, as Kirwan observes, the laughter helped obscure the pitiful death of Annabella. The final scene was enjoyed just a little bit too much considering it came at the cost of a multiply-wronged woman unfairly branded as the titular ‘whore’ in the play’s closing line. Perhaps this is part of the point – to force the audience to question whether they ought to laugh, or whether they ought to qualify their laughter – but I suspect not. Annabella’s condemnation of her killer, which in turn heavily ironizes Giovanni’s murderous revenge rampage, was glossed over at the Globe and could give the false impression that Annabella consents to her own murder. Accordingly, the play’s obsession with the ‘honour’ of its leading woman is lost in the broader brushstrokes of the production’s denouement.
But there’s no question that there’s humour in both the scene and the rest of the play. James Garnon has won great acclaim for his bravura performance as Bergetto, the comic suitor accidentally slain on a pitch black stage. I can’t quite echo these plaudits – I find his whole, oops I’ve fallen into the audience shtick, which I sense will quickly become a staple of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a little tiring – but the tonal transition, from brash humour to unexpected horror, really paid off. It also allowed Garnon to take on a different kind of role as he almost instantly reappeared as the sinister Cardinal. It is this wholly unlikable figure who closes the play and here, again, a different kind of laughter might be generated. The Cardinal, reflecting on the destruction, asks that the ‘gold and jewels’ of the dead be confiscated ‘by the canons of the Church’. This line’s a surefire hit and the audience were indeed suitably amused, but I heard belly laughs when I was hoping for hollow laughter. I wanted to hear laughter lacking conviction, laughter which questioned and which acknowledged the horror as well as the humour. Of course, it might not be possible to read laughter in this way – how can I know what the audience were thinking when they laughed? Nonetheless, it seemed to me that the production and the performances, were encouraging a comparatively straightforward laughter. Perhaps unfairly and unrealistically, I’d have liked the production to have caught a sense of laughter exemplified brilliantly and terrifyingly, in a different representation of a Cardinal: Francis Bacon’s famous portrait.