I’ll admit right out front that my problem might have more to do with my inadequacies than with the nature of literary genre, but try as I might, I keep getting the same results. When I teach comedy, my lessons just don’t turn out as well.
Mind you, I manage to fill the hours. We talk about the stagecraft of putting together a visual gag and the subject matter that a fifth-century Athenian or a sixteenth-century Londoner or a seventeenth-century Parisian might find amusing. We discuss the history of theories of comedy, from Aristotle to Sigmund Freud. And Heaven knows that we spend more time parsing individual lines, digging into the setup-and-punchline structure of verbal humor. And we read lots of scenes out loud. But if I’m honest, I still don’t manage to teach comedy as a real conversation partner, in a way that I would call “great books” teaching.
I realize that the “GB” phrase is going to turn some folks off right out of the gate, but let me clarify: when I teach a text as a great book I do not necessarily to make it part of a closed “canon” or to say that it’s part of some exclusive club that can only let in so many books per century. It is, however, to teach a text not first and foremost as an inert object of study but as a tutor in question-asking, to submit myself and my students to the text itself and assume that it’s going places intellectually that I wouldn’t have imagined unless I entered into a particular sort of relationship to the text. So, to illustrate with a few texts I’ve taught recently, when I teach the Beowulf, although the historical-context questions aren’t off the table, I spend more time (at a Christian college, mind you) exploring the text’s sophisticated wrestling with the warrior ethos and letting that tension illuminate our modern engagement with capitalism and militarism and psychological relativism and such. And when I teach Goethe’s Faust, we hardly have time to contemplate the biography of Goethe because we’re too busy grappling with the nature of evil, the character of divine grace, the notion that love might actually be the true nature of the divine, and so on. The same goes for my lessons on King Lear and Dante’s Comedy and all sorts of texts that I’d consider (broadly and not according-to-Hoyle) epic and tragic. With a finite span of time to spend with my students and these texts, enjoying the intellectual conversation with the work just seems more responsible than holding things at arm’s length and talking about the work.
When I compare those lessons to the sessions I spend on Aristophanes and Plautus and Moliere (just to name three I’ve taught recently, though I’ve taught a fair bit of English comedy as well), I can’t deny that I simply do things differently. We talk about how audiences might have received certain bits and whether they’d translate well into twenty-first-century productions. We talk about historical contexts, whether the play’s job was to sell tickets or to celebrate gods’ festivals. We talk about all sorts of things, but I just can’t figure out how to engage Tartuffe as a wise friend who helps a reader to see things beyond the obvious. Where I can walk with my students alongside Plato or Dostoevsky or Euripides, wrestling with an unsettling vision of reality, with Lysistrata I just can’t find the bits that shake the earth.
My suspicion is that comedy that did such things would at some point stop being comedy. After all, the way to get laughs is not to challenge the audience’s basic assumptions but to point up ways in which what they expected wins out in the end, whether in a satirical mode (in which the object of satire fails to live up to common decency) or a romantic comedy (in which obstacles to life-as-we-all-know-it-should-be give way to the happy ending). I don’t begrudge comedy its commonplaces, but I do have a devil of a time teaching commonplaces. So ultimately, I don’t. Instead of taking on a text as a conversation partner, as an equal, the text ends up on the exam table, a cadaver that we dissect but which we don’t trouble with our real, human questions. Do I expect too much of a text when I want that from every book I teach? Perhaps, but I also know that, with only fifteen weeks available to me in every semester, I always feel vaguely guilty about spending too big a hunk of that time on texts that don’t really talk back to us.
So there’s where I stand in this halting inquiry. My hunch is that a good literature class, whether rooted in a region (British literature before 1700) or genre (Introduction to Drama), should probably do something with comedy. I just don’t have the intellectual chops right now to make comic works punch as hard as tragic, epic, novelistic, and dialogic works. And as you might suspect, I’m happy to have our good readers tutor me in such things.