“Life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.” – Horace Walpole
When taken to extremes, melodramas and farces turn topsy-turvy and elicit the opposite effect of their original intent – overdone melodramas provoke laughter instead of tears; overdone farces can provoke palatable discomfort and sometimes fear.
For example, check out the trailer for the overly melodramatic movie Reefer Madness. Although it conforms to Laurence Perrine’s description of melodrama as attempting “to arouse feelings of fear and pity,” it does so through “cruder means” by employing “oversimplified plots” and “flat characterization.” In other words, everything is overdone, suspension of disbelief shattered, so the audience ends up laughing instead of trembling.
Farces are by definition exaggerated comedy, and given the inherent cruelty in comedy, it’s not surprising that when taken to the extreme, farces can create discomfort. Take, David Lynch’s 1977 movie Eraserhead, for example. Here’s an excerpt from Dennis Lim’s David Lynch: A Man from Another Place in which he describes a few scenes from the movie:
The first section of the movie with extended dialogue is also when most audiences realize they are watching a comedy of sorts. Lynch turns a staple of sitcom humor — the meet-the-parents dinner – into an ominous minefield of absurdist non sequiters, a deadpan farce [my emphasis] of misbehaving bodies. On the couch next to Henry [the protagonist], Mary [Henry’s consort] suffers an epileptic fit, which Mrs. X assuages by grabbing her daughter’s jaw and brushing her hair. Meanwhile, a litter of puppies nurse hungrily on their mother. Mr. X rants about the woes of being a plumber (“People think pipes grow in their homes!”), standing before an enormous duct that could have sprung from the ground. In the kitchen, Mrs. X tosses the salad with the help of catatonic Grandma X’s lifeless limbs. When Henry cuts into the squab-like creature that Mr. X has roasted for dinner, viscous blood spills from its cavity and its thighs wag up and down, sending Mrs. X into a drooling erotic trance. Then comes the bombshell, “there’s a baby,” at which point Henry gets a nosebleed.
Here’s a clip from the dinner in which someone has spliced in brief scenes of Robert De Niro, which, obviously, weren’t in the original. I don’t think they’re too distracting, though.
Compare the tone of that scene to this description of the English granddaddy of all farces, the puppet show Punch and Judy, The quote comes from a paper written by Ian Horswill of Northwestern University entitled “Punch and Judy AI Playset: A Generative Farce Manifesto Or: The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Predicate Calculus.”
In Collier’s historical script (Collier and Cruikshank 2006), Mr. Punch successively beats to death his friend’s dog, his own baby, his own wife, his horse, the doctor who tries to treat him after he’s injured by the horse, a policeman (beaten but not killed), and the Devil himself. When his wife confronts him over the murder of his own child, Mr. Punch, who wants to have sex with her, replies that she’ll soon have another one.
Thus, extreme farce shares with tragedy irrationality and darkness but lacks any positive cathartic effects.
I think most would agree that Donald Trump’s campaign has denigrated into a farce. I’ll spare you an encyclopedic rehash of voluminous blunders that have characterized the campaign and merely offer that yesterday morning Emily Nussbaum wondered on Twitter what outrage Trump might come up during the day. She posited his assaulting a baby or biting a bat’s head off. After the incident in Virginia when Trump had a baby removed from his rally, Nussbaum tweeted this:
Perhaps I’m getting soft in my old age, but I’m starting to feel pity for Trump – pathos in the old Greek sense of the term. Sure, he’s a terrible human being with skin as thin as Zig Zag Ultra Thin Cigarette Rolling Papers, but imagine the insecurities he must harbor. Imagine being such a hemophiliac of rage, every little nick resulting in arterial spurting; imagine being your own worst enemy. Imagine how unhappy he must be. Think Michael Henchard of The Mayor of Casterbridge or Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man – but without the self-awareness.
Let’s hope for his own sake – and for our own — that he loses the election.