The definition of comedy has been contested for many years, as it is notoriously difficult to determine. Eric Weitz notes that “a general intention to elicit laughter or amusement remains the signature element of what we consider a comic text.” Laughter is notably the reaction most associated with comedy. We often laugh when we find something humorous. However, the definition of humour is just as problematic as that of comedy, as “no two people will always agree on what constitutes ‘successful’ humour.” Eric Weitz suggests that we “note the conditions generally present when someone does find something funny. This allows us to sketch a general image of what [he terms] the ‘humour transaction’.”
While a certain degree of humour can be achieved in the text alone, L. J. Potts emphasises the importance of tone, expression, and gesture when telling a comic story and points out that “the comic writer has to put his work into a form which will make it as difficult as possible for anyone to spoil it in the reading.” In his “Laughter,” Henri Bergson studies laughter, particularly laughter derived from comedy and emphasises that “the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human... You may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression” Clearly our connection to our own humanity can be said to be a source of humour. This essay will aim to demonstrate how, through an examination of Bergson’s “Laughter” and using examples from Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular and Lady Gregory’s Spreading the News, humour is derived from a deviation from what is considered ‘human’ and is heavily dependent on performance skills. This will point the way toward a more astute comic embodiment of dramatic text.
In “Laughter,” Bergson discusses the concept of humour as deriving from the association of the human body with mechanisation. He points out that “the attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine.” This indicates that performance is necessary for us to find humour in a comic text. Bergson discusses two particular ways in which we find the deviation from what we consider human to be humorous: repetition and mechanical movement.
Bergson points out that “life should never repeat itself. Wherever there is repetition or complete similarity, we always suspect some mechanism at work behind the living.” It is not “natural” for repetition to occur. This can be seen in Absurd Person Singular when Sidney and Jane walk into a darkened room and Marion says “boo.” Sidney and Jane’s reaction demonstrates the comedy that can be found in repetition.
Sidney: Well, you had us fooled. They had us fooled there, didn’t they?
Jane: Yes, they had us fooled.
As repetition is not a natural occurrence, Sidney and Jane’s interaction appears not to be genuine and the incongruity between what they are saying and what they actually mean...