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Eric Bentley explored the "cathartic value of violent images" in farce at his fifth Charles Ellot Norton Lecture last night.
Disagreeing with Plato's view that emotional drama overly excites the audience, Bentley argued that the image of a violent or immoral act should not be equated with its actual performance. By laughing at a serious situation, the audience achieves "a healthy release of emotion" while still within the laws of society and conscience.
Bentley attacked the modern sanctimonious attitude toward marriage ("the family that prays together, stays together") which attributes the cause of America's "moral crisis" to jokes about adultery. Agreeing with Freud, he said that such jokes offer a safety valve to the "normal desire to destroy the family relationship, to desecrate the hearth."
"In farce, as in dreams, we are permitted the outrage but spared the results." Thus by vicarious adultery committed through a farcical medium, Bentley maintained, marriages are saved because the consequent relief of inhibited desires is not accompanied by guilt-feelings.
Gaiety Hides Disorder
Delving into the dialectics of farce, Bentley stated that it unites wild fantasies with everyday, drab realities. Beneath the surface of gaiety lurks a violent disorder which effects the comic catharsis. Yet "the violence is essential only in the context of gentleness (as in Charlie Chaplin films), only as in the serious performance about the delicate human heart (as in Harpo Marx films)."
Bentley pointed out that by picturing an absurd situation, farce fulfills repressed wishes, although in disguise. "The contrast is between tone and context: the actor threatens murder in a playful tone, but the murderous wishes are true. Farce is a dialogue between aggressiveness and flippancy."
Farce cannot function without this aggressiveness. Bentley stated. He agreed with Freud that innocent jokes do not make us laugh. "We want satire, obscenity, and attack." Thus farce is the only dramatic form in which an actor can lap his mother-in-law with humorous effects.
The joke "slips in on us by surprise before our anxiety and guilt can react." Our fears are allayed, our desires released, and we become elated and powerful, Bentley said. "Humor is an adult device for becoming a child."
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