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Black Comedy Essay

Black Comedy, as defined within both an Aristotelian-cathartic model and through a Freudian psychological perspective, aims to allow its audience to bypass the mind’s censor and to allow release of otherwise socially impermissible emotions on issues that are of a dark or macabre nature. It is a form of theatre that transforms illicit and taboo subject matter into an acrid, yet humorous performance piece, thus challenging and confronting an audience and also making them laugh.

Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore is hysterically funny and deeply tragic at once, serving as a satirical dissection of terrorism, albeit through dark and shocking theatrical means. In addition, Neil LaBute’s The Shape of things is not overtly comic but rather the idea of an art major shaping a person as an object is an absurd one, confronting the audience through the humiliation and subsequent suffering of the protagonist. The plays studied deal with a paradox; how can the subject of death, violence to humans or animals, sexual perversion, social dysfunction and sexual dysfunction possibly be comic?

Black Comedy deals with “what is often uncomfortable or supressed,” and the subsequent release of that suppressed material is what gives rise to laughter. The Lieutenant of Inishmore seeks to test the limits of theatricality, and to push the boundaries of what can be shown on stage thereby continually and consistently challenging the moral, social, political and cultural norms of the audience, and at the same time making them laugh. The play delves into the violent and dark side of life, exploring both cruelty and comedy whereby Mcdonagh intends to shock the audience through the raw presentation of gruesome and bloody violence.

McDonagh uses explicit cruelty to expose the pointlessness of the terrorism he is criticising. He challenges the absurdity of the Irish terrorist movement. “So all this terror has been for absolutely nothing. ” McDonagh parodies Irish terrorism by exploring the idea that what masquerades as high-minded idealism is in fact driven by such absurd motivations as an obsessive love of cats, and thus our beliefs about the culture of the terrorist mindset are undercut through such bathos. The more gory and outrageous the dramatic action the more forcefully McDonagh makes his points about mindless barbarity.

The objectification of people into corpses echoes a Freudian idea on the psychological causes of comedy, and this darkly humorous theatrical metaphor was realised to telling effect in our class’ performances of several scenes in the play. My group performed Padraic’s first scene where he is seen torturing the hapless victim James who “hangs upside down from the ceiling, his feet bare and bloody. ” The extreme violence is taken to such a ludicrous extent that it stretches credibility, and is made to juxtapose absurdly with the dialogue and idealistic sentiments of the characters.

In the rehearsal process it became evident that in order to challenge and confront the audience about the rational behind terrorist violence, it was necessary to give Padraic the depth he needed by playing him both realistically, but also larger than life, in a slight farcical parody of himself. Padraic is merely reactive; having no awareness of the mindlessness of his actions – for our audience this lack of insight was simultaneously hysterically funny and also tragically sad.

The language of James was frequented with irony and litotes, typical of the Irish sense of humour, in our workshops we emphasised his speech patterns and phrasing because, much like the characters of Donny and Davey, the character’s language so perfectly expressed the humour of the ideas and ironies in the play. Lighting that foregrounded a limited portion of the stage in limelight furthered the notion of subjectivity and lack of perspective of the terrorists.

In contrast, LaBute’s The Shape of Things is not overtly funny, addressing the darker side of human nature, in particular the ways in which humans can manipulate one another. The play’s premise rests on a single idea: what if an artist’s sculpture was a human being? In this way the humour arises from the broader situation itself, rather than from any of the lines that the character’s say. There are some witty interchanges between Adam and Evelyn and between Phillip and Adam, but in general this is not a comedy, only the actors can make the naturalism of the script ironic or comedic.

However, this comedy is very important in ensuring that the taboo subject matter, whilst challenging and confronting an audience, does not overstep the mark becoming essentially cruel rather than comic or ironic. Evelyn’s breaking of boundaries and willingness to do so to make an artistic point is shown in Scene One of the play, where she literally oversteps the rope that cordons the viewer off from the art object that she seeks to vandalise evoking Adam’s response: “you stepped over the line. In this way the play explores the limits to which an individual has freedom to act as they wish, and at what point their actions ultimately become unethical, if not harmful to others.

Our group explored Scene Seven between Phillip and Adam on the lawn, demonstrating the kind of teasing between males that is a curious mixture of the cruel and the comic. After extensive dialogue work, Phillip’s attacks could be seen as a kind of swordplay or fencing with Adam. Here words are used as weapons, and Adam attempts to negotiate his way through his obligations to both his best friends and also supporting the commitment he has made to Evelyn.

To highlight this, we staged the dialogue between Phillip and Adam downstage, while Evelyn stood practicing excerpts of her speech in the background. We were able to elicit considerable humour from the script, contrasting this with reflecting the selfishness and ultimate cruelty of LaBute’s central characters. Black Comedy, as defined within both an Aristotelian-cathartic model and through a Freudian psychological perspective, aims to allow its audience to bypass the mind’s censor and to allow release of otherwise socially impermissible emotions on issues that are of a dark or macabre nature.

Black Comedy deals with “what is often uncomfortable or supressed,” and the subsequent release of that suppressed material is what gives rise to laughter. Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Neil LaBute’s The Shape of things both seek to test the limits of theatricality, and to push the boundaries of what can be shown on stage thereby continually and consistently challenging the moral, social, political and cultural norms of the audience, and at the same time making them laugh.


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