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Farcical Aquatic Ceremony

 

Pablo Yglesias
Brown University

Brown Classical Journal
Volume 1 1984

As Susan Langer says, neither ethics nor common sense need furnish a comedy.[1] But because they are not integral parts does not mean that a comedy cannot be both uproariously funny and crazy, and yet at the same time have at the bottom some form of social criticism or moral import.[2] Monty Python's version of the Arthurian legends, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, fits the above "funny but meaningful" category quite well; that is not the only reason that the film is such a masterpiece of comedy. IT is a face, in every sense of the word. The fact that this particular farce is also meaningful gives it a much stronger punch.

To gain a full idea of what farce is, and what its possibilities are, one must look beyond what the dictionary states (American Heritage Dictionary): "a theatrical composition in which broad improbabilities of plot and characterization are used for humorous effect." One can give a list of its general characteristics, or one can experience farce first-hand. Though the latter is more enjoyable, the former is essential for understanding the inner structure of farce.

First, the farce must of necessity contain a vitality, an impulsiveness, a pace; snail-pace farces are hard to find. With this liveliness often comes a distancing, a situation in which we, the viewers, are shown that what we are seeing is indeed a preposterous performance, not anything even closely akin to reality as we know it, and therefore even more laughable. Part of the previously mentioned "vital force" is the ever-present factor of violence. As Eric Bentley states in his essay Farce, "farce is . . . notorious for its love of violent images" (p. 280). Violence, action, and aggression are often comvined to produce something that will shock the audience-with humorous after-effects, it is hoped (p. 285).

Secondly, as Bentley mentions, farce, and the comedic arts in general, often allow us to see, vicariously act out in our minds, the thus guiltily laugh at, the inaction of socially unsanctioned activities. This welcomed release of tension is what psychoanalysts, and critics, call "catharsis."

On a more specific level, farce combines sight gags, overblown actions, and impossible situations, in order to form "the theatre of the surrealist body" (Bentley, p. 305). All of these comedic tools, Bentley writes, come together to compose what he calls "a farcical state of mind" (p. 288). This is a state in which the audience has been manipulated into a position in which they are able to laugh at even the most insane of things, merely because they have come to expect the absurd, and desire yet even more absurdity.

Finally, and this again according to Bentley, we cannot forget the folk roots of farce. To the medieval folk performance the farce owes three characteristics: a brevity inherited from sort-skit formats, physical buffoonery (from pantomime), and a propensity for borrowing from previous material and popular motifs.

Though farce is committed to all of the above characteristics of form, it is only infrequently committed to a particular characteristic of content: that in which the content has a "meaningful message." The fact that a farce frequently bypasses social commentary, does not mean that social commentary can never occur. The best farce sets up a precarious balance between form and content, a balance whose instability ensures an ever-present and enjoyable structural tension. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in perhaps a latter-day revival of the old style, complies with all the above characteristics.

Susan Langer's idea that comedy is anything that displays vital force, impulsiveness-that is charged with a "pure sense of life" (but which at the same time maintains a "phychical distance") fits Monty Python like a gauntlet ("The Comic Rhythm," p. 120). The movie never slows down; the vigorously paced lives and the multitude of insane adventures that the famed (and muddled) Knights of the Round Table go through remind one tat the knights' life is a quick and spontaneous one. The pace is also important; without it, the movie would put the viewers into a coma of boredom. Its vitality proves that the movie is worthy of the age-old title of "comedy" and is also successful as an almost vaudevillian succession of quick action skits.

The "psychical distance" that both Langer and Bergson, in his essay, mention, is there too; for instance, at various (inopportune and ludicrous) points in the movie, a somewhat lost-looking Medieval History professor and his T. A. enter the scene, criticize the knights for the inaccuracy of the costumes and dialogue, and even get in the way of a thousand-pound combination of knight and horse that comes thundering in and lances the poor professor in the gut. Suddenly, with the intrusion of this twentieth-century figure, we are taken out of the medieval scenario that had caught our attention, and are reminded that what we are seeing is in no way a representation of reality. We are further distanced when the agent of the initial distancing, the professor, is actually killed by the very image whose reality he was challenging. There is a final distancing at the end of the film. The English and French knights, gathered and fully prepared for a last battle over the Grail, are brought back to "reality" when police vans roar across the set and irate bobbies arrest the cast. With a terse, "Right, that's enough!", the constable puts his hand up to the camera lens and smashes it. Bang, back to reality, back to the fact that this is "just a movie," that we are no longer in the world of the Holy Grail.

The gory crudeness of the professor's death should remind the viewer that this is not "High Comedy." Contrary to what Eric Bentley believes, farce is still alive and well in the violent and zany world of Monty Python's medieval England. Like the violence of a swashbuckler or a Three Stooges show, Monty Python affords us the chance to see unmentionable wishes performed in front of us while we keep ourselves safe in the anonymity of the womb-like cinema (Bentley, p. 285). Monty Python makes even gore seem funny (the scene of the Black Knight vs. Arthur, in which, after having been hacked to bits, the every-courageous Black Knight says-his head being the only part left-"Coward! I can still bite your kneecaps off!"). And as Bentley also states, Python's violence is the type in which the "permitted outrage" is perpetrated with the subject's being "spared the consequence" (p. 281)-either through absurd exaggeration or a suppression of actual physical pain. And yet, at the same time that violence is made funny, it is often intended to shock-something that Bentley also cites as an important feature of farce. The movie plays on what we think of as disgusting (e.g., the peasants farming fees for a living) and outrageous (a parody of God in cartoon form), perhaps "shocking" a laugh out of us.

In addition to the shock factor, the numerous sight gags, absurd and profane dialogue, silly puns and insane scenarios "prepare" the Python audience in a way that is akin to Bentley's "farcical state of mind" (p. 288), in which the audience will laugh at anything thrown at them. Where else would you laugh at a vicious killer rabbit on a string or an unrealistic model of a cow that is thrown over a castle wall? And mixed in with all that inanity is a lot of profanity and rib-poking about sacred things (see The Life of Brian for even more), just what Bentley and Freud would cite as a major contribution to its humorous appeal. Our inhibitions allow us to laugh at such otherwise offensive material. Comedy, and farce in particular, seems to be a special domain in which subjects usually labeled taboo by society are able to come out in the open. The more unmentionable the subject, the more we laugh when comedy takes it up; it is our laughter, the fact that we can shrug it off as "only a joke," that makes it safe to disregard the taboo.

Thus Monty Python and the Holy Grail serves as an outlet, a chance to let out aggression, anxiety, prejudice (the incredibly vulgar "Frenchmen" scenes-"You lousy bum-wipers!"), and pent-up energy. But its roots, just as those of more theatrical and established farces, are grounded in folklore, something that Stephenson, in his essay, cites as a very important part of farce (p. 323).

The Arthurian legends are engrained in the popular folklore of England. Countless versions of Arthur and pseudo-mythical ordeals of his beloved knights adorn the halls of Britain's libraries (and the minds of Britain's inhabitants). And at least a quarter of those versions are humorous.

Practical jokes, proverbs, fables, mythical beasts, "a turning of the tables,"-all these elements can be found in the movie (one of the mythical beasts "dies" when the animator suddenly keels over and has an untimely heart attack during the scene).

The legacies of the folk tradition are definitely part of the Python style; shortness, physical buffoonery, and borrowing from the tradition are all there. There is an accumulation of quick dialogue and throwaway lines, and lots of skits strung together in an amazingly complex chain that quickens and quickens, and then culminates in a breathless end: all of these devices Python holds in common with the folktale-based farce. Physical buffoonery runs rampant: the chorus line scene, in which the knights, in the middle of a fight to the death with the poor inhabitants of an unknown castle, suddenly break into a song-and-dance routine that entails banging spoons on helmets for rhythm, playing about with rotten fruit, and some crazy acrobatics done with a tapestry. Borrowing other material is perhaps one of the major factors in the success of this movie. Without the famous Arthurian legend and its characters to spoof, not to mention the great illuminated manuscripts of the middle Ages (several cartoon/animated collage scenes almost exclusively use manuscripts and classical illustrations), Monty Python and the Holy Grail would not have existed. The ludicrous possibilities that the time-revered legends present are great, if not greater than the possibilities for serious fantasy: the pomp and circumstance, the laws of chivalry, the fervor of the religious devotion, the sacredness of the values that Arthur once represented, even the sometimes fanciful adventures that befell the knights.  For the English mind especially, nothing could be more sure of success than a delirious trampeling of England's royal mythic history.

             But even though the movie is a light mockery, even though it is absurd, surreal, overblown, and self-mocking, beneath its muddy (and there is lot of mud in the movie) surface, several interesting observations are made. Monty Python has no reservations about showing the dullness and brutality of serfdom and monarchical rule, the at times useless, absurd and intricate qualities of chivalry and "honor at all costs," and the frailty of ideals and pious aspirations. In a strange way, Monty Python somehow manages to be even more realistic in his obsession with showing medieval life in all its grime and squalor, something that is a departure from the Hollywood fantasy of clean-cut knights and serfs. Superstition does not escape the critical and cynical eye of Python either. The "She's a witch" scene is perhaps on of the funniest and yet most accurate portrayals of how superstition and mob rule and ignorance can condemn someone for such insane reasons as: "She turned; me into a newt, . . . I got better," or "But she's got warts and a witch's nose!" (pointing to a carrot tied to the poor "witch's" face). And even the characters themselves know that what they are saying is preposterous-as many scenes show in which the character says one thing, and then says that he was wrong, and the opposite is true: when the crowd of peasants finally realizes the witnesses who accused the witch of turning him into a newt is not now and never was a newt, the accuser recants and sheepishly says, "I got better!"

Through the use of oxymorons and insane juxtapositions, Monty Python easily conveys criticism of society. When at one point the ever-diligent Arthur slogs his way down the squalid and slimy thoroughfare of one of his cities, a serf sees him and says in awe, "There goes day king!" "'Ow do ye know 'e's da king?" asks another in a typical lower-class accent. "'E's the only one what ain't got shit all over 'im!" is the other's reply. And with the king's image presented in such a light, kingship, and thus the image of chivalry, goes out the window (or over the walls). One only has to hear the obscenely ironic ballad of "Brave Sir Robin" to get a humorous but pointed idea of just how brave some men were in those days. The fact that Sir Robin denies everything that his faithful and observant bard sings about his supposed "acts of bravery" ("So he bravely turned his back and ran / and went and relieved himself in the can") shows how human the knights were. 

Monty Python's cutting wit work is most passionately when it comes to dispelling myths or deflating pretentious and self-righteous readings of history. The fact that the Arthurian legends date back so far does not hinder Monty Python's relevance. The same problems, although with differing intensities, are still present today: despotism and dictatorships are just as numerous as (or more numerous than) they were in King Arthur's time; and chivalry, or so some think, is dead. Poverty and class differences are perhaps even more prevalent today-if not in intensity, then in number. Courtly love has suffered the same fate and chivalry and honor, succumbing to sex in advertising, teenage liberation, and an overall change in moral values. People are also just as egocentric, prejudiced, and stubbornly opinionated as the witch burners were in the movie (perhaps more so, since the technology of communication and travel has mad the world smaller and differing people are exposed more to one another). Monty Python, while poking fun at the optimism and undying faith of the men of yore, observes that our own idealistic visions of the past are just as ludicrous and overblown as those spawned by the minds behind Arthur; moreover, when we compare our lives with those in the movie, we see that nothing has gotten better, but that nothing has gotten much worse, either, except that now the follies and blind beliefs of men and women can have world-wide repercussions. Modern individuals all have their Grail, just as Arthur did in his day. Although faith in the future, in equality, in honor, has to struggle for existence, it can still be found, at least as part of our consciousness. Whether we express amusement because we realize we are guilty of idealizing the past too much, or whether we express amusement because the past is too much like the present, Monty Python has communicated with us.

After sitting through a screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, one is aware of more than just Bergson's theory of automatism (pp. 66-67) o r Freud's tendentious sex/aggression jokes, or Bentley' "farce = violence and inhibition" clause. What lies under the leering and at times grotesque mask of Pythonesque farce is more than just comic method. And this underlying meaning sometimes surfaces in some of the more serious scenes, as well as in the humorous ones. The eerie forest scene before we see "the knights who say ni," or the "Death" or "Mr. Universe" scenes in The Meaning of Life are good examples. But the rarity of these scenes is in no way an indication of the merit of Monty Python. Why is Monty Python and the Holy Grail a cult movie? Why do so many people memorize the lines? Python blends its seething, scathing, energetic wit with just the right amount of social commentary. Just enough to jog the mind and tickle the funnybone. No doubt the forces at work in Monty Python are the same ones that made the theater-goer in the sixteenth or seventeenth century laugh at a farce of his day. Take heart, Bentley: 1927 was not the year that farce died-it is still alive and kicking about in the occasionally lucid minds of Monty Python.

 

Notes

[1] Susan Langer, "The Comic Rhythm," p. 119.

[2] This paper was written as the final essay in a Modes of Thought course called Comedy in Theory and Practice, which was taught in the spring of 1984 by Elli Mylonas. He course centered around major comic works: The Birds, The Acharnians and Lysistrata by Aristophanes, The Mostellaria, and Amphitryo by Plautus, The Second Shepherd's Play, Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor and Twelfth Night, Moliere's Scapin and finally some film comedies of the Marx Brothers, Keaton, Chaplin and Fields. These were studied in conjunction with some of the better known theoretical works on comedy such as Bergson, Freud, and Langer as well as J. Huizinga's Homo Ludens and Paul Radin on the American Indian Trickster myths. In discussion the class attempted to look at the comic theories in the light of the actual works, as well as to understand the role of each comedy in the society in which it was written and performed. As a final assignment, each student had to write a short essay on a comedy or comedian of their choice, and discuss how he/she/it works as comedy. The analysis had to include references to some of the theoretical works as well as comparisons to the comedies studied in class.