Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Fool for Life

It is a truth universally recognized that humor has a lacerating edge.  Truth may at one time have had a cutting edge, but that term has been cooped to signify new approaches in technology, morality, even art and politics.

At the time of this writing, the term "cutting edge" is most apt to send people rushing to the Apple Store for the latest iteration of a smart phone or a tablet.

The lacerating edge of humor can, and often does, draw blood.  The origin of the blood is a specific aspect of human behavior, or perhaps the communal behavior, run amok in its attempts to define itself as serious.

Storytelling reaches back into prehistory, moving its way forward in some direct linkage to the advent of written language and reading.  Before reading was as widespread as it is now, story was presented around campfires or in communal gathering spots or in that special place where the parts of the various personages within the story were assigned to individuals who impersonated them--actors.

A most favored example of a chorus seems to you to be the opening to Shakespeare's Henry V, which you've seen performed by a chorus or many or, in the one you prefer, the appearance of Sir Derek Jacobi, clad in a modern duffel coat, being the entire chorus.  Here is what a chorus should do, set the stage and the backstory, put the audience in the mood for the drama to come:

 O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend 
The brightest heaven of invention, 
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act 
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene! 
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself, 
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels, 
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire 
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all, 
The flat unraised spirits that have dared 
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth 
So great an object: can this cockpit hold 
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram 
Within this wooden O the very casques 
That did affright the air at Agincourt? 
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may 
Attest in little place a million; 
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt, 
On your imaginary forces work. 
Suppose within the girdle of these walls 
Are now confined two mighty monarchies, 
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts 
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder: 
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts; 
Into a thousand parts divide on man, 
And make imaginary puissance; 
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them 
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth; 
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, 
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times, 
Turning the accomplishment of many years 
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply, 
Admit me Chorus to this history; 
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray, 
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play. 


In the heyday of Greek drama, a chorus of individuals would appear to set the scene, imparting backstory and certain relevant hints for the audience, speaking directly to the audience.

One of your favored plays from that time, Aristophanes' The Frogs, has two choruses, one of The Blessed Mystics, and the other of frogs.  But unlike many plays, it does not begin with a setting offered from the chorus.  It does have the beginnings of a trend.  

The Frogs begins with a slave and a master on stage, the slave cracking wise, making fun of everything.

Many years later, in Renaissance drama in England, we had the emergence of the Jester and similar types elsewhere in the world, evolving into your own favorites, the two Shakespearean Fools in, respectively, Twelfth Night, and King Lear.

Many of today's comics are modern incarnations of fools, using wit, physicality, satire, and ridicule to attack in whatever form they might see it The Establishment, which is to say human behavior, possibly even human nature, with all its quirks and crannies. 

The thought has begun to come to you that the fool has taken on the job of the chorus, making fun of him or herself, using wit and ingenuity to keep those of us who read or watch the drama aware of forces necessary to maintain stability as we move our way through the pathways and seasons of life.

In thinking such things, your memories of stories with jesters and fools in them have conspired as well to direct your thoughts to many of the foolish things you've done, seemingly at whim, with no clear hint of why except the awareness of a need for some explosive or revelatory act as a commentary.

The fools of drama who linger in your memory seem well suited to their task.  They are self-sufficient, shrewd observers of their condition in life, neither bound by caste-based codes of behavior, family tradition, or obligation.  They seem to have in common the vision of irony, the ability to see and separate the actual intent from things said or done.

Of all the things available for you in the way of conducting your life's journey, this vision of irony seems most appealing, and the beauty of it is that you have a remarkable role model to observe--yourself.

The first Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth I, had a jester named Tarleton, who held his job, so far as you can tell, for nearly twenty years.
When Tarleton was first approached to audition for the job, and told of its benefits, he was a swineherd.  Tarleton listened carefully to the job description, then replied, "Why ever would a man wish to be a queen's fool when he can tend to his own pigs without supervision?"

This apparently was enough to make him seem suited for the job.

Somewhere among your things is a compact disc version of Twelfth Night in which The Fool is played by the actor Ben Kingsley, who brings a low-key panache to the role of which you are envious.

The professional fool, he or she in the employ of a front rank character, is more or less insulated, by virtue of wit, ability, dexterity, and a degree of tradition.

You, on the other hand, have no such wit or insulation.  And yet the temptation and vision remain.

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