You're Having a Laugh

Johnny Broadbent and Ruth Everett in  Chekhov in Hell

Johnny Broadbent and Ruth Everett in Chekhov in Hell

Laughing in the theatre is a funny thing. I’ve realised doing this play that quite a few people don’t like doing it. And other people only like doing it. Generally, the play gets a tremendous response and one of the key ways you know it’s getting a tremendous response is that the audience laugh and laugh a lot. On the first night, I began to wonder if the audience would ever stop laughing; some of the younger audiences have actually laughed to distracting lengths and at distracting volumes. Ultimately, that’s the least of an audience’s vices but I have sometimes wondered if the laughter isn’t prompted by some determination not to let the play move into the somewhat darker areas that it finds in the final quarter.

And then there are the laughter-haters. Not often but occasionally, we’ve had the response ‘well I suppose it’s very funny...’ as if this is the least of all virtues, something cheaply won. Actually making an audience laugh is very hard; making a whole audience laugh requires skill and precision and all of the virtues of good theatre - a sense of pace, volume, situation, character, language, feeling... But some audiences distrust laughter, think it’s unworthy of them and of art.

My feeling with this play is that of course it’s funny. The basic conceit - Anton Chekhov awaking from his hospital bed after a 100-year coma - is funny; it’s absurd; it’s silly. If I tried to stack on top of it a deep psychological tragedy, the audience’s response, quite rightl, would be ‘oh come on’. The play works through laughter, through satire, through sensing the absurd in ordinary situations. It reframes the everyday and finds the insanity of it. And that’s funny.

The problem for some audiences is that they don’t like to laugh if they don’t know why they’re laughing. And it’s not always immediately clear why something is funny; fundamentally the play does not advertise its world view, its improving message, so where is the laughter? What’s it for? This seems to unsettle some audiences and stop them laughing.

Some have wondered where the positivity is in the play. It’s there. It’s in the funny. Because if we can laugh at the horrors of the world, we are a step on the way to imagining a different world, with different priorities, different ways of being with each other.

Of course, I say all this because I’m a bit of a laughter whore. I love the sound of laughter in an audience of one of my plays. I sit in the audience mentally flicking forward to when the next big laugh is due. I get tense before a big joke, hoping it’ll be delivered smoothly and smartly, wanting that big shout of laughter, that convulsion that suggests an audience caught unawares by the joke, giving themselves to it. I do have to remind myself that laughter isn’t the only response I wrote the play for. There are some rich jokes and some dislocatingly odd jokes and a few deliberately silly jokes (there’s a scene quite near the end, ‘The Search for Chemical Weapons’, which has some of the dumbest jokes, but it’s there to flush out the laughter, to give people some fun before the laughter starts getting hurting and painful). The shape of the play is firm and takes us through laughter to something sadder and bleaker.

The persistence of laughter, to me, is a moment of the comic sublime. For Kant and others the sublime is that odd experience of simultaneous or almost simultaneous horror and pleasure at seeing something like a vast and raging sea, or contemplating the enormity of the universe. Kant says the displeasure comes from the vast disparity of scale or power between us and the thing we’re experiencing. We feel crushed, negligible, infinitesimally insignificant, wholly powerless. But this is only the failure of our imaginations to take in the experience as an experience. Then our rational mind comes in to affirm that even though the site may appear infinite, all objects must be  the movement through pain to affirm our ability to see it as something other than it sees itself. To say, this hurts but still, even so, I won’t be beaten by it.

So laughter is part of the play not some kind of decoration or distraction. It’s also part of the play’s idea structure. Laughter is part of its argument (if it has, as such, an argument). The funny is at least part of the point.