On Unmixed Comedy

I’m just coming home now from the closing night of the revival of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore at the Metropolitan Opera. It is, to use a cliche: a delight. To use another, it left me with a spring in my step walking back home. How could this even be possible, to fall so head-over-heels for something so innocent and docile? — by intermission, I wasn’t convinced. The moment of truth came in the second act. The tenor is wine-drunk on what he thinks is a powerful love potion, hoping to woo the capricious soprano. The women of the town have just learned that the tenor’s rich uncle has died. Of course, they swarm, and the tenor is delighted. The love potion is just as magical as he knew it would be. Watching all this (and singing through it) is the soprano, who realizes she loves him with her entire heart —if she’d only thought of that a few hours ago!

Thanks to her belatedness, we have a farce. Not just a farce, as Donizetti’s music makes clear, but one without a bad-natured or shadowy moment. I don’t know enough about Donizetti or opera or singers to comment on anything other than the quality of experience, but that in and of itself is reason enough to write. The soprano of course finds a way to declare her love back to the tenor, the baritone is dispatched, and the chorus celebrates how happy and easy life is. As the score bounces happily along, you have nothing to do but sit back and watch a happy ending. What else could you want?

Not the cast I saw but you get the point.

This is the world of unmixed comedy, and it’s a world that will continue to delight for as long as we can perform. It’s never all that funny, and yet it will provoke genuine feelings of happiness. If laughter is a kind of evasion of joy through release, unmixed comedy prevents that same release, instead forcing you to bottle up your happiness for the characters until it leaves you feeling light in the head. Of course, a wisened audience knows that unmixed comedy is a lie. There are no stories in reality that have such an all-knowing ease. The situation of real life is profoundly uneasy. Yet one does not feel naive in the happiness that comes from unmixed comedy. It is rather an ascension to a higher form of innocence: you watch a world of true happiness and love and feel daemonic, almost inhuman. You don’t ever really want to live in that world, but observing it from our own shadows has the uncanny feeling of a revelation of truth. The world is not an unmixed comedy, but watching a good one will have you believing it just might be possible, on the other side of the proscenium.

In my onion, the greatest unmixed comedy is As You Like It. Rosalind, our heroic cast-out princess, escapes the dreadful melodrama she could be a part of in her palace and goes to live in the forest of Arden, a world of higher innocence. The whole cast of stock characters come to Arden seeking to kill her and her hunky soon-to-be-husband Orlando flat dead. Only they give up their motives and find happiness having sex and singing songs at a pagan wedding with the goddess Hymen. Rosalind ends the play with the only Epilogue Shakespeare wrote for a heroine, with a direct address from the actor, a young pre-pubescent boy.

If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that 
pleas’d me, complexions that lik’d me, and breaths that I defied
not; and, I am sure, as many as have good beards, or good faces, 
or sweet breaths, will, for my kind offer, when I make curtsy, 
bid me farewell.

This mild passage ends Shakespeare’s exaltation at the banquet of life on a subtly homoerotic note, and reminds me delightfully of the very gay audience of rush ticket buyers at the Metropolitan Opera tonight. What could be more gay than seeing L’Elisir d’Amore on a Saturday night? But just because the people doing it are queer, does that make it a queer experience? In 2023, I think so. I got so damn happy watching some soprano and a tenor conquer their baritone, and I think the real reason why is because at heart, I’m a sparkly fairy who wants to believe in a world where everyone can be gay by singing operatically about their lives while a huge orchestra plays. It warms my little gay heart to see unmixed comedy, especially as a sonically gorgeous opera, and I think it deserves recognition as a profound way to trick me into almost skipping down the street after watching a trifle from 1832. It’s a pageant from another land, where wealth is the expectation, but I saw it for $25 and an internet connection. I will never feel morally unmixed stealing joy for myself. I am, after all, stealing the joy. But there’s a cost for everything, and unmixed comedy is another way to make a kind offer in the dark, even as I have to bid it farewell, a spring in my step as I walk into the wind and the rain.


For Viewing: Robert Askins on Hand to God

Hand to God just opened in a terrific new production at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. There is a review forthcoming (which will probably be my longest theatre review yet), but in the meantime, here is an interesting episode of Theater Talk in which the author Robert Askins talks about the play, along with director Moritz von Stuelpnagel and star of the original company Stephen Boyer

Review: “Hedda Gabler” at the Cutting Ball Theatre

“Hedda Gabler will be 75 minutes long with no intermission” says the program handed out to audience members before the show begins. What? How on earth can someone transform Ibsen’s 2-and-a-half-hour masterpiece of manners into a taught one act piece? Well, judging by the Cutting Ball’s new production, the answer is: not very effectively, though you can’t fault it for lack of trying. Continue reading “Review: “Hedda Gabler” at the Cutting Ball Theatre”

Thoughts On: Movie Musicals

A few weeks ago, it was reported that Wicked was officially coming to theaters in 2019, with Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours) set to direct. For many fans of the show, this was exciting news, with the movie having been teased for years. The musical movie itself appears to be having a bit of a renaissance, with Into the Woods and Annie being recent examples and about a dozen more in the pipeline, including adaptations of Beauty and the Beast, Miss Saigon, In the Heights, and West Side Story (directed by Steven Spielberg with a new screenplay by Tony Kushner). All these new movies may be great news for the vitality of musical theatre, but I remain unconvinced that modern movie musicals ever actually work artistically. Continue reading “Thoughts On: Movie Musicals”

Read This: Hangmen by Martin McDonagh

Martin McDonagh is a master of the morbid farce. In his world, a slammed door can kill you, the vengeful lover is never ultimately harmless, and victims, er, characters don’t slip on banana peels so much as they do on blood and guts. But the audience is usually laughing all the way to the end, leaving the heavier moments of the play to stew in playgoers minds long after they go home. Which is why it is surprising to report that McDonagh’s new play Hangmen actually becomes rather heavy before it ends, but is no less finely wrought than his emotionally detached work that readers may be accustomed to. Continue reading “Read This: Hangmen by Martin McDonagh”