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Can we laugh at 9/11?

October, 2002

We found ways to laugh at the Great Depression. All sorts of comedy came out of that economic disaster; everything from Bugs Bunny to Kaufman and Hart. We found ways to laugh at World War II — I’m surely not the only one who grew up on McHale’s Navy? We’ve found ways to laugh at Korea — look at M*A*S*H. Even Vietnam gets yuks, as Robin Williams can attest.

What about 9/11?

Does theater really provide people with a way of dealing with their joys and sorrows; their emotional needs and desires? Do we in fact come out of a good play having in some way healed? If so, can theater help heal what we have suffered from 9/11? In particular, what about the healing touch of laughter? Does it apply here?

It’s an interesting question, because 9/11 may be a different kind of critter, culturally speaking. How many comedies have been made about Pearl Harbor? From Here to Eternity isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. When was the last time a playwright gave us a smile on the topic of the Black Hole of Calcutta? Or Wounded Knee? Is it that some things just don’t work from a comedic worldview? Or is it that some wounds just don’t heal very well? But look at Casablanca — which started out as a stage play, after all. It’s about broken love and broken hearts against a background of broken nations and world war. Yet, except for approximately four scenes, the rest of the movie is essentially comedic. I know it’s hard to believe, but watch it again and count the laugh lines.

The power of laughter is a healing power. When we watch a good production of The School For Wives, we may well come away feeling a little more kindly toward our own spouses. Sometimes a comedy, such as Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, can cover exactly the same ground as a tragedy, such as his Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The one play explores how a family can grow and heal together; the other, how the same family can be horribly torn to pieces. Is the glass half full or half empty? Even more important, is it the playwright who decides?

We will reject a play when we simply cannot believe, when we cannot accept it as an authentic statement of human experience. We cannot accept John Dryden’s The Siege of Granada anymore. There really hasn’t been a time in the last hundred years or when a hero could declaim, as does his Almanzor, "I am as free as nature first made man, before base laws of servitude began, when wild in woods the noble savage ran!" We just plain aren’t gonna buy it, and nobody has in a long time, which is why this play is inflicted on no one except long-suffering graduate students of dramatic literature.

Could we accept a comedic view, expressed on stage, of 9/11, or Pearl Harbor, or the Black Hole? Could such a view be authentic? Or are these events too black for even the blackest of comedy?

The question is particularly of interest because tragedy so seldom works anymore. To believe in a tragedy, we have to believe in the essential worth of something or someone, and we have to feel it when that something or someone goes down. How many things are there that we really believe in any more? Rulers and heads of state were the long-term staple of tragedy from the Greeks on; it seems we know our rulers and heads of state just a little too well for that to work any more. The modern potentates are mostly businessmen — we just can’t get too worked up over them either. But can we laugh at these folks? You bet we can.

It may sound sacrilegious, and perhaps it is, but I think we need to find a way to laugh when confronted with disaster. With armies at the gates, starvation in the streets, and plague rampant in their homes, Aristophanes and the Greeks still managed to come up with Lysistrata. Can we rise to the occasion? Can we learn again how to heal with a smile?

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