When I was a kid, I loved Saturday morning cartoons (of course), and the old Superman series, but most of all I loved the black-and-white films of physical comedians of yore—Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy and W. C. Fields—who came of age during vaudeville and who sometimes struggled to reinvent their careers during the era of TV and talkies.
Every time my parents would let me, I would stay up on Tuesday nights to watch Red Skelton, and I could never get enough of seeing Dick van Dyke tumble over the ottoman. (I also enjoyed Mary Tyler Moore in her tight capri pants, but that’s another story.) Years later, when my grandmother asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I mentioned some ceramic statuettes I had seen of the old comedians, and every year until she passed away she gave me one; now George Burns and the Little Tramp and W.C. and Stan Laurel adorn my bookshelves. Thus a lifelong love of physical comedy was born.
Shakespeare also clearly enjoyed physically adroit actors who could make him laugh, since he kept writing roles for them—the Falstaffs, the Bottoms, the Mistresses Quickly, and the Dromios. As far back as we know, playwrights and producers have savored the art and craft of physical comedy, as well as the accoutrements of their trade: slapsticks, funny masks, priapic phalluses, baggy pants, rubber noses…
Of course, much of this tradition of physical comedy comes to us orally: it exists in the stories and techniques taught and handed down from one generation to the next. “Dying is easy, comedy is hard,” a comic grandmaster supposedly said on his deathbed, and the craft is made all the more difficult if you aren’t lucky enough to find the right teacher.
In The Good Devil (in Spite of Himself), playwrights Mario Baldessari and Tyler Herman were lucky enough (or astute enough) to draw inspiration from one of the greatest comic teachers of all: Molière, who began his career as a performer in provincial commedia dell’arte troupes (rather like the Spittituccis), and who made the transition from sheer physical comedy to more legit forms of playwriting and performance. Commedia—that basest, broadest, and most populist form of fairground entertainment—begat Tartuffe and other masterpieces of written comedy.
The Good Devil (in Spite of Himself)
Closes July 17, 2016
Details and tickets
In The Good Devil, the playwrights take particular aim at the folly of trying to squelch freedom of speech, and the inevitable mayhem that results as creative artists find ways to subvert and circumvent repression. As one of our patrons said to me following a preview, the play is the perfect balm for our troubled times, when many of our freedoms seem to be under siege, particularly ones that involve outsiders, foreign workers, and immigrants (like the Spittituccis), with their challenging ideas and subversive laughter. Sometimes the best retort to demagogues like Donald Trump really is to laugh at them—or, better yet, to put them and their bombastic ways on display for all to see, then cut them down to size through wit, laughter, and the sheer resilience of the human spirit. Then maybe, just for good measure, drag them off to hell.
Tom Prewitt is Artistic and Executive Director of Avant Bard, for which he recently staged Holiday Memories plus the Helen Hayes Award-winning production of Visible Language by Mary Resing. Last season he also directed Othello, which was named one of the year’s best plays by DC Metro Theatre Arts, and his previous credits for the theatre include Six Characters in Search of an Author and No Man’s Land. Prewitt’s abiding interest in education and theatre for social change continues this season through partnerships he helped to develop with HB Woodlawn Secondary School, as well as Arlington-based 296 Project, which works with veterans and their families, using the arts to overcome effects of PTSD and traumatic brain injury. He currently serves on the Board of Governors for theatreWashington/Helen Hayes Awards, and on the Artistic Advisory Panel for the Mead Theatre Lab Program (CulturalDC).