Comedy of Menace
Absurdism: doctrine that we live in an irrational universe
The term “comedy of menace” comes from the subtitle of one of David Campton’s plays, The Lunatic View: A Comedy of Menace. A reviewer picked up on it and used it when writing about certain playwrights.
A ‘comedy’ is a humorous play with elements of surprise, incongruity (things that don’t fit logically together), conflict, & repetitiveness that often leads the audience to expect one thing will happen, then delivers the opposite to amuse and make the audience laugh.
Comedy and tragedy are interwoven in The Caretaker. There are elements of humour at the beginning of the play, but as it progresses these turn towards tragedy.
Both Davies and Mick have comic elements to their characters, with Aston as the exception.
The comedy from Davies is unintentional. Through his characterisation of Davies Pinter introduces a visual comedic element, for example when Davies is chased around the room with no trousers on at the start of Act II, or when he tries on the shoes or smoking jacket. There is also a comedic element in Davies style of speaking. He is always very earnest and thinks a lot of himself. He doesn’t always follow what people are saying which leads to comic responses.
As the comedy disappears from The Caretaker, the mood of the play changes and the characters concentrate on their own survival.
Mick’s humour depends largely on the actor cast and their interpretation of the character. Mick baits Davies; it’s a performance which can sometimes be funny for example the monologues.
Violence and Menace/The Outsider
Menace (a threat or the act of threatening)
A ‘menace’ is something which threatens to cause harm, evil or injury; which doesn’t seem like a logical idea to fit with comedy.
Violence and menace are mostly below the surface of the play. Mick moves swiftly and silently and is an unpredictable character.
Davies threatens Mick’s relationship with his brother, and responds to his fear of authority by threatening violence
Aston is more of a victim of violence, his description of his treatment in hospital shows that the world beyond the room is now a threatening place.
But, in certain plays (like those by Campton & Harold Pinter, for example), it is quite possible for a playwright to create both humor and menace in the same play and even at the same time in the play (for instance, a character might joke about a bad situation he finds himself in, while he prepares a gun to deal with his situation – that is an example from one of the comedies of menace). The playwright’s objective in mixing comedy & the threat of menace is to produce certain effects (like set up dramatic tension or make the audience think a character is a weasel because they are acting nice or funny, but planning to do something evil) or to convey certain social or political ideas (for ex., don’t trust lawyers or politicians) to the audience.
Comedy of menace is a term used to describe the plays of David Campton, Nigel Dennis, N. F. Simpson, and Harold Pinter by drama critic Irving Wardle, borrowed from the subtitle of Campton’s play The Lunatic View: A Comedy of Menace, in reviewing Pinter’s and Campton’s plays in Encore in 1958. (Campton’s subtitle Comedy of Menace is a jocular play-on-words derived from comedy of manners—menace being manners pronounced with somewhat of a Judeo-English accent.)
After Wardle’s retraction of comedy of menace as he had applied it to Pinter’s writing, Pinter himself also occasionally disavowed it and questioned its relevance to his work (as he also did with his own offhand but apt statement that his plays are about “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet”). For example, in December 1971, in his interview with Pinter about Old Times, Mel Gussow recalled that “After The Homecoming [Pinter] said that [he] ‘couldn’t any longer stay in the room with this bunch of people who opened doors and came in and went out.
“ASTON comes in. He closes the door, moves into the room and faces MICK. They look at each other. Both are smiling, faintly.
MICK: (beginning to speak to ASTON). Look … Uh…
He stops, goes to the door and exits. ASTON leaves the door open, crosses behind DAVIES, sees the broken Buddha, and looks at the pieces for a moment. He then goes to his bed, takes off his overcoat, sits, takes the screwdriver and plug and pokes the plug.”
Davies: You can take it from me I’m clean. I keep myself up. That’s why I left my wife. Fortnight after I married her, no, not so much as that, no more than a week, I took the lid off a saucepan, you know what was in it? A pile of her underclothing, unwashed. The pan for vegetables, (Act I)
Davies: They (women) have sais same thing to me. Women? There’s many a time they’ve come up to me and asked me more or less the same question. (Act I)
Aston: They weren’t hallucinations, they… I used to get the feeling I could see things… very clearly… everything… was so clear… everything used… everything used to get very quiet… all this… quiet… and… this clear sight… it was… but maybe I was wrong. (Act II)
Once asked what his plays are about, Pinter lobbed back a phrase “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet”, which he regrets has been taken seriously and applied in popular criticism:
“Once many years ago, I found myself engaged uneasily in a public discussion on theatre. Someone asked me what was my work ‘about’. I replied with no thought at all and merely to frustrate this line of enquiry: ‘the weasel under the cocktail cabinet’. This was a great mistake. Over the years I have seen that remark quoted in a number of learned columns. It has now seemingly acquired a profound significance, and is seen to be a highly relevant and meaningful observation about my own work. But for me the remark meant precisely nothing.”
“The Weasel Under the Cocktail Cabinet”
“The thing referred to is likely not reducible to a singel statement but will more probably involve a range of possible meanings and interpretations” — Foster (98)
While “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet” was famously used to answer the question “what are your plays about?” (Harold Pinter) I feel the same phrase aptly answers the question “What does this symbolize?” It’s whatever you want. Foster points out that if a symbol means only one thing, it is allegory rather than symbolism. Thus symbols, by their nature, are beholden to the reader’s interpretation. Any meaning you can think of is completely valid, provided it is meaningful. i.e has some sort of reason behind it. As Foster, and Dr. Jerz both frequently say, there is no big dusty book of literary meanings. If you want, and can find reason behind it, Moby Dick, Frankenstein’s monster, excalibur, the red ‘A’, that radio the proffessor made out of coconuts on Giligan’s island and the football that Lucy prevents Charlie Brown from ever kicking all represent the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.
Actually, the scarlet letter obviously represents the ferret under the sofa.