Play by Trevor Griffiths
First performed 1975 in Nottingham, England.
We're the only animal that laughs. The only one. You know when you see the chimpanzees on the PG Tips things snickering, do you know what that is? Fear. They're signalling their terror. We've gotta do some'at about it. (pp 64-65)
Comedians is the story of half a dozen would-be comics attending an evening course for stand-ups in Manchester, England. The action takes place on the final night, when they will each perform a short set at a bingo club, watched by a powerful talent-spotter, Bert Challenor.
The course is taught by Eddie Waters, the sometime "Lancashire Lad", an elderly comedian who grew up in the poverty of north-west England in the early 20th century. He began his career in the Depression, but after the war never reached the real peaks of comedy. Which is how he comes to be teaching a bunch of freaks and wannabes one rainy evening a week in a grotty school room.
His students are:
Mick Connor, a labourer originally from the Republic of Ireland with a routine about Roman Catholicism and the struggles of emigrating to Britain.
Sammy Samuels, a prosperous middle-class Jew who runs his own comedy club.
Phil Murray and Ged Murray, a double-act of brothers, who (like most double acts) don't see eye to eye.
George McBrain from Belfast, a slick gag-slinger with his eyes on the big-time.
And Gethin Price, probably the smartest man there, with brilliant skills at mimicry and mime, but a mouth of obscenities and a nihilistic approach that seeks to deny the audience any comfort or even any laughs.
The central thrust of the play is the conflict between Waters and Price. Waters is a decent man, who came out of poverty and has never forgotten what suffering is, who wants to teach his students something more than merely making people laugh:
A real comedian - that's a daring man. He dares to see what his listeners shy away from, fear to express. And what he sees is a sort of truth, about people, about their situation, about what hurts or terrifies them, about what's hard, above all about what they want. A joke releases the tension, says the unsayable, any joke pretty well. but a true joke, a comedian's joke, has to do more than release tension, it has to liberate the will and the desire, it has to change the situation. (p 20)
Eddie Waters embodies human decency, a tradition of socially responsible comedy and art, reformist politics, education and enlightenment. In contrast, Price is a dark force, with a lot of the destructive power of Antonin Artaud and the Dadaists. He seeks to destroy illusion, to attack falsehood and false hope. When they all watch Price's act, suddenly rewritten at the last minute, Waters can see the brilliant in Price, but still dislikes what he is doing:
No compassion, no truth. You threw it all out, Gethin. Love, care, concern, call it what you like, you junked it over the side. [...] It was ugly. It was drowning in hate. You can't change today into tomorrow on that basis. You forget a thing called ... the truth. (pp 62-63).
In reply Price explains how he was inspired by a famous old clown and then quotes another figure less known for his comic timing, Robert Frost:
It was Grock. Thing I liked was his ... hardness. Not like Chaplin, all coy and covered in kids. This book says he weren't even funny. He was just very truthful, everything he did. (He fiddles in his pocket, takes out some paper, etc. Finds the piece of paper he's looking for, opens it.) I found this in another book. I brought it to show you. Some say the world will end in fire. Some say in ice. From what I've tasted of desire, I hold with those who favour fire, but if I had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate to say that for destruction ice is also great and would suffice.
(He folds the paper, puts it back in his pocket, moves to desk, picks up his bag, rather casually.)
It was all ice out there tonight. I loved it. I felt ... expressed. (pp 65-66)
This is to some extent a debate about means, about aesthetics and the best way to create socially-relevant comedy. It is a conflict between those who believe society can be reformed and those who want to destroy everything and start again. It is clear that even though they have very different views of what comedy can do, both men are idealists - in contrast to many on the course who just want success and prime-time television.
CONNOR: I want to be famous. I want to be rich and famous. What's wrong with that, Mr Waters?
WATERS: More than you want to be good?
MCBRAIN: What's wrong with being all three?
WATERS: Nothing. So long as you're good first. Because you'll never be good later. (pp 20-21)
And Price is dismissive of those who will be picked by the talent-spotter Challenor, get an agent and be on the way to fame and fortune, saying after Bert Challenor's departure:
PRICE (without venom): There goes nothing. [...] What does he know?
WATERS (deliberately): He knows enough, Mr Price. He knows where the door marked In is.
PRICE: Yeah, but do you know where it leads? [...] It leads to a room with a notice on the wall and the notice says 'Kindly ensure that you leave this room as you found it'. A shitheap. (p 59)
These debates about the nature and purpose of comedy might seem abstract, but the play develops with a very real sense of the details of comedy at that time, an era where northern stand-up meant men like Bernard Manning, and where black men's penises, frigid wives and stupid Micks were comic gold.
As the stand-ups run through their routines in front of an indifferent audience of bingo-players, Griffiths lets you see people sell out and throw their ideals away all in the course of a three-minute monologue on stage. Threatened by a lowest common denominator audience that won't laugh at anything but hate, the stand-up routines show people moving from truthful personal material to cheap laughs and the joke about the Pakistani charged with rape.
Despite this, it is a very funny play, laden with the gallows humour of failed lives, as well as a lot of wordplay and genial insults among the comedians. Griffiths's writing style is suitably pithy for the subject matter, capturing his character's verbal and physical fluency in moments like Price smashing a chairleg on his head, carefully placing the halves on a table and saying, "You're gonna crucify the man, do the job properly." (p 54) Even the intellectual debates are thick with sounds-good-in-the-trailer aphorisms like "Hate your audience and you'll end up hating yourself" (p 30) while they are provided with genuinely moving speeches.
The actual stand-up comedy routines vary in quality and offensiveness (and some are very offensive indeed), but Griffiths has pillaged his jokes effectively to match the humour of the time. He also knows enough about the mechanisms of comedy to brilliantly show acts falling to pieces on stage, and even the bad comics are real. Moreover, Price's routine is astonishing in any terms. The only slightly doubtful note is the attempt to inject hope in the ending. After the force of Price's nihilism and Waters's dignified despair, anything other than misery seems inappropriate.
The play was first performed in the Nottingham Playhouse on February 20, 1975, directed by Richard Eyre. The cast was:
In 1979 it was filmed for the BBC's Play for Today slot, with Bill Fraser as Waters, Pryce back as Price, and Richard Eyre again directing; this version is highly rated and includes a brilliant performance from the young Pryce as well as a superb sense of the dinginess of late 1970s Britain; you might wonder how influential this broadcast was to the new generation of alternative comedians about to explode into the limelight.
The play was produced on Broadway from 1976-77, again with Jonathan Pryce; the rest of the cast included Milo O'Shea as Waters, Larry Lamb as McBrain, and John Lithgow as Ged Murray. It has been revived in Britain a number of times, most successfully in the late 1990s with Tim McInnerny (best known as Captain Darling in Blackadder Goes Forth) as Gethin Price.
All quotations are taken from: Trevor Griffiths. Comedians. Faber and Faber. London. 1976.
Additional information on the Broadway cast taken from: Internet Broadway Database. http://www.ibdb.com/ (March 29, 2003), and on the TV play from: TV Cream. http://tv.cream.org/ (March 29, 2003).