I thought (and you probably hoped) that I’d come to the end of my posts about All’s Well That Ends Well, at least until the RSC’s new production opens later this season. However, their current production of Thomas Middleton’s play A Mad World My Masters has taken my mind back to a comment made about All’s Well by the critic, John Francis Hope, when writing for The New Age in 1921. Responding to a staging that year at The Old Vic, he noted
[m]uch of these comic scenes are definitely and distinctly ‘smutty’ a characteristic quality of English humour; Parolles discussing virginity with Helena, for example, although expressing sound common sense in his reaction against ascetic ideals, is definitely playing for the guffaws. We ought to be as shocked and amused as we are by, say George Robey, who embodies our national type of humour, which is Elizabethan not only in parody but in very nature… The scene is not merely illustrative of the frankness with which men and women discussed sexual manners in those days; it is comic, and is intended to be comic, in the grouty, fleshly English fashion.
We chewed over this quite a lot in class, partly, I think, because a number of people didn’t want to admit that it was true. However, when you look at the history of English comedy through the mid and late twentieth century, which all of us could remember, it’s actually hard to deny. George Robey, a comic of the early century music halls, has undoubtedly had his successors, in the clubs and on television, running up to and through the Millennium.
Well, we can argue all we like as to whether or not Hope’s comments are valid in respect of English humour in general and that of All’s Well in particular but I defy anyone to argue that it’s not true of A Mad World My Masters. And if the play’s current adapters, Sean Foley and Phil Porter, were trying to do anything more than get the groundlings laughing then I have to say I missed it.
The play as it was presented in the seventeenth century, interweaves two plots. Dick Follywit plays a series of tricks on his grandfather, Sir Bounteous Progress, in order to try and gain his inheritance and thus fund his riotous living. Sir Bounteous, himself, is a spendthrift and something of a lecher, so, as far as morality goes, there isn’t that much to choose between them.
The subplot deals with Penitent Brothel’s attempts to seduce the wife of the obsessively jealous Master Harebrain, using as a go-between a notorious courtesan whom Harebrain believes to be a pious and Christian woman.
You can see the potential for ‘smutty’ humour.
The current production is clever in one respect; it has shifted the play to the Soho of the 1950s, a period when that area of London had a reputation that equalled anything you would have found in the capital of 1606. Some of the names have been changed to make the point about the nature of the characters more easily apparent to modern audiences and although the directors state that 97% of the text is as Middleton wrote it, only about 75% of his original play survived the knife as they strove to make the meaning accessible to twenty-first century groundlings.
The trouble is that in doing this, as they admit themselves, they have robbed the play of most of its satire and consequently they have left very little that isn’t simply ‘smut’.
It has to be said that I am not noted for my sense of humour, so maybe I was not the best person to be watching this production and passing judgement on it. In general I don’t find ‘smut’ funny, just as I don’t find slapstick funny either. But, as someone in class pointed out, there is ‘smut’ and there is clever ‘smut’ and I suspect, because I don’t know the original text well enough to be sure, that what we’ve lost are all the ‘clever’ bits. What makes me say this is that there was one moment when a point was made that linked to the current banking scandals where I found myself thinking “now that was good – smutty, but witty as well.” I do find wit funny.
Which leaves me with several questions. Is Hope correct when he says that ‘smutty’ comedy is a characteristic of English humour? If so, why don’t I find it funny? Is this a sign of cultural snobbery in me? Are we right in distinguishing different types of smut? And, if that is the case what does or doesn’t make it acceptable? Over to you.