by Brian Quirt
Manchester, 1975. A group of working class men assemble for their
final night school class in Stand-Up Comedy. Theyve been working
for weeks to create routines, guided by an elderly master famed
for his success in the British music hall. Jokes fly back and forth
as they arrive and their teacher offers his last pearls of wisdom
about technique and content. He particularly urges them to pursue
truth: jokes can be simple or complex but, he argues, the ones that
truly ignite an audience are those that speak a truth. There lies
the art. The class, a motley crew of tension and desire and excitement
and ambition and thwarted dreams, then receives an utterly different
lecture from a booking agent in London, who will be assessing their
routines later that night. Hes interested in maximum laughs
and the lowest common denominator. The students are screwed
its clear that the agent and the teacher have diametrically
opposed approaches to audiences, comedy and life. What will the
students do? Please their mentor or the man who might launch their
Later that night, at a local bingo hall, the would-be comedians
present their acts. As they each perform their short routines, we
quickly see who has stuck with the teachers ideals and who
has dumped their prepared gags in favour of Irish jokes, wife jokes,
sex jokes and worse. A pair of brothers who have a ventriloquist
routine suffer the anguish of their set self-combusting as one tries
to stay true and the other simultaneously tries to sell out. Disaster.
Finally, Gethin Price comes out. Weve met him in Act One as
the teachers pet. In punk clothes and with punk attitude he
has mocked the others and consistently demonstrated his superior
wit and delivery. But when he appears, hes in the white face
of a clown. He proceeds to do a brutal and bitter clown turn in
which his character attacks two mannequins dressed as middle class
dupes. The crowd is silent.
The men reassemble to hear the agents verdict. He too is brutal,
dismissing the losers and awarding two men with club try-outs, the
two whose instinct for the basest joke possible won them the most
laughter. He rejects Price altogether, admitting he didnt
get it and didnt want to. The agent leaves, the men battle
each other now that the victors have been named. The teacher is
appalled by the sell-outs, by the truth that their work is rewarded.
At the end of the night, finally alone, Price confronts the teacher,
demanding to know what he thought of his clown scene. The teacher
reluctantly admits that is was brilliant (as indeed it must be in
performance) but hateful. And that comedy can never survive hatred.
Price notes that the teacher has never once laughed in class and
challenges his mentor to defend his beliefs. The play concludes
with the teacher relating his loss of laughter when he visited one
of the German concentration camps at the end of the war, and perhaps
for the first time, reveals that he was in thrall to the scene.
So, in my description, Trevor Griffiths 1975 play Comedians
probably doesnt sound like a barrel of laughs. But it is.
This play is a remarkable achievement and one that has stayed with
me vividly from the moment I first read it almost twenty years ago.
It led me to read all Griffiths plays, to study his work on
stage and for television in detail as a graduate student, and to
include this play among the very very few existing plays on my list
of shows I someday must direct.
It is almost beyond me to articulate every delicious quality of
this text: the fact that the humour is almost completely politically
incorrect yet outrageously funny; that the aspirations of a generation
of working class men are presented in almost novelistic detail and
then thoroughly dismembered; that the working class is elevated
by this play and at the same time relentlessly punctured for being
no more noble and just as contemptuous as the middle or upper class;
that the characters are sketched with a supreme economy and clarity;
that it offers a remarkable range of roles (granted, for white men)
within this subculture; that that subculture is truly a grim yet
beautiful (in terms of artistry) commentary on England as a whole;
that the issues of art versus entertainment that plague us so frequently
today are addressed with such passion by these men and by the author
who created them; that social action through art is offered as a
possibility while the enormous opposition to it is both satirized
and acknowledged for the truths that is holds; that generations
fight the fight and there is no winner.
Griffiths also offers perhaps the best straight-man role ever
created. The one non-white character is a south-asian man who wanders
into Act One looking for another night school class. He returns
at the end of the play, tells his one joke and departs. It is a
brilliant moment: a coda to the comedy of the play, but also to
everything the play has said about race and class.
Comedians sets demands that few of Griffiths
own plays measure up to; this is good. Somewhere in my head, I think
I seek out work, both as a dramaturg in my position at Factory and
as artistic director of my own company, that meets or is capable
of meeting Griffiths work in Comedians. I
know that this is a useful, good and effective standard because
few of the plays I work on meet it. It is the hoop that cannot easily
be reached. It sets for me a standard in construction, in political
content, in social commentary, in merging drama with comedy, in
finding the right moment, in tackling and attacking a community
both on stage and in the audience. Although Ive never seen
a production, Nightswimming did a reading of it with Julian Richings
as the teacher and Greg Kramer as Price: It is a hard play to sit
through, but a pleasure to watch. That has long struck me as a supreme
goal. When Ive had the honour to be part of shows that get
close to that mark Jason Shermans Reading Hebron
comes immediately to mind I know that my addiction to creating
theatre is right. At least for me.
Ive been happily and powerfully inspired by many works. Among
them I urge you to take a look at Moss Harts Act One,
Howard Barkers Arguments for a Theatre and
Max Stafford-Clarks Letters to George.
I also urge you to read Comedians
but dont even think about doing it without me.
with permission from Grammelot
1.3 (Summer 2002), a theatre journal published
by Soraya Peerbaye. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Grammelot is available at the Theatre
Centre, at Canadia dell'Arte and at Book City on Bloor St. West,
to top ^
Links of Interest
Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA)
Association for Theatre Research (CATR)
Development Centres of Canada
Guild of Canada
of Canadian Theatres
Atlantic Resource Centre
to top ^