In which one of history’s greatest comedy troupes is firmly anchored in the mud of the Western Front.
Today marks the anniversary of the first broadcast, in 1969, of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, an exercise in farce, irony, absurdity, word-play, and slap-stick which over forty years on remains a benchmark. The world divides neatly into two groups, those who get the Pythons and those whose lives are barren wastelands. Even now in certain circles all one need do is announce, “I wish to register a complaint!” and be perfectly understood. To describe someone as being a Mr. Creosote conjures up vivid pictures in the minds of millions all over the world (I’ve always wondered, however, how one would translate the Pythons into another language, so much of the humor being bound up in the play of English words, their pronunciations and meanings).
In the best traditions of English humor poking fun at religion and ecclesiastics forms a large element in the Python canon, e.g. “The Bishop,” or the interjections of the Spanish Inquisition – which no one expects – or the street preacher scene from Life of Brian. For an earlier illustration of the exercise one can do no better than Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, in which character Jane Austen perfectly captured the unctuous insincerity of the used car dealer nearly a full century before his creation. But taking swings at preachers, howe’er so skillfully done, really comes more under the category of shooting fish in a barrel.
What I’m after here is a fundamental structure, a pattern of organizing the canvas of Python-land that is so closely woven into its fabric that you really don’t notice it’s there, necessarily, unless you look for it. One refers to grotesque irony, all the way from the anarcho-syndicalists scraping about in the mud to the Queen Victoria Handicap to crowds worshipping a sandal to a waiter who kills himself over a poorly-washed piece of cutlery to an actual government bureau for exaggeratedly silly gaits. Depictions of the grotesque are nothing new, either in English, continental, or American popular entertainment. I mean, think of the circus freak-show, or the vaudeville act featuring the Amazing Man With No Skeleton, and so forth. Nor had the humorous possibilities of Things Not Being as They Are Presented escaped English-language writers, as witness Pudd’nhead Wilson and The Importance of Being Earnest. Nor is farce anything new to the landscape of modern humor; P. G. Wodehouse’s first Blandings novel, Something Fresh, was published in 1915 (in America, by the way, as witness the constant conversational references among English characters to U.S. monetary units). And of course sophisticated comedy goes back to Shakespeare and before.
But irony, especially irony taken to a level of grotesque juxtaposition of What Is and What Ought to Be (“The Architect Sketch,” anyone?), understood as something specifically amusing, does strike me as something not widely encountered prior to a certain point. That certain point is World War I. Without repeating the argument in too great detail (besides, I’ve slept since last re-reading it), Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory could well be subtitled something along the lines of “; or, Irony Sweeps the Field.” A large portion of Fussell’s thesis is that British authors finding themselves tossed into the troglodyte world of the Western Front were confronted with contrasts, sickening beyond all former human points of reference, between farm, woodland, stream, wildlife, integration, stability, and sense on the one hand, and gore, fear, violence, uncertainty, randomness, wantonness, and degradation on the other. The authors, steeped as they were in pastoral traditions (there’s a reason that within recent times the largest group of members in the principal British garden club were retired senior army and navy officers), found themselves forced into irony as the principal framework and method of expressing the horror, the enormity of what was happening. And of course the more extreme the contrast, the greater the irony.
Fussell lauds Isaac Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches” as the best and in many ways the quintessential Great War Poem, precisely for its understated irony, and likewise Blunden’s Undertones of War for its recurring theme of the pastoral violated (in case you haven’t Got It by then, his final sentence describes himself as a simple shepherd-boy in a military greatcoat). By contrast Fussell “breaks on the wheel” the “butterfly” of McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” largely because of its entirely unironical treatment of the dead and their address to the living. [N.b. I have to say that I diverge from Fussell’s opinion, at least to the extent that he excoriates the poem as “stupid” and brutal. The author was a doctor serving with the front-line artillery, who wrote the poem to the sounds of the guns and while sitting in the back of an ambulance . He wrote the day after a dear friend of his had been killed; McCrae had performed his funeral. So implying that the poem’s imprecations from the dead to the living to take up the fight against Germany is somehow the cheap moral equivalent of the women who went around London shoving white feathers (the symbol of cowardice, then) on every male not in uniform is a bit unjust.]
Where Fussell’s book takes the second half of its title is what he identifies as the enduring quality of the shift in vision, in understanding, that the authors brought home with them. Irony is now not just a way of highlighting a particular point to be made in the narrative; irony is now the principal mode of understanding and expression, whether in a serious vein or humorous. Laughter has long been recognized as a coping mechanism; Lincoln once answered the question why he told humorous stories during the war by observing that he laughed in order that he might not cry. Pointing out absurd contrasts between the Purported and the Actual, not so much to illuminate any characteristic about either element of the contrast but rather in order to make the larger point that Our World is Absurd, Makes, and Can Make no Sense, is according to Fussell very much a post-Great War phenomenon. Fussell points to the mockery that attended the Empire Exposition, at Wembley in the 1930s, citing specifically its appearance as a plot device in a P. G. Wodehouse novel (I won’t spoil the plot, but it involves Roderick and Honoria Glossop, Bertie Wooster, and of course Jeeves, and is well worth the read) and observing that treating The Empire in this fashion simply would not have occurred in public discourse before the War, or been widely understood to be either funny or even permissible.
And the Pythons are thoroughly in that post-war tradition. Why is it that the “Dead Parrot Sketch” is so funny? It’s not just the cross-talk or the slippery pet shop-keeper. What makes it funny is the customer’s recitation of every greeting-card euphemism for death he can think of while returning a dead bird, itself of an ironic, non-existent species – a Norwegian parrot? really? – to a shop-keeper who insists that it’s just “pinin’ for the fjords.” The pseudo-elevated yet blandly commercialized language grafted onto an ordinary consumer fraud transaction is the engine that makes the sketch work. The sketch isn’t “about” pet shops, or crooked merchants, or the vicissitudes of consumer relations. The sketch is “about,” if anything, the absurdity of the world in which it takes place, a world whose essential absurdity has been a central theme of English language and literature since the days of Sassoon’s “Suicide in the Trenches,” or Owens’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” And in fact what could be more viciously ironic than Owens’s parents receiving, quite literally while the village bells were pealing to celebrate the Armistice on November 11, 1918, the telegram informing them that their boy had been killed a week before, leading his men across some torpid, poisoned canal in France?
Think this has no relevance to American literature and arts? The same technique is what makes Raising Arizona or O Brother! Where Art Thou? such hilarious movies. Ed’s insides “were a bare and rocky place where my seed could find no purchase,” as spoken by the multi-loser convenience market robber H. I. McDonough is a line that I will submit would not have been written before July 1, 1916.