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Essay

Backstory: Merely Players

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One can infer from the old adage that a customer would be unlikely to buy a package of sausage printed with full-color illustrations of the process by which it’s been made—from farm, to slaughterhouse, to factory floor.  And yet, people sure love Noises Off.  Michael Frayn’s 1982 farce about a bad play being badly played is, year-after-year, among the most-produced plays (by professionals and amateurs alike) in both the US and the UK.

There are popular works from every era across every theatrical genre and aesthetic from Shakespeare to Mel Brooks to the Wooster Group that have put the stage on stage.  But while the imperative to “write what you know” may, in part, explain the frequency with which theater artists have made their craft their subject, it doesn’t explain why audiences have embraced such works.  Even the most dedicated theatergoers do not necessarily have experience on- or backstage.  And yet, producers never, to my knowledge, receive the complaint that the Mechanicals scenes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1590’s) feel “too insidery.”  

Interestingly, while fiction that depicts the creation of fiction is about as old as literature itself—think One Thousand and One Nights (700–1200)—the depiction of theater-making onstage is a relatively modern phenomenon.  There’s no evidence in extant texts that the Greeks or Romans made much explicit reference to the theater in their plays.  The first work of Western drama widely regarded as even containing a play-within-a-play is Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1587), in which said play, Soliman and Perseda, is performed to disguise a real murder as an act of stagecraft.  Kyd is also the rumored author of a missing, pre-Shakespearean version of Hamlet, thought to include, like Shakespeare’s, a play intended to “catch the conscience of the King.”

But while tragedy seems to have concerned itself with the power of the player to manipulate the audience, it might be argued that the backstage comedy has long concerned itself with the power of the play to manipulate the player.

In his landmark essay, Laughter (1900), French philosopher Henri Bergson makes a number of astute observations on the nature of the comic.  He notes first that laughter is a strictly human activity.  What’s more, not only are humans the only creatures that laugh, we are the sole subject of that laughter.

Though we might laugh at a cat or a robot, we only find comic the attributes in those things that resemble our own—the way that cat lying on its back looks like a grumpy old man, or the way the robot’s deliberate, precise movements give us the impression of formality while performing the most banal tasks.  Second, Bergson asserts that laughter is social—not only does it require at least two human beings—the laugher and the laughed-at—it is fed by crowds:  we laugh louder and longer in groups.

At the same time, laughter requires us to engage only our minds and not our hearts—a man falling down is only funny if we do not empathize with him.  Finally, Bergson broadly outlines precisely what it is that we find so funny.  At its core, he argues, anything we find funny represents a very human ambition toward grace, fluidity, uniqueness and complexity that is stymied by the rigidity and limitation of the physical world.  A great orator dazzles us with his soaring rhetoric and apparently inimitable presence.  But the comic impersonator reduces that performance—underlining the repeated rhythms of the speech, the favorite words or phrases leaned-upon, the same gestures used again and again.  In the imitation, the mimic calls our attention to the discrepancy between the transcendent ideal his subject strives for and what the crude mechanics of his body and mind permit.  

Though Bergson doesn’t explicitly address the backstage comedy, it’s easy to see why he might recognize in it a form particularly suited to eliciting laughs.  Whether we are watching characters putting a play together (The Producers, 2005) in rehearsal, as in Midsummer, or in performance, as in Noises Off or Kiss Me Kate (1948), the elements of the comic are inherent in the scenario.  Always, there is a clash between the aspirations of the characters (artistic, financial, etc.) and either the limitations of the real world or the even more restrictive, proscribed world dictated by the script of the play-within-the-play.  It is also particularly easy to laugh at characters who are themselves playing characters since such layering necessarily produces the reduction in empathy Bergson dictates.  

Though it’s the melancholy Jaques in As You Like It who forlornly notes that “all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players,” it is precisely this notion that makes the backstage comedy so especially funny, even to the relatively un-theatrical among us.  As with the actors at the center of Stage Kiss, in all backstage comedy we recognize ourselves and one another, striving to improvise our way to greatness, but repeatedly foiled by the insipid scripts we too often find ourselves unconsciously following.  And we laugh.

Alec Strum
Associate Literary Manager

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