Today’s popular culture is no stranger to satire. With the likes of Conan O’Brian and Jon Stewart surging in popularity, watching a vinyl puppet dog hump a finely groomed poodle at the Westminster Dog Show is not taboo: it’s what’s “in.” But while Triumph the Insult Comic Dog may be a recent invention, satire certainly is not.
The performances of 18th century playwright Henry Fielding’s biting political farces “Eurydice” and “Miss Lucy Goes to Town,” prove that O’Brian and Stewart are merely heirs to a long-standing tradition of socially relevant humor.
The performances coincide with an international conference commemorating the 250th anniversary of Fielding’s death that will take place at the University on Oct. 8 and 9. Fielding gained acclaim as one of the greatest satirists of his time, but he was better known for his works as a novelist, particularly for “The History of Tom Jones.” Fielding began his career as a playwright and went on to pen 25 plays in his lifetime. It was only until the Licensing Act, British legislation that was passed specifically to restrict politically dangerous plays such as his, that he was forced to abandon drama and take up literature.
Organizers of the play said that the close tie between Fielding’s scripts and the social climate of the time are both a hindrance and an advantage.
“He was critiquing the fashion of society, so when the fashion changed he had to write a new play,” actor Charles Callaghan ’07 said. “People in his plays are supposed to be mimicries of people in Fielding’s society, like an opera singer who everyone would have known then, so it’s weird to take the plays out of the context of the audience it was intended for– We have to rely on more universal comedy.”
In spite of the chronological chasm, organizers insist that audiences will still be able to appreciate the play’s humor.
“I chose these comedies because they are relatively free of topical allusions– they are more accessible to modern audiences,” Murray Biggs, the professor of English and Theater Studies who spearheaded these productions, said.
“Eurydice,” the first play, revisits the Greek myth of the lovers Eurydice and Orpheus and their saga in the underworld. Orpheus descends to Hades to sing to Eurydice and fetch his lover. But Proserpine, Hades’s queen, refuses to allow Eurydice’s departure and forces Orpheus to allow Eurydice to return to Hell should he look back at her during their journey.
The second play, “Miss Lucy Goes to Town,” is a farce that depicts the story of Miss Lucy, a country bumpkin, and her husband who decide to travel to London for their honeymoon. The two try their best to fit in, posing as a lady and gentleman of the court, but of course, fail miserably. From there, the comedy ensues including embarrassingly hilarious moments such as the couple stumbling upon a brothel which they mistake to be an old-fashioned hotel.
Though vastly different in plot, the two plays share a common thread as caricatures of marital relations in the 18th century.
“What I see [is] the women slyly and hypocritically getting the upper hand, and the men are left in a cuckleholded anguish,” Tim Smith ’05, actor and director of the two plays, said. “And then, the men in the second play get the upper hand on the women and force them into subservience, domestication.”
In preparing for their roles, the actors focused on this theme, realizing that it would be the most accessible to audiences at Yale.
“It’s a matter of tapping into what’s the same between men and women throughout time,” Smith said. “What does it mean for a woman to be cheating on her husband and flaunt it around town? What does it do to the husband? What does it do to the wife? That’s how we really came at it.”
Regardless of the meaning behind the plays, however, the performers in the farces insist that they’re simply well-written comedy.
“This sort of material could easily be the basis of a sketch on ‘SNL’ or ‘Kids in the Hall’,” Smith said.
Callaghan said that it took time to adjust his acting to the sitcom-esque style of the plays.
“One of our purposes during rehearsal is to find depth, but because these were much more two-dimensional farces, one of the things my director said was, ‘You’re trying to find too many layers, take it back a little bit’,” he said. “One of the challenges was to get over our biases and to just have fun. It was kind of an interesting challenge going backwards instead of forwards.”
Above anything else, the actors hope that audiences embrace the pure entertainment value of these productions.
“I hope they take away the spirit of the comedy,” actor Satya Bhabha ’06 said. “These were written for audiences whooping and cheering and shouting. It was a real festive, riotous atmosphere, and I would like them to take away that joy in entertainment, that revelry in theatricality.”