Lovers and Liars : A David Garrick Double Bill
The Music Hall Tradition
The English Music Hall that existed at the time of the 1914-1918 ‘Great War’ was a form of variety entertainment similar to American vaudeville and it was not at all unusual for American vaudevillians like Harry Houdini and W.C Fields, to travel to England and perform on the Music Hall stage. Music Hall went into decline after the Great War, in part because it could not compete with the popularity of motion pictures like those featuring Charlie Chaplin.
In effect, English music hall was a form of live performance, initially catering to an urban industrial working-class audience, which evolved into a profitable, highly organised and increasingly respectable entertainment industry by the 1890s. From the 1890s onward, music hall influenced Charlie Chaplin’s attitudes towards humour, introduced him to comic business that he later adapted for screen, made him aware of audience expectation and reaction while executing a gag, exposed him to social and professional influences that can affect one’s life and career as a performer, and much more.
English music hall placed difficult demands upon its talent. From the first, the patron of the song and supper rooms did not have to feel obligated to pay any attention to the entertainers nor treat them with respect. Rather, the performer had to convince the patron that she or he was worthy of consideration.
A unique aspect of English music hall as a medium of entertainment is the way it used direct address in its communication. Music hall artists directly spoke to, and often conducted spontaneous interplay with, members of the audience, thereby making them vocal partners in the performance. While such theatrical devices such as the aside and the soliloquy enabled the early twentieth thespian to acknowledge the audience directly, the actor often behaved as though the proscenium arch was a wall rather than a window. The music hall artist however usually did not use this space to create and maintain an aesthetic distance from the viewer. Rather, the performer encouraged direct interaction with the spectator.
The harlequinade established a collection of standards that created a framework within which the principles of comedy could be explored. Harlequinade is generally associated with an earlier Victorian period, but was used to inform characterisation in music hall entertainment.
To clarify the nature and role of screwball comedy, the films of the genre can be examined for five key characteristics; abundant leisure time, childlike nature, basic male frustration, a general propensity for physical comedy, and a proclivity for parody and satire. More than any other genre, including romantic comedy, the screwball variety focuses on the leisure life, often in ‘high society’ style.
Henri Bergson’s comedy theories also relate to screwball, and his theory of comic superiority can best be related to the genre by examining the effects on character development of its two primary components; (1) absentmindedness and (2) inversion – where character roles are switched. First, the main thrust of comic rigidity comes about by way of absentmindedness, a state Bergson ranks as ‘the fountain head of the comic’ where there is a ‘growing callousness to social life. Any individual is comic who automatically goes his own way without troubling himself about getting into touch with the rest of his fellow-beings’. The character inversion of screwball comedy can be seen as a symptom of the afore mentioned absentmindedness; the lack of attention by the protagonist (usually male) leads to his inferiority to a female character.
Gehring, W.D. (2002). Romantic Vs. Screwball Comedy. UK:Scarecrow Press
Scheide, F. and Mehren, H. eds. (2006) Chaplin’s “Limelight” and the Music Hall Tradition . USA: McFarland & Co Inc.