Howard Jacobson: We English do comic explosiveness our own way

Share
Related Topics

Surfing the net recently, on one of those feverish Sunday afternoons when you pretend to be relaxed, enjoying doing nothing, I came upon a diverting piece in which Elaine May purports to interview Woody Allen and Ethan Coen.

I say purports because in fact it's no more – or do I mean no less? – than an excuse for some rather lame, if amicable, three-way clowning on the eve of the Broadway opening of Relatively Speaking – three short plays by Elaine May, Woody Allen and Ethan Coen.

After a failed attempt to get a conversation going about climate change, May tries world peace. How would you go about achieving it if you had the time, she asks. Coen rejects the premise on the grounds that he has the time. Allen does the same, reasoning that world peace is impossible given the innate aggressiveness of human nature. "Have you ever seen women at a sample sale?" Universal harmony being a pipe dream, he suggests we focus on more modest goals, "Like a ban on yodelling." You get the picture. We're at one of those staccato dinner parties that were the staple of early Woody Allen movies. I'm not complaining. I would have liked to be there.

Elaine May threatens to make the interview up – it's possible she already has – unless her fellow wits do better. So: on to more serious matter. Woody Allen claims his play has no redeeming social value. What, then, is "redeeming social value"? And which plays had it last season. Before anyone rushes to answer, she throws in a proviso. "Plays from England don't count." Which is the best joke so far.

Americans are strange about the English. Woody Allen has made good films outside America, but no matter how much time he spends in London, he can't make a good film about the English. I'm not aware that Elaine May or Ethan Coen has ever tried. Maybe they think Woody Allen has made enough mistakes for all of them. So what's the problem? How come they think all Englishmen sound Australian, wear cravats for breakfast, go to work in fog carrying furled umbrellas and have not yet discovered sex?

May's joke sheds light on all this. English plays don't count in any discussion of which plays have "redeeming social value" because, to an American observer, English plays have nothing else. In their view, the art we make is solemn-minded, worthy and pedantic. Our creativity is hobbled by class and morality. We lack what Henry James – another American who found us stuffy – called "plasticity".

These charges do not, of course, stop Americans occasionally liking what we do. Our best plays win prizes on Broadway. Our worst television – Downton Abbey, say – succeeds similarly, precisely because it is hobbled by class and morality. But our writing is nonetheless perceived to lack vitality, and it is certainly hard to imagine the English equivalents of May, Allen and a Coen brother sparking off one another in the playful manner I have described. Let's go further: it is hard to imagine English equivalents of May, Allen or a Coen brother full stop. A Jewish thing, is it? Well, Jewish writers have succeeded mightily in the English theatre. Pinter, Wesker, Kops, Harwood, Leigh – you can't accuse their work of lacking the vital spark. But you can't see them fooling about, either, for the sheer joy of being nimble witted.

So what's the difference? Vaudeville for one. Behind all the great American Jewish comedians – and any number of American Jewish writers have been comedians of sorts – lies the vitality of a culture of popular showmanship: a a song, a quip, some fancy footwork. That this culture was embraced enthusiastically by poor migrant communities goes without saying: America existed to provide just such opportunities. England did not. If our culture lacks the razzamatazz of America's it is because marginal voices – often out of diffidence – have in the main stayed marginal. Heavy with the great achievements of the past, we English move a little slower.

But I still don't accept the American valuation of what we do. The French, surprisingly, appreciate us better. Proust notes the essential paradox of the English when he describes the jesting of Shakespeare's fairies as simultaneously "lyrical and coarse". When Baudelaire first saw an English pantomime in London he marvelled at its "dizzy and bewildering exaggeration", so different from its melancholy French equivalent with its mooning, sad-faced Pierrots, so furious in its derisive laughter that the whole theatre "appeared to rock on its foundations".

We are fortunate to have two supreme examples of this quintessentially English comic explosiveness alive and kicking in the contemporary theatre. Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem is one – a play Americans prized highly even when they didn't entirely get it. If Mark Rylance's performance in this play is the greatest by an English actor any of us has ever seen, that is partly because it connects to a quality of obdurate independence, of furious and yet somehow poetical intransigence – at once lyrical and coarse – that is as ancient as the earth we walk on. In the final 10 minutes, Rylance conjures up – and it really does feel like magic – who the English are.

So too, in a very different spirit, does James Corden in the more pantomimical One Man, Two Guvnors. Though it's an adaptation of an Italian play, the playwright Richard Bean anglicises it entirely, giving Corden the chance to tap into the great English tradition of largely bewildered, sometimes sweet, sometimes vulgar, clowning. It's a far lighter performance than Rylance's, but the play is just as funny, and no less refutes what the Americans in their charming ignorance of us see as moralising worthiness.

We are a wild, indomitable people, at our best when we express ourselves in wild, indomitable art. As for our "redeeming social values", they are just another savage jest against ourselves.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz