Black Comedy aims to allow audiences to bypass the mind’s censor and to allow release of otherwise socially prohibited emotions on issues that are of dark or macabre nature. It is a form of theatre that transforms illicit and taboo subject matters into acrid, yet humorous performance pieces, thus challenging and confronting audiences, whilst also making them laugh. Martin McDonagh’s (MD) The Lieutenant of Inishmore (LOI) is both hysterical and tragic at once, serving as a satirical display of terrorism, through dark and shocking theatrical means. Additionally, Neil LaBute’s (NL) The Shape of things (SOT) is not overtly humorous but rather the idea of an art major shaping a person as if inanimate is an absurd one, confronting the audience through the consequent suffering of the protagonist. Both plays deal with a paradox; how can the subject of death, violence to humans or animals, sexual perversion, and social dysfunction possibly seem comical?
Black comedy approaches that which is uncomfortable or repressed, and the flaunting of that suppressed material is what gives rise to laughter. LOI seeks to push the boundaries of what can be shown on stage thereby consistently challenging the moral, social, political and cultural norms of the audience while also eliciting humour. The play explores both cruelty and comedy whereby MD intends to shock the audience through the raw presentation of gruesome and bloody violence. MD uses explicit cruelty to expose and challenge the absurdity of the Irish terrorist movement. Irish terrorism is parodied as MD explores the notion that what parades as high-minded idealism is in fact driven by such absurd motivations as a consuming adoration of cats. Through presenting overtly gory and outrageous dramatic action, MD emphasises the mindlessness of the characters’ barbarity. The objectification of animate creatures is derived from the Freudian ideal on the psychological causes of comedy, and this theatrical metaphor was utilised in our group performance exercise. My group devised and performed a scene in which we normalized the taboo topic of animal abuse through advertising weapons that assist abusers. The extreme crudity of the abuse within our scene, much like the violence in LI, is taken to such a ludicrous extent that it stretches credibility, thus contrasting absurdly with the idealistic sentiments of the characters. Whilst rehearsing, it became clear that in order to further unsettle our audiences, it was essential to give our characters depth by playing them realistically and grandiosely, like loi’s Padraic who is played in a slight farcical exaggeration. Padraic being oblivious to the mindlessness is simultaneously hysterical and distressing to audiences.
Contrastingly, NL’s SOT is not blatantly humorous, addressing more sober themes, particularly the ways in which humans can manipulate one another. SOT’s premise rests on the ethical inquisition; what if a sculptures marble block was a human being? Subsequently, comedy is generated not inherently from the script, but from the situation itself. Some witty dialogue between characters may be considered humorous, but it is not predominantly comedic, humour and irony are engendered through delivery of the naturalism within the script. This comedy is essential in ensuring the taboo matter, although confronting, does not overstep boundaries, becoming abrasively cruel rather than ironic or comical. Evelyn’s audacity to make artistic statements is displayed immediately within the first scene, wherein she oversteps the rope that cordons her off from the sculpture she seeks to vandalise, eliciting Adam’s response: “you stepped over the line.” Through this, NL explores the limits to which individuals have liberty to do as they please, as well as the point at which such actions become unethical. My group and I delved into scene 7, presenting the macho teasing between males that is a typical blend of the cruel and the comic. Here, we are voyeurs to Adam struggling with his obligations to both his friends, and Evelyn, under the pressure of Phillip’s brutal jabs.
To demonstrate this, the interchange between Phillip and Adam occurred downstage, whilst Evelyn stood instigating further arguments in the background. We successfully elicited notable humour from the script, contrasting the selfishness and ultimate animosity of NL’s characters.
Black comedy attends to that which is often uncomfortable or suppressed, and the subsequent release of that suppressed material is what gives rise to laughter, generating cathartic effects. MD’s LOI and NL’s SOT both seek to challenge the notion of theatricality, and to push the boundaries of what can be shown on stage, thus consistently challenging the moral, social, political and cultural norms of the audience, whilst also making them laugh.