Variations in American Vitalist Film Comedy
Work in Progress
by Paul H. Grawe and Robin Jaeckle Grawe
© Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies 2015
Summer Vitalism: My Fair Lady and On Golden Pond
Summer time and the living is easy. The line from Porgy and Bess perhaps epitomizes today’s urban American view of summer: a time to get away, to relax, to do just for the joy of doing.
Such is the artistry of the Summer variant of Vitalist Comedy. Summer is the easiest of the four seasons of Vitalist Comedy to create and also the simplest to understand. It is probable that more plays and films share at least some of the Summer variant dynamis than share the dynamis of any of the other three seasonal variants.
Technically, this is almost inevitably true because the Summer variant of Vitalist Comedy brings together Langerian Performance, Re-construction, and the Spirit of Delight. Performance is the natural ambience of theatre generally and thus easy to present in its Langerian humorous guise. Re-construction is the easy form of Regain because dramatic action normally starts with exposition, moves to complication which can easily be seen as a challenge to the exposited reality, and moves back to some sort of settled or rebalanced denouement. This standard plot formula requires very little additional effort to also exemplify a Regain and Re-construction of something like the original exposition.
If there is a particular difficulty in constructing the Summer triad of vitalist humors, then, it is likely to be in presenting Delight. We have already argued that Delight is an inward state and thus needs a vehicle of expression on stage. We have also argued that we perceive the Spirit in Delight in momentary expressions and thus, without special effort, it is easily overlooked or at least left without highlight.
For these reasons, we choose here to violate the general pattern of this study, to provide not one but two additional examples beyond Roman Holiday of the Summer variant and its dynamis. Our emphasis in doing so will be on the creation of the Spirit of Delight element of the Summer triad.
In Chapter 6, we presented My Fair Lady as a tour-de-force exemplification of all four Regain forms: Re-creation, Re-construction, Re-presentation, and Re-visualization. We pick up from that discussion here by emphasizing Re-construction among the other Re’s. My Fair Lady can be analyzed as three intertwined stories: Eliza’s story, Higgins’ story, and ironically Alfred P. Doolittle’s story. All three are foundationally Re-constructive.
Eliza wants to be re-constructed. Specifically, she wants her elocution re-constructed because she knows that elocutionary differences are what keep her selling flowers on the street rather than selling flowers in a nice (and presumably much warmer) shop. In this sense Eliza knows in her bones that Higgins has a fundamentally sound approach to the English language even before his explication of his philosophy in “Why Can’t the English Teach Their Children How to Speak.” And thus, she, not Pickering, is the insightful linguist. And it should be noted that Eliza recognizes as Higgins inherently does that elocution is simply the center of manner and that she needs additional reconstruction in the side affairs of manners (etiquette, appropriate subject matter, physical bearing, and the like).
Higgins does not, quite definitively does not, want to be re-constructed. He has evidently been avoiding re-construction at his mother’s hands all his life. We don’t know from the facts of the play, but one has to sympathize with Mrs. Higgins and hope that she has an older son somewhere who can carry on the family without disgrace. (Professors seem to have a definite penchant for embarrassing their families.)
Moreover, Henry and his mother have reached an accommodation: Henry has his own large establishment and routinely does not embarrass his mother with his company, especially his company badly dressed in public places like Ascot.This accommodation allows Henry the liberty to remain a confirmed old bachelor living life free from strife and exactly in the manner which pleases him, which manner centers on a library “as restful as an undiscovered tomb”—with the exception, of course, of all Henry’s voice recording devices. Something of a quirk that—the man who wants both the undiscovered tomb and instant access to all the voices he has chosen to record.
Quirky perhaps, but again the central point is that it is a construction that Henry has put his life into, and he most definitely does not intend for any Re-construction to alter the edifice he has built for himself. Women are thus a fundamental threat to the life he has built. They’ll redecorate his home “from the cellar to the dome…,” and that is more than Higgins is prepared to contemplate. (As we have already argued in Chapter 6, while his life is certainly going to be re-constructed from the cellar to the dome, that isn’t the half of it. He is also going to be Re-created, much as he likes to think that he is creating his own Pygmalion).
Alfred P. Doolittle, Alfie to his friends, is also undesirous of Re-construction. He has already re-constructed the world, thank you. He has listened to all the propaganda of Edwardian rectitude and found it utterly uninteresting, unrealistic, and unwanted. “With a little bit o’ luck,” Alfie intends to “have it all and not get hooked.” So he has built a life where he had a wife, except she wasn’t; where he worked when he had to, except he didn’t; and where he had a daughter, which he did but tried to forget except when he really needed a hand-out.
It is not that Alfie isn’t entrepreneurial or that he can’t seize an opportunity. He is both entrepreneurial and sharp to see an opportunity. But he also knows himself and the life he has reconstructed from the Edwardian norms. He has no desire whatsoever to move on. If, therefore, there is an opportunity to make something for himself off his daughter’s good fortune, well and good. But he is careful to make only enough—£5 not £10—because £5 won’t re-construct his life while £10 would.
In these senses, Re-construction lies at the center of what Eliza becomes through gumption and grit, what Henry finds himself involuntarily slipping into (at a superficial level while at a more profound level slipping into Re-creation), and what Alfie finds he is now doomed to as his former life slips away from him on his accession to an unbelievable fortune.
Re-construction then is critically central to My Fair Lady and puts us on the road to a Summer-variant comedy.
Turning to momentary vitalist jokes then, both Pygmalian and its film adaptation, My Fair Lady, present a quintessentially Bergsonian upper-class London contrasted with a Langerianly alive lower class. Upper- class society is excessively rigid, enforcing myriads of arbitrary rules of manners, speech, and style, a rigidity dramatized by the Ascot scene. Eliza’s vitality breaks into the Ascot deadness, captivating the simple heart of simple-minded Freddie.
Higgins, the primary Bergsonian butt, who defies aristocratic rules while enforcing his own language purity and inflexible lifestyle, surrounds himself with talking machines which overlay the living, human voice with a distorted, mechanical quality. Even Pickering, who actually does have some of the milk of human kindness in him, in a crisis can think only to call the Home Office.
Into the mechanical of the aristocracy breaks forth the vitality of the very lower-class Doolittles and with it an explosion of Langerian vitalist humor. Because Shaw is the most vital playwright of his era, there is a great deal of Langerian vitalist humor is the original script, even before Lerner and Loewe worked their musical magic. There is, for example, the Creativity joke centering in almost all of Alfie’s life: it takes a creative genius to stand Edwardian morality on its ear, and that has been Alfie’s great mission in life.
There is also the great Potential joke that Eliza has the potential to become a princess but her hare-brained professor of linguistics keeps her resaying her cockney vowels into what might be called an elocutionary lie-detector. As soon as Higgins shows a little of the human kindness that he claims to have “by the quart in every vein,” Eliza proves her potential in a flash at three in the morning.
If we remember that Langerian jokes are not normally the trigger of raucous or even decorous laughter, perhaps the great Potential joke of the play is the moment when Eliza appears on the staircase, dressed for the ball in her stunning white gown with tiara. For it is in that moment that the great Potential joke is sprung: Eliza all along, even with her dirty face and wet plebian clothes outside the theatre, has always possessed this potential. And it is to her, Higgins’, and Pickering’s credit to have pressed forward, betting on her potential even before this epiphany.
As for Langerian Tenacity humor, we must smile in admiration at Alfred’s tenacious defiance of middle class morality, and finally his tenacious insistence that he be delivered to the church on time for his marriage ceremony. And even more admirable is Eliza’s tenacious putting up with Higgins’s abominable treatment in order that she can become a lady.
But at the center of it all is Performance, and the performance which Eliza herself must pull off for everyone’s efforts to pay off. Eliza must perform like a lady. And it is Performance which characterizes Summer Vitalism.
In the extraordinary casting itself, My Fair Lady is most Langerianly humorous in its Performance, because virtually every character is giving a tour de force performance of some type of character we all can recognize from Edwardian literature. Mrs. Pierce is the ideal chef de maison: kind, rational, but infinitely firm either in giving Eliza a hot bath or in standing up to Higgins’ insensitivity. Colonel Pickering is the idealized English East Indian officer, down to his scholarly interest in Indian languages à la Clive and his absolute in-bred kindly gentility mixed with public-school jocularity. Mrs. Higgins is the grande dame who is never at a loss despite an infinitely trying, exasperating, and infuriating son. Alfred P. is the deferential but finally utterly rebellious and free-thinking London Cockney with a centuries-long ancestry of street-wise free spirits in the most cosmopolitan metropolis of Europe.
And, of course, at the center of it all is the incomparable Eliza, with the same centuries-long ancestry mixed with an uncanny ability, once unleashed, to be everything European nobility emulates.
These are not mere dramatic roles played well but rather characters performing societal roles or archetypes, infusing those roles with incredible life. We cannot laugh at all of it or even smile broadly. We must be smiling at least inwardly virtually throughout the film.
Inward smiles throughout then. But isn’t this selling Shaw, Lerner and Loewe, and My Fair Lady quite short? Isn’t much of the film much closer to outright and even possibly raucous laughter?
If Performance vitalism is central to My fair Lady, perhaps most outright laughable is the Performance humor surrounding Alfie, particularly in choreography, as, for example, Alfie’s missing being hit by a board as he sings how, “with a little bit of luck a man can duck,” or his dainty yet energetic dance steps suggesting a much younger attitude. Alfie’ song/dance numbers constantly evoke smiles for his vitalist Performance. And don’t we also smile at the brashness of his Performance in demanding essentially a not-too-large pimp’s take for Higgins’ use of Alfie’s daughter, Eliza?
And further, didn’t we almost laugh out loud when Pickering finally gets in touch after all these years with Brewsie at the Home Office? Didn’t we smile with certain grimness as Mrs. Pierce closes in on Eliza through clouds of steam in the bathroom? Didn’t we see anything funny when Higgins shows up at Ascot, the perfect professor and thus perfectly inappropriately dressed? (Professors after all are routinely known for their special powers of concentration that annihilate dress codes.)
We submit that the only thing that keeps us from laughing out loud at most of this is that the movie doesn’t stop to allow our laughter. On stage, it is a cardinal sin to “run over” someone else’s laugh. On screen, the actors don’t know when they are running over someone else’s laugh, and somewhat different conventions are thus necessitated, conventions that are beautifully apt for Shaw or a close imitation like Lerner and Loewe where the fast pace of vitally funny material can’t afford to slow down for overt laughter.
Much more than character sketches, what is operative here is exquisitely right-for-type Performance. And the Performances being virtually non-stop, the vitally smiling sense of the screenplay is close to non-stop as well.
But even more than exquisitely right-for-type Performance is Eliza’s grand Performance at the ball. As the ultimate payoff of months of hard work, the triumph of determination and alive spirit over upper-class society encrusted in self-satisfaction, Eliza’s Performance is the dramatic proof of Vitalism. If Eliza’s Performance at Ascot brought sympathetic grimaces, her Performance at the ball elicits breath-taking smiles, smiles which respond to all the other forms of Langerian Vitalism that went into making this triumph possible.
Moreover, Higgins’ and Pickering’s post-ball celebration, full of smiles and the spirit of laughter, is the dramatic expression of the humor response to vitalist Performance. The fact that the praise is misdirected all the more emphasizes to us Eliza’s triumph and spirit. Shaw again delights in misdirection.
This brings us to the Impulse Spirit of My Fair Lady. We don’t need to investigate far to discover that despite the mechanical character of the British upper class and in particular Higgins’ protestations of dismay and contempt for nearly everyone, the Summer Spirit, the Spirit of Delight, infuses the play throughout, forecast by the profusion of flowers fading in and out during the overture. Art disguises art, however, and in My Fair Lady, Delight notably exudes from sources not conventionally considered delightful. Alfred P. Doolittle is absolutely delighted to be poor, immoral, and outrageously original. “With a Little Bit of Luck” is an exuberant proclamation of self-congratulatory delight, and “Get Me to the Church on Time” a delighted farewell to happiness.
Even conventional British aristocracy, typically reserved, expresses Delight. Freddie is delighted with Eliza’s social gaffs. And the Ascot crowd claims a self-congratulatory and self-delusional sense of its absorbed delight in watching the race at Ascot (“absolutely thrilling, absolutely chilling!”)
Pickering, proper as he is, is delighted to run into Higgins and take up residence with him, delighted to celebrate Eliza’s linguistic breakthrough by abandoning reserve and propriety and imitating a bull, and much later delighted to connect up with Brewsie at the Home Office just when Eliza has run off.
Higgins in his arrogant, insensitive, self-delusional way is a fountain of Delight. He is delighted to meet Pickering, delighted to overhear (despite his vociferous protestations to the contrary) and record the plethora of distortions of proper English which he can encounter outside the theatre, delighted to show off his contraptions, delighted to congratulate himself on being a “very gentle man.” And he is thrilled to be taking up the challenge of making a lady out of Eliza, whom he finds “deliciously low.” And despite his lying protestations of boredom, he is delighted by Eliza’s Performance at the ball.
There is a kind of man, and both Higgins in My Fair Lady and Norman of On Golden Pond are that kind of man, who wouldn’t let horses drag out of him an admission of delight. It is so unmanly. A man’s man, after all, finds silent or cynical agony to be the spice of life!
So, of course, Higgins cannot admit delight over the total triumph at the ball. Any fool can see that in how he scowls describing “that blackguard Karpathy”!
Eliza’s delight is more strategic, yet from deep within. Her counter-to-all-probability anticipation of delight in “All I Want is a Room Somewhere” sets her up to be delighted with modest victories and thus to be able to withstand Higgins’ incessant abuse. We cannot expect her to take delight in Higgins abuse, of course, but she is delighted to imagine Higgins being beheaded by the King. And in the near-final scenes, Eliza is quietly delighted to actually tell off Higgins, delighted to inform him that she—and the world—can “do without you.” And to that proclamation, even the decorous Mrs. Higgins gives a delighted “bravo.”
But even before this personal triumph, for sheer delight, there is always Eliza receiving her first chocolate, the Eliza-Pickering-Higgins bull-fight celebration of the placement of precipitation in Spain, and the Eliza-Pierce face-off throughout “I Could Have Danced All Night.”
The Spirit of Delight in My Fair Lady is much more than a collection of characters who take delight. The Spirit of Delight permeates My Fair Lady. And more than that, it elicits delight in us as audience. And, in fact, we cannot help but delight in these very alive, very unconventional, even roguish characters. And we can sense that Shaw takes great delight in knowing it.
Art disguises art, nowhere more forcefully than in the hands of a master like Bernard Shaw. Thus, in the final scenes of the film, Higgins, a man’s man, certainly isn’t about to admit that anything delights him about Eliza. It’s just that he’s “grown accustomed to her face.”
And since kind and gentle Col. Pickering is also a man’s man and not about to admit to delight, what’s left for him to do but bring in the national government to find a nonsensical girl who has misplaced herself? “Damn Higgins—I’ll miss her!” is a belated but most emphatic statement of the delight he has been having throughout.
And perhaps Higgins’ most subtle but most telling indication of delight is his closing gesture of pulling his hat over his face, only barely disguising sheer delight that he has now let Eliza, a woman, into his life!
My Fair Lady embodies perfect Summer Vitalism: Langerian Performance, Re-creation, and a Spirit of Delight. It’s about people at the top of their game being re-constructed yet again. They are playing in the big leagues against each other. And through it all emerges a powerful Spirit of Delight.
If in My Fair Lady Delight is disguised, in On Golden Pond, it is suppressed, threatened, and even defied, particularly in Norman and in Billy Ray. An eighty-year-old suffering an angina attack and a seventy-year-old with permanent tremors of both voice and limbs seem dubious vehicles for Delight. And a middle schooler’s pseudo-sophisticated cynicism hardly promises better. Perhaps less glaring but equally challenging is the nagging sense that, even granting that the film takes place over the summer, the Thayers must be approaching the winter of their lives. How can this be an example of Summer Vitalist Comedy?
Honest criticism, like dishonest criticism, is better for being honestly challenged. So we are very happy to begin our discussion of On Golden Pond exactly at this point of challenge.
The easiest and perhaps the best answer to the challenge is that the various seasonalities of Vitalist Comedy that we are discussing have no direct relationship to the age or condition of any of the characters in the script. Put another way, in real life the very young can experience Summer moments (for example when Bobby Fischer at something like age 12 became an international grand master in chess) and conversely, the quite old have their Summer moments, too.
Part of the reason for this is that different parts of our abilities and personalities mature at different ages. Most runners peak out before they are twenty, most big league pitchers before they are thirty, most NFL quarterbacks well before they are forty. Presumably there are varying conventionally expectable Summer periods to match.
But if a truly exceptional pitcher like Nolan Ryan changes his game to focus on the wisdom gained in a score of years in the majors, he may be at the top of a new game much later. Similarly, Bret Favre may be at the top of a new game as a wily multi-millionaire (passing to wide receivers and depending on offensive linemen who could be his sons) in his first season with the Vikings.
Similarly, there are certain games, certain situations one can only be at the top of in advanced years. People who don’t marry until they are forty, for example, may not have the opportunity, as Norman has in On Golden Pond, of trying to negotiate their way through a daughter’s second-time-around romance until they are just about eighty themselves. And when the situation arises, even if there is more than a little touch of Alzheimer’s about it, it is time to play the best in the ranch.
So, yes, On Golden Pond is about a long and ultimately beautiful summer, and, as an entirely separate reality, it is a fine example of Summer-variant Vitalist Comedy. It is not so because Norman plays the best-in-the-ranch for his daughter. Most of the time, he is at an approaching-Alzheimer’s worst, caught in a long day’s journey into night of estranged relationship to his daughter. That estrangement has been something of a constant state throughout her life.
The summer starts as Ethel and Norman pull up to their New Hampshire cabin on Golden Pond. Hearing loons crying in the distance, Ethel asks Norman to listen, they are bidding the Thayers welcome. Norman claims belligerently to hear nothing.
This opening dialog epitomizes the relationship we will see throughout. Ethel is enamored with life, with nature, with hope, and even with Norman. She is delighted every minute, even when she stands at the door with wood in her arms and Norman calls to the cabin generally that “There’s someone at the door.” In Ethel we sense a Spirit of Delight, which becomes a spirit of the work, surfacing, diving, tentative, even fragile, but growing throughout the film.
Norman, on the other hand, has a disillusioned view of everything, and as in the case of the loons, we soon suspect that he chooses to find a jaundiced reply even if it is not entirely true. In short, Norman is another one of those men’s men, a retired, honored, full professor who knows he is losing it, whose every third thought is on death, and who seems to love standing up to and firmly against any hint of delight and much more Ethel’s torrents of delight.
To all of which Ethel has a standard response of calling Norman an “old poop” and going right on with delighting in life.
Soon after their arrival, the Thayers get a letter by boat mail carrier from their daughter, Chelsea, in Los Angeles, announcing that she intends to come for a visit along with the new love in her life Bill Ray, a dentist. When Chelsea arrives, however, she also brings Billy Ray, Bill’s son. It soon turns out that Bill and Chelsea are planning a European getaway and that they would like to leave Billy Ray. Ethel, who has been trying to make something more of relationship with Chelsea, begs Norman to go along, and so Billy is left with them, immediately announcing that he knows he has been “dumped” and that he has no intention of being less than a terror. His favorite word turns out to be “bullshit, and he calls the Thayers “turkeys.”
Now, as we find out later, Norman was a school principal when he met Ethel as a new substitute teacher. Words like “bullshit” and “turkey,” in other words, are something of a trumpet call to both the Thayers. Neither is inwardly shocked, or perturbed by a 13-year-old who claims, with forced Southern California flair, that his fun in life is cruising after chicks and “sucking face.”
Picking up the vocabulary with an alacrity that may seem surprising in an 80-year-old but that is pure stratagem in the veteran principal, Norman soon has Billy Ray back on his heels and in the “Thayer IV” in-board cruiser. In succeeding days and weeks, Norman adroitly weaves past Billy Ray’s enforced cynicism to teach him the joys of fishing and to instill the compulsion to find and catch Walter, a legendary humungous lake trout.
Along the way, Billy Ray comes to care for Norman, to seek to understand him, for example, when they have just hauled in a stinking dead loon asking whether Norman is afraid of dying. He has also run the Thayer IV into a rock, to which they cling for some hours until rescued by Ethel and the boat mail carrier. Most of all, Billy Ray learns Delight, pure backwoods New Hampshire Delight, untainted by LA cynicism and vocabulary.
Chelsea comes back married to Bill, who had to fly directly back to L.A. On seeing Billy Ray and Norman peacefully fishing together, something of a miracle in itself, she reverts to all the old bitterness of her estranged relationship to her father.
This time she pushes it too far and is slapped by Ethel, for once more angry than delighted, who points out that Norman is 80, that Chelsea has always set him up for a bad relationship, and that it is time, isn’t it, for her to grow up and make things good with her father.
Perhaps emboldened by having succeeded in love, Chelsea takes her mother’s challenge, fights through Norman’s self-defensive non-cooperation, succeeds in the best reconciliation available with Norman anytime in the last 40 years, and even does a backflip off a raft, a feat she never accomplished as an embittered child with a demanding, diving-medalist father.
Billy does, in fact, catch Walter before Chelsea and Billy Ray return to L.A., but Norman and Billy let Walter go because if he’s lived this long he should be allowed to live longer.
As Norman and Ethel themselves pack to leave amidst leaves turning red and golden, Norman suffers a severe angina attack. Ethel rushing to his side, has a hard time finding his pills and an impossible time trying to raise the party-line operator. Norman recovers, yet Ethel is shaken and admits that, for the first time, she has taken Norman seriously about approaching death.
As they are getting into the car to leave Golden Pond, Norman stops to listen to distant loons and says to Ethel that the loons are saying goodbye.
Given the somber themes of On Golden Pond, Delight is not as pervasive as it is in My Fair Lady. But it is nevertheless central. Like Higgins, Norman is an essentially Bergsonian figure. But while Higgins has been delighting all his life in annoying nonconformity, Norman’s refusal to delight in anything has become his comfort zone, his mechanical response to life. Norman’s defiance of Delight emphasizes Ethel’s affirmation of Delight.
In contrast to My Fair Lady, there is a substantial sense in On Golden Pond that Norman and Ethel are playing a game, though a very serious game. Norman was clearly entranced by Ethel as that young substitute teacher, and whatever his other dejections late in life, he is always categorically pleased with his wife. But while his wife is delighted by everything, dancing alone in the woods in delight and warbling a fake Indian chant about life on Golden Pond, her enamored principal-turned-full-professor husband has dignity and even gravitas to maintain. And thus Norman plays the extraordinary cynic (a great professorial role anyway) and Ethel plays at forcing him to delight in life. (Separate from Ethel, Norman is the kind of professor who, losing a good deal of memory, can yet decide at age 80 to reread Treasure Island, that classic of exotic delights.)
Yet beneath the play-acting, Norman nurses deep bitterness over the failed relationship with his daughter. And we are never sure where the game leaves off and reality takes over.
When Billy Ray enters the Thayer’s lives, they are not confronted with play acting. Here is a tortured young soul thoroughly fortified in disillusionment. And both the Thayers are certified teachers who very quickly prove that they are not so much teachers of academic subjects as nurturers of personality. Billy has called them “turkeys.” But these two old pros, who have spent decades taking sides over Delight, play a magnificent doubles game to bring Delight into Billy Ray’s life and character.
Success with Billy perhaps suggests that Ethel really has been a bit too air-headed, a bit too lost in her own life-long Delight. She hasn’t confronted the life waste in her own daughter, and she hasn’t allowed her husband’s constant harping to bring her to any terms with death.
Having succeeded with Billy, Ethel leaves off Delight long enough to get real with her daughter and to slap her back into a responsibly unbiased attempt to solve life’s problems. And she is rewarded with delights for her daughter, delight to be back in something of relationship with her parents, delight to have finally done something—a backflip—that her father always wanted for her.
And ultimately, Ethel is rewarded by Norman’s acceptance of Delight. It is Norman, not Ethel, who hears and interprets loons on their departure.
In this section, we have often shortened Spirit of Delight to Delight. It should be obvious from context that more than delight with a small d is at stake for the Thayers. The big issue is capital “D” Delight, the Spirit with which they confront advanced age. And it is capital “D” Delight, a Spirit of Delight, which they offer to Billy Ray, a Spirit of Delight which leads out of the life Billy Ray has chosen as a hard shell to live in. And it is a Spirit of Delight rather than a spirit of bitterness which Chelsea seems finally to have glimpsed as the basis for a living relationship with her parents.
While Performance was central to My Fair Lady, focused on the grand Performance at the ball, it is Delight which is central to On Golden Pond. The great achievement for Norman, for Billy Ray, and for Chelsea, is the resurgence of Delight. The return of Delight in living is what On Golden Pond is all about, and thus the Spirit of Delight, which began as a tentative, fragile presence suggested by Ethel’s delight in Golden Pond, grows stronger and more widespread throughout the film, so that eventually it dominates the film as a spiritual force.
Moving then to Regain Vitalism, it is easy to interpret everyone’s movement through the summer as Re-constructive with the exception of Billy Ray, who is much more re-created. The relationship between Chelsea and Norman had been stunted evidently at birth and had not moved forward over forty years. The movie celebrates that even such profound stunting is not final, that there is a possibility for at least some transformation, some movement on to a new stage if only bitterness can be left behind in favor of individual responsibility, in particular responsibility by the child, not the parent, for healthy relationship. Ethel has moved to a new stage, a stage much more cooperative with Norman because she has found a way to actually confront dying. And Norman has moved on to a new stage in which he can let go of the cynicism game long enough to interpret loons.
And that leaves us to argue for Performance Langerian Vitalism. The full argument here is complex precisely because there is so much Bergsonian Performance Vitalism in an old poop who is starting to lose his marbles and his trembling wife who still thinks she can imitate the loons convincingly enough for them to answer her. Bergson’s favorite joke of the old man slipping on the banana peel is frail compared to the repeated images in On Golden Pond of the mechanical encrusted on the Thayers. But our laughter is much muted by the lingering sense of the nearness of death, which sense also obscures the Langerian Vitalism in the midst of the Thayer IV wreckage on a rock.
Despite the pervasiveness of Bergsonian encroachment of death so evident in the Thayers, Langerian Performance breaks through: Ethel joyfully carrying in firewood, dancing in the woods, even diving off a boat into rock-strewn water to swim to Norman and Billy clinging to their rock; Billy driving the Thayer IV in joyous circles; Chelsea finally accomplishing a backflip; Billy catching Walter.
By themselves and against so much Bergsonian Performance, these may not seem the strongest arguments for a strong presence of Langerian Performance. But besides the action of the characters, there is another performance enacted in the film, one which the stage production could not accomplish and that is the performance of nature itself. Outstanding nature photography conveys not just the beauty of Golden Pond through parallax lenses but also the succession of vegetative aquatic life from late spring to early autumn. The re-constructive Performances of Nature become not only a strong backdrop for the film but also a subliminal assurance that the Thayers can be re-constructed in some fashion even this late in life.
In addition, there is the repetitious photographic interest in the loons, normally seen as a mating pair swimming together. The loons are, as indicated, a key metaphor for Norman and Ethel’s life on Golden Pond. When we don’t see the loons, we hear them. And loons, of course, among all birds are some of the most talented vocalists with a wide range of calls which they evidently use for sophisticated, fairly long- distance communication not just with their mates but with others of their kith and kin. As Ethel proves, they are even willing experimentalists, answering Ethel’s calls, which no self-respecting loon could possibly mistake for the real thing. If as cinema On Golden Pond glories in the successive Re-constructions of the aquatic vegetative world, it also glories in the loons in their best poses, as loving mates and as superb vocalists.
The loons ultimately are the single best key to the Performance Vitalism of the Thayers.
On land, loons are exceedingly awkward. And they are laughably clumsy trying to take off from the water into the air. In the air, they fly awkwardly, staying aloft evidently requiring more of an effort for them than for any of the other northern birds. A Bergsonian comedy routine.
Put them in the water, however, let them dive, and no fish of swallowing size is safe.
So for loons, the wonder is that they are able to waddle at all, that they are able to take off at all, that they are able to stay aloft at all.
For most of life, Ethel and Norman are like loons: it’s a wonder that they are able to operate and ambulate at all. They aren’t graceful about it, and others can rightly laugh at their awkward performance. But like the loons, they are medalist divers.
And what they dive for is people. They are educators of the first order, not merely teachers of subjects, but educators who lead people out of things that enthrall them.
And to be this very high kind of performer, they can’t cheat. They cannot push people, pull them, or drag them against their will. They must lead and wait for others to be educated, to willingly follow.
It has thus been excruciating to Norman, and it must define a lot about his disillusionments, that the one person he has most wanted to educate, the daughter he loves so much that it is her name he cries out when he may be drowning, has not responded to the education he has offered. Chelsea has instead consistently re-presented things to feed her own bitterness. (At the opening of the picture, Norman symbolically holds up a picture of his family with Chelsea as a young girl and claims out loud to himself that he doesn’t know who these people are.)
And thus Norman the educator along with his wife, also the educator, has done his best and hoped, but so far has been utterly disappointed.
And in that light, Billy is a God-send, a call out of retirement and back into the highest calling Norman or Ethel has ever known. They hear the trumpet call to battle, return to the ranks instinctively and without the slightest need for verbal agreement between themselves. They become metaphorically the two loons, and a little fish like Billy Ray’s cynicism doesn’t stand a chance between these predators. Yes, predators, as loons are voracious predators. Norman and Ethel are professionals at devouring Billy Ray’s cynicism. Entirely separately, as already indicated, they are the patient, leading educators who know that they can lead but Billy Ray, freed from cynical self-defenses, must voluntarily follow.
So the great joke, constantly at work in On Golden Pond, is that these two over-the-hill alleged turkeys are in reality instinctive master divers doing work that almost nobody else can do and doing it with both flair and patience, both confidence and hope, and notably with both the clumsiness of advanced age and the mastery of long practice.
Especially before Chelsea, Bill, and Billy arrive, we see them waddling on shore or trying to take off from the pond, and that is Bergsonianly humorous. But the real joke is the masterly Performance, made more masterly by having to compensate for the fallibilities of age, which brings Billy Ray to new life. It is the Performance of professionals coming back for an encore of what they do best and delighting others in the process.
And in light of that great victory at high power, they are rewarded by Chelsea herself being lead out of the bitterness that has imprisoned her. And even more they are allowed to witness transformations in each other, a change in the highly professional game they have always played, based in Ethel moving toward Norman in an acceptance of death and Norman moving toward Ethel in a formal recognition of the Delight in life.
On Golden Pond then relies on all three vitalist technical elements of Summer Vitalism: Langerian Performance, Re-construction, and, very foundationally the Spirit of Delight.
We are then in a position to consider the dynamis of Summer Vitalism, drawing together the dynamic commonalities of My Fair Lady, On Golden Pond, and Roman Holiday.
If the Spring variant dynamis is an incipient impulse forward, so is the Summer dynamis. Since dynamis is a thought-feeling, it is as though we feel prepared “to go on to the next.” In Chapter 8, we found that Spring Vitalist Comedy created a strong incipient surge, to move out of our seats and onward, a feeling for a while of being unencumbered, uplifted, optimistic, and empowered. The character of the insipient surge of the Summer dynamis differs from that of Spring in being more appropriate to the sense of life at its full power, with experience behind it and lessons learned.
My Fair Lady’s final tableau, Higgins slouched in his chair, fedora over his eyes, demanding his slippers and Eliza at his left shoulder, allows us to feel with them and to feel for them that what has been resolved is merely to go on, to go to the next. And the next is as equally undefined as the original experiment to make Eliza a princess. Life responding to life, we feel the surge, the rush to get on with it, but the “it” is not a new life as in the Spring variant but a new reconstruction, a new balancing, a new facing of what has already been faced, life at full power, moving inexorably to new challenges. This Summer dynamis, unlike the youthful optimism of Spring, is mature. Higgins has matured, knowing his manufactured serenity to be a fabricated toy of the past. Eliza has matured, knowing that she has been entrusted by Mrs. Higgins to rein Henry in. Alfred P. has matured and resigned himself to the middle-class morality he had so strongly opposed and exposed. Correspondingly, the dynamis of the film is colored by maturity.
In Roman Holiday, we feel the surge to move forward with the sense of maturity gained by Joe and Irving. We feel with them the maturity that comes with having faced extraordinary challenges of professional advancement, professional ethics, and personal character. The fact of having been through at least one reconstruction, one rebalancing makes their characters at least that one transformation more mature. And the dynamis springing from life responding to life is a more mature incipient urge as a result. In contrast, Spring dynamis may have a feeling of coming of age, but not a feeling of maturity.
Even in On Golden Pond, we feel the sense of quite old people having nevertheless matured yet a little more in accepting the inevitability of death, in letting go of bitterness, in finding joy in limitations.
Maturity does not carry with it the unalloyed optimism of Spring. It may be cautiously confident and, with that, prudent. Norman and Ethel will be ever more prudent from here. And the dynamis of On Golden Pond will therefore include a sense of necessary prudence. Roman Holiday’s characters will all have to be more prudent from here but in much younger senses. The dynamic sense will be more prudence within power, caution in confidence, than in On Golden Pond. Eliza and Higgins both have to realize that the rash experiment of their last unbalancing suggests more care in the future, though prudence is considerably less elicited in My Fair Lady. There is a sense, however, in which Higgins, Eliza, Alfie, Pickering, Mrs. Higgins, and Mrs. Pierce are all too bull-dog English not to relish the idea of getting at it again with just about the same level of rash imprudence. There is room for substantial latitude in how strongly prudence is felt as part of the dynamis based in the plot realities of the specific play.
While the dynamic of Spring Vitalist Comedy is unencumbered, the Summer variant is encumbered by all the transformations, all the reconstructions and rebalancings that have gone before. The surge forward must bring with it the baggage of the past: commitments made, directions chosen, opportunities taken or lost and the weight of it all.
In Roman Holiday, we sense the surge forward yet the encumbrance of commitment that all three central characters carry with them, commitment not to betray the trust of one another and the beauty and power of the experience they have shared. Ann in particular carries with her the encumbrance of her very costly commitment to her country, and that encumbrance tints our sense of dynamis as we leave the film. In My Fair Lady, there is the baggage of nothing having been resolved, Higgins never having admitted to being a boor or to Eliza’s having achieved anything in her own right. And that too will tint the dynamic, the incipient urge, with a sense of encumbrance.
In On Golden Pond, the baggage is even more substantial. The wonderful transformations of relationships cannot vitiate bodily weakness and the nearness of death. And all this weight colors the dynamis engendered by the film.
While the Summer Vitalist dynamis is encumbered, it can also be refreshed. Especially in On Golden Pond, we see that being ready for the next stage in life has the character of having been refreshed by the last, by the memory of good in it, and by whatever victory it has managed to bring. The Thayers are in a very late round. But the round just ended has been fairly decisive. A young life has been put back on an alive path. A considerably older life has been helped to let go of bitterness and to responsibly make the world a better and happier place. Two quite old lives have been rebalanced. Old hurts have been assuaged. An old calling in aggressive teaching has not been forgotten. Ethel has become much more a realist who can face death. And Norman has learned to admit life in its delights. This Delight of refreshment is memorialized in the final tableau of the Thayers looking out at the pond, hearing and interpreting the loons.
Refreshment is far subtler in My Fair Lady, but who can doubt that Higgins and Eliza, probably Pickering and Alfie, quite possibly even Mrs. Higgins and Mrs. Pierce are ready for another round? And that readiness is reflected in us as a perception of dynamis.
The refreshment is very much on the surface in and very much throughout Roman Holiday as Ann’s story.
While there is quite a bit of variation in our examples of Summer Vitalist Comedy, there is also a consistency both of story and of its resultant dynamis to justify our characterizing the Summer-variant dynamis as a refreshing incipient impulse.
As these examples suggest, the dynamis of Summer is not typically unalloyed optimism. It may have more than a tinge of reminiscence and regret or even a certain maiming about it. Individual plays, with their own idiosyncratic dynamis will have to fill in these details. But the Summer variant is justified as a refreshed incipient impulse with a certain confidence of prudent, encumbered maturity.
Beyond these generalizations, we are helped by reviewing the technical vitalist humors that contribute to the strong dynamic effect. Summer utilizes Langerian Performance. The dynamic of Summer is, therefore, active. Tableau endings do not lead to an inactive sense of the dynamic but rather allow an activeness to swell in us. Of our three examples, On Golden Pond would evoke the least active dynamis, but the tableau ending still reflects a refreshed activism which is carried forward in dynamis.
Summer utilizes Re-construction and rebalance. The dynamic of Summer then is more precarious, more aware of the necessary loss of equilibrium in finding every new equilibrium, On Golden Pond most exemplifying this element of Summer dynamics.
Summer utilizes the Spirit of Delight. The dynamic of Summer, through Delight, leans toward the adventurous, not the adventure into the unknown of Spring but the adventure of getting at it again, knowing that the high point in life may very well already be past (it probably is for virtually all major characters in all three plays we have used as examples), yet venturing forth anew with anticipation for delights one knows are out there to be found. And in this sense, there is probably some sense of hopeful anticipation in almost all Summer Vitalist Comedy.
As already argued, the Summer-variant formula is the most easily dramatized of the four seasonal variants. Thus all comedy, not just Vitalist Comedy, is more likely to have Summer-variant elements than to have determining elements of any of the other three seasons. But, by our argument, the extraordinarily extensive and coordinated use of three levels of vitalist humor will typically create a much more powerful dynamis for Summer Vitalist Comedy than for less concentrated comedy both in its emotional impact as suddenly or gradually experienced and in the memorability of that impact over long periods of time. Furthermore, all comedy is likely to be most deficient in fully-dramatized Spirit of Delight among Summer-variant determinants, and it is the Spirit level which makes the most lasting, if often inarticulate, impression.
And thus, in the ages-long search for the dynamis of comedy in general, the vast run of comedy probably shares more of the dynamic propensities of Summer-variant Vitalist Comedy than of any other sub-genre variant.
As we move to Fall-variant Vitalism, it will quickly become apparent that Spring and Summer are the normal seasons of light-comedic thought, whereas Fall and Winter are more complex and less familiar as comedic thought and impulse.