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
Vitalist Techniques in Practice
The history of both comedy and humor criticism is riddled with half-truths and three-quarter lies, most notable among them that humor and comedy are, in fact, interchangeable terms. As we noted in the previous chapter, our definition of comedy makes no mention of humor. And as we have pleaded in everything we have ever written on either formal comedy or humor, we implore our readers to keep these two entirely separate concepts truly separated in attempting to understand vitalist comedy with its attendant vitalist humor affects.
Largely because of the misfortunes of comedic and humor criticism, even in the 21st century, any discussion of comedy and humor for what they really are and how they routinely interact is for most students of literature a dark room filled with furniture haphazardly arranged, furniture into which we are constantly bumping. There are light switches in the room, admittedly for very minute bulbs. To find those switches, it is wise to move with very great caution.
So in moving from the statement of formal theory, it is well that we first get a little accustomed to the darkness, that we let our literary eyesight adjust as we move cautiously about, at first distinguishing only the main outlines of large furniture pieces. For this cautious approach, we begin by considering three separate films, each for one of the three vitalist humor techniques.
All three of the screenplays we are about to consider are somber enough in their themes that at least some readers will want to challenge that they are not comedies at all. Since in this chapter we will be discussing humor techniques and since comedy and humor are in theory entirely distinct, we caution readers to dismiss from thought questions of whether any of the screenplays is a comedy. At this stage, we are simply looking at humor technique for itself.
The same caution carried a step further suggests that we not quickly jump to quibbles that something “isn’t funny” and therefore isn’t humorous. Vitalist humor, as we have already been at pains to indicate, is typically extremely subtle. It typically is given away not by outright guffaws of laughter but by slight smiles, often merely inward smiles meant entirely for ourselves and not for others to know. And just as typically, it is given away by an inner feeling of warmth and of heightened sensation, sometimes a heightened perception directly of life itself.
If this type of humor seems doubtful, for this chapter, please take on faith that large empirical testing proves that Bergsonian and Langerian momentary forms of humor do exist, that human response to these forms is not haphazard but is related to a host of social and psychological variables. While we do not have empirical testing to directly prove the existence of vitalist humor inherent in Regain forms of action or the existence of Impulse vitalist humor, this entire book can be thought of as a compendium of specific examples from plays with immense prestige for strong momentary affects as well as for ultimate dynamis, all evidence precisely of these existences and their powerful affects in theatre.
From our empirical testing alone, we have found that many refuse to believe in vitalist humor and refuse to admit that they ever participate in any of it. Yet in a formal testing situation, the same people have no trouble identifying their humor preferences when they are unaware what theory lies behind the choice of alternatives presented. We hope, starting with this chapter, that readers will become more aware of their own humorous responses.
The three screenplays we will be considering are Steel Magnolias (whose action centers on the death of a young diabetic woman whose body gives out under the strain of producing a single, adored child), My Fair Lady (in which a monomaniacal linguist transforms a guttersnipe into the image of a princess without the slightest care as to what she will be fit for when he is through), and The Sound of Music (whose action centers on the most-patriotic of upper-class Austrians having to abandon all their possessions to flee from the Nazis on foot across the Alps). Of course, none of these plot lines sound like comedy. Nor do they sound even the least bit funny. Within a modern democratic sensibility, all three sound perfectly fitted for the new tragedy of Arthur Miller.
But we hope everyone realizes that all three of these screenplays stand out from almost all film around them as superbly powerful in ultimate dynamic effect on normal audiences. We choose to consider each of them analytically, for only one vitalist humor technique apiece. In fact, all three are paragons of using all three techniques we have defined in theory. And the dynamis of each, its power over a normal appreciative audience, is one of the high exemplars of the dynamis which necessarily completes the definition of a new sub-genre of comedy, Vitalist Comedy.
Turning then to Steel Magnolias, let us consider how consistently as well as how variously it resorts to the forms of Bergsonian and Langerian humor, Langerian humor ultimately dominating.
Steel Magnolias shimmers with Langerian Vitalism focused around six very alive, remarkably full female characters. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone calls the women “live wires.” They are affirmers of life—of babies, of holidays, of friendship, of fighting on. They are not quitters. They are adapters, defiers of death, and even more affirmers of life. Shelby loves babies, works in a hospital nursery, and wants most to bear a child, even though it might cost her own life. M’Lynn fights to keep Shelby alive, first in her disapproval of Shelby’s pregnancy, and then in her bedside vigil. Truvy is fighting for her marriage. Annelle is growing from rejection and devastation in marriage, trying on various new selves, becoming an expert “beauty technician.” Clairee is plunging into a whole new life in widowhood. Even Ouiser is a very lively cantankerous. All are alive, and all exhibit Langerian Vitalism.
But this extraordinary display of Langerian vitalist humor would quickly grow thin and sentimental without a strong dose of Bergsonian Vitalism. In fact, the interplay of Langerian and Bergsonian Vitalism is one of the driving elements of the film. It illuminates the strains and harmonies of the relationships between men and women, dramatizing the particular strengths of women that men tend to lack. Langerian humor accents the life force; Bergsonian humor tempers Langerian and provides an antidote or a reality check to unrealistic optimism. Thus before examining more closely the four sub-forms of Langerian vitalist humor exhibited in Steel Magnolias, we need to look at the interplay of Langerian and Bergsonian vitalist humor into which the sub-forms are set.
Generally speaking, Bergsonian Vitalism is more likely to draw outright laughs than is Langerian. And in Steel Magnolias, that defiant humor tends to be centered in the men, who have background, supporting roles, allowing the vitality of the women to be featured. Yet when called upon, the men can exhibit extraordinary energy, vitality, and male heroics. The first really humorous scene in the film is of Drum using a pistol to rid the magnolia trees of roosting birds which are threatening to spoil the afternoon outdoor wedding reception. This endeavor, unsuccessful in its first conception, culminates in Drum and his sons rummaging exuberantly through the garage to find a crossbow and arrows to shoot firecrackers into the tree. Drum is driven to exercise all vital cunning and ingenuity to win in his battle with the birds. And his sons, who until now have been lolling around the house threatening to break something with a basketball, have suddenly come to life in celebration of male raison d’etre. We laugh at their typical maleness but also with their extraordinary aliveness, which is rewarded by an explosion of birds taking flight from the trees.
The males are frequently butts of Bergsonian humor. They think mechanically. They aren’t interested unless you can “shoot it, stuff it, or marry it.” Truvy’s husband is lethargic for most of the film, Shelby’s brothers—predictably, mechanical—tease their sister and plot to decorate the getaway car with condoms. Jackson, Shelby’s husband, is obsessed with firearms and will hunt anything. In fact, most men are seen as mechanically attracted to weapons and hunting. Faced with the birds, Drum automatically thinks weapons. His solution is effective, but he is left temporarily deaf (the encroachment of death) at his own daughter’s wedding and responds mechanically to what is spoken to him.
Furthermore, the women perceive men to be mechanical, as living within a narrow scope, and finally as lacking the courage to handle giving up a kidney or attending a brain-dead daughter/sister/wife in ICU.
Yet beneath the mechanical, men are alive. Drum and sons, in typical male fashion, emerge from lethargy into an explosion of male aliveness once given the challenge to disperse the birds. And the film closes with a burst of masculine, military resources as Truvy’s formerly somnolent husband rushes Annelle, in labor, to the hospital in his jeep, trailed by the father dressed up as the Easter bunny, with his head on sideways, plopped on the back of a motorcycle driven by Truvy’s rebellious son. Langerian humor breaks through Bergsonian in this final male-dominated scene. Maleness is pictured in the “bleeding armadillo” groom’s cake, a deep red cake with gray frosting—unappetizing to look at, recalling military functionality—yet inside the color of blood, the symbol of life.
Bergsonian butts are often clown figures. Drum and his sons, for the most part, are Bergsonian clowns. Yet males are not the only Bergsonian clowns. The central clown is Ouiser. The one everyone loves to hate, Ouiser defies life. Mechanically, she wears ugly clothes and grows vegetables she hates because that’s what southern women of her class do. She can be depended upon to be rude, self-deprecatory, and jaded. In a bad mood for 40 years, she tries not to eat anything healthy if she can help it. And when a mousy high school sweetheart comes back into her life, she resists romance with all she’s got. At Shelby’s gravesite, she becomes the butt of cosmic humor.
Yet the clowns are necessary backdrop to the extraordinary displays of Langerian Vitalism in the film. Let us look more closely at the forms in which this Langerian humor appears. Visually, symbols of potential abound, inviting a Potential humor response. Steel Magnolias is constructed to remind us of life cycles. All of Magnolias scenes occur on or around holidays—Easter, Christmas, Halloween, and Easter again. Those of us from the north are not likely to recognize much of a natural seasonal cycle in Louisiana, but the use of holidays clues us into the life cycle. The heavy emphasis on Easter, Easter celebrations coming at the beginning and the end, reminds us of the celebration of new life and resurrection. The Easter egg hunt near the end of the film features small children in general and young Jackson in particular. The smiles it generates are backed up by numerous suggestions of fertility: Easter eggs, pregnancy, a wedding, a hospital nursery. The film creates a strong celebration of the potential of Shelby’s child, despite Shelby’s death. These symbols of fertility and potential are not in themselves necessarily humorous, though one might smile at the plethora of Easter eggs and the overwhelming presence of blush pink in the church. But rather these symbols undergird the elements of Langerian Potential which, in fact, do elicit smiles.
The film urges us to smile at potential in young adults: Shelby’s love of babies attests to her potential as a mom despite her diabetes; Truvy quickly recognizes potential in Annelle, “the valedictorian of her hair-do class”; and Shelby recognizes the potential in Owen Jenkins, Ouiser’s old sweetheart, and encourages their re-acquaintance. The characters smile in recognition of potential, and so do we. The throng of children in the Easter egg hunt scene is sure to elicit classically Langerian smiles.
The affirmation of life through the presence of babies and children is hard to miss. Yet, at a deeper level, in Steel Magnolias life asserts itself humorously most frequently in the form of Tenacity. People tenaciously fight through difficulties and disappointments, they hold on, and they develop vitalist mechanisms for doing so. In the end, we laugh with Drum’s tenacity in shooing off the birds not because it is mechanical but because once given an assignment, he tenaciously pursues it to completion. He has pressed tenaciously through and beyond the mechanically dead into the very alive.
We smile with Truvy tenaciously hanging onto her marriage for decades with the help of aphorisms and a certain amount of wit. She says laughter through tears is her favorite kind of emotion. We laugh with Clairee, a recent widow, who has the nerve not only to buy the local radio station in order to become a sportscaster but then to walk into a locker room full of naked football players to do the broadcast. And we smile as we watch Annelle persevere from a first devastating marriage to evolve from a shy, rejected girl into a hot ticket, then a religious zealot, and finally into a maturing expectant mom. Steel Magnolias takes holding on to life seriously and celebrates it through numerous humorous embodiments.
Not all tenacity in Steel Magnolias is humorous. M’Lynn’s tenacity in managing Shelby’s insulin attacks and even more her steadfastness in the intensive care unit are not laughable. But as the symbols of fertility undergird Potential humor, these serious demonstrations of tenacity undergird those forms of tenacity which do bring smiles to our faces.
And conversely, and perhaps more important, Langerian Tenacity humor undergirds serious steadfastness.
Langerian Performance vitalism is laughter over extraordinary feats—like the extraordinary athletic or artistic performance—that leave us so impressed that we must laugh, laugh because of the extraordinary performance or because of the extraordinary life displayed in the performance. Drum’s firework display represents Performance vitalism as well as Tenacity. All the energy of pent-up males, trying to stay out of trouble, is suddenly funneled into solving a problem—solving a problem their way. The noise of guns, and eventually the fireworks displays are all part of the spectacular Performance emanating from very alive characters. In fact, males in Steel Magnolias are just waiting to perform, and perform spectacularly, and from our perspective, humorously.
But more important is the humorous Performance in the cemetery. It has not been mere tenacity that brought M’Lynn through Shelby’s marriage, childbirth, and finally death. She has sacrificed a kidney for her daughter. Such sacrifice is extraordinary Performance, but it’s not funny. After the burial of her daughter, M’Lynn is unable to deal with her grief and anger. Support of friends and religious philosophy provide no help. Nor is that support funny. M’Lynn wants to punch somebody.
And then Clairee says, “Here, punch Ouiser.” In the graveyard, it is not the consolation of friends but the Performance of Clairee’s offering up Ouiser as a sacrificial punching bag that turns anger into laughter and despair into hope. And Performance goes on, as Clairee tries to make amends with the affronted Ouiser, both of them physically and humorously acting out a battle so that a spirit of life can be claimed from death. Ouiser has already been set up as a Bergsonian clown, a butt, to be pummeled. Yet at this point our Bergsonian laughter at Ouiser turns into a life-affirming appreciation of the spirit that has the audacity to perform, to carry out this scene.
As Performance vitalism introduces laughter into the film, it closes the film with smiles. The Easter egg hunt near the end of the film impresses upon us all the potential of children and new life, and by implication the tenacity of female caregivers. But it is setting up for a burst of performance, of male performance. A woman has gone into labor, and suddenly the mother is packed into a jeep and whisked off to the hospital, followed by her husband dressed in a bunny suit riding passenger on a motorcycle. The men have stepped up to the plate, and the camera follows the vehicles as they head across town. Yet all this male performance is necessitated by an imminent birth. And we cannot help but smile. Such energetic Performance is necessitated by such great Potential.
Langerian Creativity is also represented in Steel Magnolias, though to a lesser extent than the other forms, and it is frequently presented ambiguously. This is a traditional society with many prescribed roles and manners. Thus creative ideas must occur and grow out of what might be seen as an inflexible mindset. Langerian Creativity as we have defined it is not a matter of fertility or of production. Rather it is a laugher with a creative idea, which then usually turns into action. Thus we laugh at the fixed mentality that thinks to disperse birds with pistols—symbols of Southern maleness—but we are soon laughing with Drum’s Creativity of shooing off birds in the trees with firecrackers. He has creatively combined two traditions—guns and fireworks—to get the job done.
Perhaps the most startling example of Langerian Creativity is, again, Clairee’s offering up Ouiser as a punching bag, an act we have already characterized as exhibiting Performance vitalism. In fact, vitalist humors frequently come in combined forms. The act is in one perspective appallingly insensitive. It grows out of Clairee’s brashness, itself ambiguously humorous—is Clairee mechanically insensitive and compulsively assertive, or is she boldly, creatively alive? Regardless, her act becomes the catalyst for healing and bonding. The women laugh, and we smile at the Creativity that pressed beyond unanswerable questions, scripted consolation, and good Southern manners, dared to be rude and hurtful, to do what would work to start healing and the resurgence of hope and life.
The abundance of Langerian Vitalism in Steel Magnolias is well beyond what most of us expect in a film, and it can make the film vulnerable to the criticism of sentimentality. Our empirical testing has suggested that rarely do people overwhelmingly prefer Langerian over Bergsonian jokes, and the average is a small preference for Bergsonian over Langerian. Thus the interplay of Langerian and Bergsonian Vitalism is critical. We need the clown figures of Ouiser and Drum and sons, as well as the lethargy of Truvy’s husband and even the insensitivity of Clairee to make the film palatable.
But more important, life needs both Bergsonian and the Langerian humorous appreciation. Out of the store of male weapons in the garage comes the answer to the birds in the trees. Out of the abrasion between Ouiser’s negativism and Clairee’s insensitivity comes a healing sacrificial act that brings hope and life and laughter to M’Lynn. And out of male love of vehicles comes the deliverance of new life through a woman.
We turn now from the momentary level of vitalist humor to the much more elusive, formal level of vitalist humor, Regain humor. As already indicated, our focus is on the four forms of formal vitalist humor interacting in My Fair Lady. And as already indicated, in considering the formal level, we are moving away from the particular punch-line of a momentary joke and toward much longer humor structures.
My Fair Lady is unusual in its fidelity word-by-word, idea-by-idea, witty remark-by-witty remark to its original, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Until the final scene of the play, that is. For Shaw, who, along with many other achievements, brought Bergson’s élan vital to English audiences as The Life Force, ended his play on a highly ambiguous note: Eliza having triumphed at the ball, leaves Henry Higgins on Wimpole Street and reencounters him in his mother’s home where Eliza shows herself to be his intellectual and willful equal if not his infinite superior.
Beyond the final curtain, Shaw wrote a prose epilogue in which he argued that the typical audience would no doubt invent some future in which Eliza and Henry would be reconciled. Shaw argued that such reconciliation was clearly impossible and that Eliza would end up married to Freddie.
For all Lerner and Loewe’s fidelity to the Shavian original, this ending, or rather, Shaw’s two projected endings, were not acceptable if only because Lerner and Loewe were American theatre professionals wanting to write a highly successful comedy, not a problem play pushing Shavian philosophy on unwilling audiences. And thus we have the final scene of My Fair Lady as Henry ends his remarkable song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”—which also allows him to deride Freddie and imagine that delightful day when Freddie will have run off with “a social-climbing heiress from New York” and when Eliza will reappear “repentant and contrite.” As he finishes the song, Henry lets himself back into the house on Wimpole Street, enters the library, and sits down disconsolate in his high-backed chair.
He has turned on the recording of Eliza on her original entry into his life on Wimpole Street. In the background Eliza quietly enters. She is dressed in pale pink, a reminder of the intellectual confrontation at Mrs. Higgins’, but softened. She turns off the recording and instead, in her own voice, recreates the words and linguistic patterns as she originally used them.
Henry recognizing the overtones of a real human voice rather than a recording, without looking back, slouches in his chair, presses his fedora down over his eyes, and complains about not being able to find his slippers. In the background, the orchestra begins a reprise of “I only know when he began to dance with me.” There is a momentary tableau, and then Eliza to Henry’s left and behind him takes a single, confident step forward. And as a final tableau, the orchestra segues to the closing line, “I could have danced, danced, danced, all night.”
It is not Shaw’s ending. However, as Paul has argued elsewhere (1983), it is the only legitimate ending of Pygmalion, Shaw having deliberately sabotaged his own ending to make his audience think it through for themselves. Lerner and Loewe’s is the ending that makes sense of the whole design, the whole pattern of the play and of the movie.
And because it is the true ending, true to the integrity of the work, it is remarkable for how beautifully and consistently it all works out as a tensely vital ending, full of ambiguity and still asserting the obvious, that Henry and Eliza can’t do without each other. In the process, it strongly emphasizes the Regain form, a form essentially humorous in itself, which characterizes Vitalist Comedy.
Quite obviously, the final dialog of My Fair Lady brings us back to the opening dialog in Henry’s home on Wimpole Street; (everything before Wimpole Street can be considered a long exposition of how the true action came to be.) We are starting over with the pieces back to where they were before the game began.
And so the final tableau entails many restarts or at least suggestions of restarts. Henry begins again asserting solid social supremacy. Eliza begins again seeming to be the suppliant, desiring to ascend from guttersnipe to respectable. Less obviously, Eliza reinvades Henry’s library and thus threatens his entire lifestyle. He has chosen to be a “confirmed old bachelor” who likes to “live his life free from strife” in a library “silent as an undiscovered tomb,” to be “a pensive man.” He sees himself as a “very gentle man,” a “man who never could, ever would. . . .”
Yet, what we have seen in the film is that Eliza has put an end to all that because she months ago entered his library and issued him a challenge which finally he could not refuse. And now she reenters the library, reenters Henry’s life, reissues a challenge which only a dolt would think that Henry has any ability to refuse. After all, he’s “grown accustomed to her face,” so accustomed that “she almost makes the day begin.”
On the other side, all Eliza would like is a little kindness, a little consideration. Yet Henry’s slouch, his fedora routine, his call for his blasted slippers—all of these indicate that Henry has no intention of giving Eliza what she contends for emotionally.
We saw earlier that Eliza seemed utterly unteachable—until at 3 in the morning, Henry uncharacteristically broke down, was slightly kind, allowed himself to persuade Eliza to continue the effort for the sake of the English language itself. From there, of course, she quickly mastered “The Rain in Spain,” hurricanes variously distributed, and even more quickly conquered every social grace that makes her not just acceptable in high society but in virtual fact foreign royalty with all the snob appeal pertaining thereto. Now we are, in setting, back to the beginning, and from that beginning, we can be confident of Henry from time to time giving in, deserting his principles of superiority, showing a little of the old Pickering grace, charm, and routine courtesy which is all Eliza asks.
It is important to distinguish between what Eliza is willing to fight for (some sign of caring) from what she “wants.” “All I want is a room….” To be out of the cold. To have a chair of her own. That wouldn’t just be “loverly.” It would be splendor beyond Eliza’s comprehension—especially if there were chocolates for her to eat. Eliza is in a strong bargaining position because what Eliza “wants” is really quite minimal. Higgins in his power struggle with Eliza is in deep trouble on withholding decent gentility: Eliza can easily do without that in the final analysis. At the same time, she can make Henry’s undiscovered tomb a shambles from her enormous chair two floors above his library. And all this is deeply humorous in the return to Square One.
And so it will go throughout the virtual future. It is clearly a romance-manqué comedy, a comedy of never-ending Punch and Judy, a comedy of irreconcilable differences. Like Punch and Judy, it is never-endingly funny for onlookers and never-endingly painful for participants.
It is, however, also a highly believable pattern for on-going life, success, and survival. Think what Henry and Eliza, or Eliza and Henry, or Eliza despite Henry have/has already accomplished the first time through! There is no reason to think that the successes of an Eliza-Henry partnership (with possible assist from Pickering) won’t go on and on. Just as much as the war of irreconcilability will go on and on.
But the humorous sense of Regain which always accompanies a formal sense of Regain at some level is focused not on success but on on-going survival, the good and the bad thoroughly and inextricably mixed together. And many of us will laugh sympathetically because we see an essential similarity to our own survival.
Let us look then more carefully throughout My Fair Lady, not just in the last scene, for the full range of Regains: Re-creation, Re-construction, Re-presentation, and Re-visioning. Perhaps the most profound is Re-visioning. Clearly, the entire plot of My Fair Lady is a Re-visioning of Eliza and with her a Re-visioning à la Shaw of the decisive influence of language differences in establishing the social intricacies of English class-structured society. Instead of “clothes make the man,” Shaw asks us to revision that local dialect makes both the man and the woman. As Henry himself proves, the “local” of local dialect may be exceeding small, making for infinite degrees of social class distinction.
The most memorable Re-visionist of My Fair Lady, however, is actually Alfred P. Doolittle, that truly original moral philosopher of all England (and Wales), who forces Higgins to a new vision of lower-class intellect and us to a reconsideration of all political social philosophy. “The Lord above gave man an arm of iron.” How true. “But with a little bit of luck. . . .” Alfred is the acknowledged representative of “the undeserving poor,” and as such he sets English social welfarism on its head by pointing out that he has at least as many needs as the deserving poor. We tend to call it “madcap” or “absurd.” It is actually Shaw at his sharpest and most incisive criticism of the accepted political short-cuts of his whole society.
Alfred is also the most original economist in England. He is thoroughly aware that £5 is one thing and that £10 is not twice as much, but is rather something entirely else, and something he has no desire to be part of.
As a loyal member of the lower classes, Alfred sees himself as the inevitable, helpless victim of the upper classes and particularly of Henry, who fiendishly ruins his life by making him rich beyond his dreams! Re-vision and Alfred P. Doolittle are virtual synonyms.
Alfred is not only tremendously Re-visionist. He is also exuberantly, articulately vital about it. As he says, “I’m willin’ to tell ya, I’m wantin’ to tell ya, I’m waitin’ to tell ya.”
On a minor note, Freddie may be a non-entity, but he is wonderful at re-visioning what Eliza says about believing that “someone done her in” into an idealized, avant-garde small talk.
And not to be entirely outdone by any and all of this, Henry is quite a Re-visionist himself, as when he tells Eliza that the key to good manners is actually to treat everyone absolutely equally, in which case his abominable treatment of Eliza is exactly like his abominable treatment of the most superlative Duchess, and thus is the quintessence of good manners. He is doing everything possible to re-vision the situation, and it isn’t his fault if neither Eliza nor we, the audience, are impressed. Later in the same scene, having been quite put down by the Eliza he still wants to think he created, Henry re-visions for his own consolation with the remark that he still possesses his own share of “the divine Spark.’’ Again, he may re-vision but we as audience aren’t impressed.
Poor Henry! How delightful!
Closely allied to Re-vision is Re-presentation. It will concern us throughout to be very careful about the distinction between the two. Re-vision is essentially a mental activity. Re-presentation is fundamentally a matter of physical reality or at least of seeming appearance. Yet the two may interact: Re-presentation may instigate Re-visioning.
Eliza descending the staircase in her white Paris gown, ready for the ball, is one of the grandest of Re-presentations in modern cinema. Practically, though not visually, this stunning Re-presentation is eclipsed by Eliza’s Re-presentation at the ball. She had earlier been presented at Ascot, where her social gaffes simultaneously charmed and scandalized London’s aristocracy. By the time she arrives at the ball, her social graces have so transformed her appearance that she passes for a princess.
Eliza’s Re-presentation is so grand that it forces a Re-visioning by even Pickering, who has been consistently good-willed, gentile, and kind. Similarly, it forces a Re-visioning by Higgins, despite the fact that Eliza is an embodiment of everything he could hope. Both are stunned by her stairway entrance. However, their aristocratic presumption limits the extent of their Re-visioning, of actually seeing Eliza in a new way, as after the ball they celebrate their grand success. Thus, they are stunned when Eliza throws a tantrum and walks out. But we as audience are hardly surprised. For, even though we have been thoroughly prepared to see Eliza become My Fair Lady, we have undergone a Re-visioning which is only enhanced by the men’s self-congratulation, and thus we are thoroughly prepared for Eliza to assert a new self-respect.
In the course of the screenplay, we will also see Alfred re-presented as upper-middle-class wealth. We will see Henry re-presented at Ascot as the disgraceful son of a respectable mother and in Mrs. Higgins garden as the outclassed and mystified male. We even see Pickering re-presented no longer as the distinguished colonel and linguist but as the Etonian returning to simpering childhood reminiscences with “Brewsie.” Freddie is re-presented, evolving from the conventional, mother-dominated eligible upper-class bachelor, to the romantic adolescent and finally to the generally incompetent chaperone. Note that all of these have distinctly humorous implications though their definition is purely formal.
Sometimes then, as when Eliza descends the stairs, Re-presentation and Re-visioning are, in practice, nearly synonymous. Sometimes, as when Henry becomes the disgraceful boor at Ascot, they are entirely separate perceptions.
Similar problems exist in differentiating Re-construction from Re-creation. In theory, Re-creation means a new creation coming into existence, not a reassembling of old parts or even a reassembling of old parts with an occasional new bell or whistle. Re-construction in theory is the process of superficial transformation of something that remains its own self. For example, a flower starts as a di-cotyledon, grows to a sprig, grows further to produce a flower stalk and then a bud before producing the flower itself. The pretty and colorful bloom is a new thing, but the plant itself, if that is the meaning of “flower,” has been there for a long time, has gone through many manifestations which are Reconstructions and is yet demonstrably the thing we started with.
With these definitions firmly in mind, it is hard to avoid the recognition that there are large Re-constructive elements in the screenplay that should not be confused with Re-creation. Higgins is still Higgins at the end of the film, Pickering is still Pickering, Eliza is still Eliza. Higgins would love to think that he has re-created Eliza, as the title of Shaw’s stage play Pygmalion clearly indicates. The scene in Mrs. Higgins’ garden, however, refutes that notion, though Higgins again attempts manfully to re-vision, proclaiming his creative achievement: “I did it, I did it.”
The final scene, with all the restarts we have already mentioned, is the further demonstration that we have witnessed a restructuring of relationships and character, rather than a Re-creation: nothing is essentially a different reality; it is a re-constructive spiraling of the same original. Notably Eliza has been reconstructed. Her feistiness, her sense of self-worth and moral integrity, her ability to take verbal abuse from Higgins and turn it into inner strength—all these remain the same. But all these strengths can now be channeled into maneuvering in high society as well as among studied linguists.
And yet─. And yet, there is some Re-creation in My Fair Lady. Higgins identifies that small, fragile, but entirely new being in himself: “And yet, I’ve grown accustomed . . . to her face.” He’s not in love with her—vulgar American conception that! (And she for her part declines to be interested in Higgins as a man in “that sort of way.”)
But after all, “She almost makes the day begin.”
Moreover, isn’t it Higgins’ line that Eliza has become “second nature to me now”? And how can you have second nature without being recreated? “Like breathing out and breathing in”—like a new Adam. Recognizing a need “to hear her say, ‘Good morning’ every day. . . .” (The old Higgins didn’t even need Mrs. Pierce to say good morning every day). The new Higgins admits, “I’m very grateful she’s a woman and so easy to forget. . .” (forget perhaps his old self who imagined an infinity of horrors in women, horror symbolized in his vivid imagination of “a large Wagnerian mother with a voice that shatters glass”!) We may not LOL—laugh out loud—but we recognize the joke on Higgins, the self-proclaimed confirmed old bachelor who has now grown accustomed to her face. Yet there is a deeper, vitalist Re-creation joke: Higgins—who boasted that he could recreate Eliza—Higgins himself has been recreated. Higgins has grown accustomed to Eliza’s face; and despite himself he has been recreated.
We’ve said that Eliza is definitely reconstructed rather than re-created by Higgins hand. Absolutely, definitively, she is not Higgins’ Pygmalion, and Higgins is most desperately self-deceived when he shouts, “I did it!” And yet uncivil as she may find Higgins to be—insensitive, brutish, egotistical, absurd, and generally disgraceful—“when he began to dance with me . . . .”—Eliza also is a new creation that didn’t exist in Covent Garden.
From Mrs. Higgins’ point of view, there’s probably a new creation of hope for one or more little Higginses. And from Pickering’s point of view (“Damn, Higgins, I’ll miss her”) there’s a new life of working his way permanently into a totally respectable ménage à trois. (Looking far into the virtual future, however, there’s a real possibility that Eliza will redecorate Pickering from his cellar to his dome and find some nice respectable widow for him to marry (something of an upper-class Mrs. Pierce perhaps, or for that matter, Mrs. Pierce herself), thus recreating a new living pattern à quatre.
In the final comedic analysis, these new creations are only worth enough to make inevitable an unending virtual future of friction and mutual commitment. But the Re-construction in My Fair Lady of two lives is one of the most compelling in modern literature.
We turn then, finally, to a consideration of Impulse Vitalism and to The Sound of Music. Impulse Vitalism, again, is a pulsing into and throughout a play or screenplay. It is something of the spirit of the whole work, and its primary humorous evocation is ultimately an outgrowth of the work as a whole, however much we may enjoy or even outwardly laugh at some particular moments when the vital Impulse is most strongly presented to us within the work as a whole.
In Chapter 4, we identified four major forms of Impulse Vitalism which we have called a Spirit of Song, a Spirit of Dance, a Spirit of Delight, and a Spirit of Awe. All four derive not merely from individual moments—like a song or a dance at some particular moment within a musical—but from a general impulse of the whole work and thus a matter of the spirit of the whole. For brevity’s sake we will, however, frequently refer to them as Song, Dance, Delight, and Awe.
The Sound of Music pulses with all four.
In Sound of Music, then, it is not enough to say that it is a musical and has many songs, and, therefore, it must have a spirit of music. On the other hand, the title, and the title song make strong bids for us to recognize that in some senses the spirit of music is what the entire screenplay is about.
The sound of music, is of course, everywhere in Sound of Music. It is part of the Austrian air, like the monastic chant that Georg, Max, and the Countess hear on their arrival in Salzburg. But which Spirit is that sound of music, the Spirit of Song or the Spirit of Dance?
There are many moments when a Spirit of Dance seems to emerge, especially in the Lindler sequence but in much more metaphorical senses, the presence of seven children repeatedly moves to dance formations as in “So Long, Farewell.” There are the deliberately slow and stately dance steps of the nuns engaged in normal or extremely abnormal activities (interrupted, of course, by Maria’s hurried return from her own dance on the hills). And in a very large sense, there is the dance of Maria with two partners: Christ, who obligingly relinquishes his partner, and Captain von Trapp, who belatedly recognizes the gift he thus receives for an extremely arduous dance that eventually leads over the Alps.
However, it is the Spirit of Song which most thoroughly pervades the film. The song, “Edelweiss,” in all its simplicity and beauty, is in its own way the great metaphor of the tragedy of Austria with the Anschluss. Lyricism, meaning both beauty and concision, is here pervasive. And the power of that Spirit is demonstrated in the draw of “Edelweiss’” over Georg when, before he sees, he hears his children singing. And that power is reprised in the amphitheater when it raises Austrians to their feet even though surrounded by brown-shirt troopers.
“The Lonely Goatherd,” similarly metaphorically lyric, symbolically defines Maria as a creature of song, as the woman who has found her true calling using her most profound talents for virtuoso effects, and as appropriate surrogate mother and friend of children who have lost the sense of delight.
“Do, a Deer” defines musicality and puts that musicality at the service of an infinity of both beauty and lyric meaning.
And, of course, Max defines the whole of Austrian existence as revolving around finding Song and placing it upon the ultimate pedestal of Austrian value.
Ultimately perhaps, however, it is the Reverend Mother who defines the Spirit of Song in Sound of Music. (“What else does the Reverend Mother say?”) What she says is to “climb every mountain, ford every stream.” The monastic life portrayed in Sound of Music is ultimately the composition of an acceptable song putting everything in created life in its proper place with its own appropriate beauty and meaning. For Maria, her part in the song ultimately becomes a dance, the processional dance to marriage with Georg in the cathedral, watched over by sisters and mother who assert that the song has now been properly written despite highly inauspicious opening attempts.
What then of Delight? Like the forms of momentary vitalist humor, the impulse forms have a negative as well as a positive form, essentially a Langerian and a Bergsonian analog. In the opening scenes, Georg has lost Delight and he has forced his children through regimentation to lose the Delight which is the natural state of healthy childhood. And Maria in the convent is doing her best to suppress the natural Delight that draws her to the mountains, to dance, and to song. She is in the convent an ugly duckling able only to attempt the murder of a perfectly saintly delight which is nevertheless contrary to the Rule of the order. So Sound of Music starts at a Bergsonian extreme with respect to delight, by that means heightening the Spirit of Delight when it establishes a legitimate freedom for itself.
The Spirit of Delight bursts forth as the children come back to themselves from their errant career of terrorizing governesses. Their laughter in the trees as Georg drives by is the dramatized symbol for the return of inward delight, as is the irrelevant floral pattern of drapes in their new clothes. Max is generally the subject of Bergsonian derision, but at the core of Max is the ultimate aesthetician whose life is continual delight and hopeful search for even greater delight. Even the Countess is the begrudging witness to the natural delight of Salzburg contrasting to the sophistication of Vienna.
Of all the forms of delight, however, Georg’s are the most profound. His delight in rediscovering music and with it his children, his delight in finding Maria in the midst of the Lindler, ultimately his delight in Austria found most deeply in bidding her adieu.
Perhaps the best argument for a special status for a Spirit of Delight in Sound of Music is precisely that it is introduced against a background of a previous Bergsonian lack of delight or frustration of delight.
Finally, there is a spirit of Awe exhibited first in the monuments of Salzburg seen as background to the opening credits. Monumentality is one of the primary evacateurs of a sense of Awe. In Sound of Music, the convent has its own monumentality, especially the precincts of the Reverend Mother. But there is also the monumentality of the Von Trapp mansion and estate which leaves Maria speechless in the midst of her “confidence in confidence” recitative. Other monumentalities of Salzburg abound, culminating in the amphitheater which also embodies an awe of antiquity.
Awes of the Catholic church, its vestments, rituals, cathedrals, and ornamentation become a steady theme, often used for contrastive effect, as, for example, the uniform of nuns compared to Maria’s uniquely ugly mountain clothes that even the indigent refuse as a gift.
The awe of nature, particularly the awe of the Austrian Alps, is similarly a major theme throughout Sound of Music. Aerial views are important here, matched by the high areal perspective of Maria’s wedding march in the cathedral.
The aesthetic awe of baroque art is at work whether in the cathedral or in Georg’s ballroom, and yet this kind of awe pales before the austerity of the Reverend Mother’s office as Rembrandt-like setting for the key decisive moments in Maria’s conversion to lay ministry.
In discussing both delight and awe, we have often used the small-letter form, because, technically speaking, we were pointing to individual delights and individual awes rather than the Spirit of Awe or the Spirit of Delight itself. We hope, however, that in our recounting these specifics, the reader will inevitably feel that some more general Spirit of Delight and Awe has been invoked, Spirits we will consider in more detail in later chapters.
Awe has not been one of the mainstays of Hollywood art over the last three quarters of a century. Given its relative rarity, , the Spirit of Awe in Sound of Music approximates the film’s Spirit of Delight, Spirit of Song, and Spirit of Dance. All four forms of Impulse Vitalism pulse strongly throughout the entire film.
* * * * *
In the last six chapters, then, we have defined a new sub-genre of Comedy, Vitalist Comedy, with its own characteristic dynamis. That dynamis, as we shall see, comes in four variants, each of the variants created largely by a triad of Vitalist humor variants working in tandem. One of these is a moment-by-moment form of Langerian humor which we have heavily empirically investigated elsewhere. A second comes from Langerian Vitalist form. And a third comes from Langerian Vitalist spirit. In this last chapter, we have started to explore identifying these in specific screenplays, each of which is extraordinary in the range of one of these levels of Vitalist humor.
We are now, then, in a position to move on to the consideration of particular stellar examples of Vitalist Comedy in American films. Necessarily, that attention to specific masterworks will give us a far deeper sense of the range of each of the three levels of Vitalist humor involved. But more importantly, our attention now moves to the three levels working in tandem toward specific variants of Vitalist Comedy dynamis. It is a complex argument which is perhaps best understood as three disks arranged in column. For each of the four seasonal variants, the disks have been carefully lined up so that the appropriate triad is dominant and thus dominantly responsible for the dynamic effect of Vitalist Comedy in that particular work.