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
Spring Vitalism: The Sound of Music
In the last chapter, we saw that The Student Prince is imbued with substantial amounts of all three vitalist humorous techniques under investigation: momentary Langerian vitalist humor, vitalist Regain form, and vitalist Spirit or Gladness Impulse. Together they form a base for Spring Vitalist dynamis or dynamic: an emphasis on Langerian Potential, an emphasis on Re-creation form, and an emphasis on Song Impulse.
We note that there is a very strong, rationally understandable dynamis, even though the dynamis itself is a feel rather than a rational statement. What is rationally understandable is that the dynamic is directly related to the action. The action ends with Karl’s final renunciation of a life with Kathie. But the trigger for the dynamis is the manner or quality of that renunciation. Karl needs to renounce a future with Kathie with gratitude and gladness: Gaudeamus, let us rejoice! At minimum then, since life responds to life and since so much technical vitalism has convinced us of the aliveness of the situation, we too leave the theatre with some dynamic commitment in line with what we have seen. So far, we have said that this dynamic has the feel of a strong surge, an alive sense of resolve. The more exact character of that sense of resolve we leave until we have considered a second play exhibiting the same Spring Vitalist technical emphases.
We turn, or rather return, then to The Sound of Music, which we have already discussed in Chapter 6, for the full range of its Gladness Impulse Vitalism—Song, Dance, Awe, and Delight. Let us start from that full range now to consider which of the four Impulse Vitalisms are the strongest, particularly in light of their relationship to the plot structure, of Sound of Music.
The Sound of Music takes its energy and aliveness from a novice at a convent in Salzburg, Austria. Though she has most sincerely chosen to enter the order, she finds herself consistently unable to train herself for what she believes is her calling, preferring to be up on the mountains—singing. As she explains to the Reverend Mother, the hills call to her, and she has to respond. The Reverend Mother’s chief advisors are concluding that Maria cannot become a conventional nun. On the one hand, she makes people, even nuns, laugh! On the other hand, she is easily seen by the nuns as a “flibbertigibbet” (a chattering air-head!)
Providentially, the Reverend Mother has just received a request for a governess for the Von Trapp family; The Reverend Mother assigns Maria to fill the position, admonishing her that the cloister is not a place to hide from the world and encouraging her to face the world in order to determine her true calling. Maria sets out, guitar in hand.
The Von Trapp family turns out to be a piece of work. The Captain has lost his wife and with her a great deal of his humanity. His seven children are starved for personal affection and have taken their frustration out on one governess after another. Maria instinctively begins recreating a loving home environment which brings her within minutes to the brink of direct insubordination of the Captain. Far from appreciating her efforts, the children set about maintaining their record for governess destruction.
Through a quiet spirit, trust in God, and an inborn love that can’t be taught, Maria rapidly turns the corner on the children’s meanness by, among other methods, teaching them to sing! And they are almost immediately restored to finding and building positive attitudes and a loving spirit in themselves.
The Captain is a harder nut to crack, especially since he is courting a rich, spiritually empty countess from Vienna and entertaining her egocentric impresario companion, Max. Nevertheless, when the Captain, on his return from Vienna with the countess, hears his children singing “Edelweiss” (which commemorates the national flower of Austria,) the song itself melts his own brittleness and begins to restore him to life as a fully human being.
The rest of the screenplay centers on a reborn Captain realizing he has fallen in love with this loving governess, eventually marrying her even as the Nazis enforce upon Austria the Anschluss that he detests. On return from the honeymoon, the war-hero naval captain is ordered to assume a naval command at Bremerhaven on the other end of Germany. Vehemently opposed to Nazism, he determines to flee with his family across the Alps. They are intercepted, but fortunately Max has announced that they will sing at the Salzburg music festival. Their vocal performance provides opportunity for the Captain to make a patriotic statement in a reprise of “Edelweiss” and for the entire family to escape while the judges are awarding them first prize in the festival. With the help of the nuns, the family escapes brown-shirt pursuers and crosses over the watershed in the high Alps between Austria and Switzerland.
Even in this exceedingly truncated synopsis of the action, it is obvious that Song lies at the heart of Sound of Music. As we have noted earlier, in drama Song normally centers in articulation. Maria is a singer, an articulator of the spirit within her. She tells the Reverend Mother, “I can’t seem to stop saying things. Everything I think and feel.” From Maria, the Spirit of Song spreads to the children and then to the Captain. Yet it encompasses far more than the Von Trapps. When even “the hills are alive . . . with songs they have sung for a thousand years,” the Spirit of Song cannot help but permeate The Sound of Music.
In addition to Song, as indicated in our earlier chapter, the Spirit of Awe manifests itself throughout Sound of Music, notably in impressive architectural structures from the cloister through the Von Trapp mansion to the cathedral. Less blatantly, the Awe Impulse associated with the extremely wealthy ruling classes, including an extremely rich baroness and a war-hero Captain, makes itself felt. And throughout, nature and the Alps themselves inspire Awe: “the hills are alive!”— those hills which worked their way on Maria, drawing her from the cloister, making it so hard for Maria to be a sedate nun.
Song and to a lesser degree Awe provide the dominant Vitalist Impulses of the film and provide a vitalist spiritual backdrop for Maria’s work of bringing life back to the Von Trapp family. Dance and Delight, as lesser Vitalist Impulses act as vehicles for and witnesses to that returning life.
Like most musicals, The Sound of Music includes several dances, dances which are not merely interludes of choreographed physical activity set to music but which are integral to the story. The traditional Austrian dance, the Lindler, creates a key turning point as the Captain allows his heart to turn from a wealthy but callous baroness to an alive and loving Maria, the dance acting as a vehicle for, as well as a testimony to, the Captain’s growing aliveness. Frequently, dance enables and demonstrates the children’s growing return to life. The marionette dance of the “Lonely Goatherd” brings out untapped talents in the children and allows them to turn a training of discipline to artistic achievement. The choreography of “So Long, Farewell” recalls the military march precision trained into them by their father even as it presents a loving and loyal family, one that is operating in an impressive dance.
And certainly the recreated loving family and a recreated sense of music and love in the Captain exhibit and elicit a Spirit of Delight.
But of them all, the indispensable Impulse Vitalism because it is so integral to plot and comedic import of the whole is the Spirit of Song. The Spirit of Song permeates The Sound of Music and contributes heavily to its Spring dynamis.
We turn then to Langerian Vitalism, centering in moment-to-moment humor, laughing with extraordinary life in Tenacity, Creativity, Performance, and Potential guises. Vitalist Comedy will routinely display a large range of Langerian vitalist techniques, humors which bring smiles if not laughs to a sympathetic, cooperating audience. Maria exhibits Tenacious vitalism as she is ready to go to war with the Captain within minutes over his naval command whistle. This is all the more humorous because Maria has been trying to subdue her tenacious attraction to the created world outside the order, without any real success, in order to fit in to the rules of the order. She is tenaciously unable, however, to reject the life forces within her that cry to her from the hills.
We smile at the Langerian Creativity humor in the ways Maria finds to turn the corner on the seven children as born antagonists to governesses. And this Langerian Creativity is extended into the children through their puppet performance.
The puppets and the accompanying “Lonely Goatherd” song, however, are an even better expression of Performance vitalism, a tour de force kind of Performance that leaves the Captain utterly awed and willing to say as much. And, of course, the Captain has already been awed by the children’s choral performance of “Edelweiss” as the western world was to generally become awed in the real-life careers of the Von Trapp Singers.
We would be remiss not to mention that all these are part of the virtuoso Langerian vitalist expressions of Sound of Music. But it is Potential vitalism that we are most impressed with in Sound of Music, though not because it is self-promoting; it is here, as normally elsewhere, self-effacing.
The screenplay largely centers on seven children. Decades ago Art Linkletter’s TV program, House Party, amply demonstrated what film producers knew all along: the Potential Vitalism of children is a show-stopper. In “Edelweiss,” it brings self-conscious and somewhat reluctant smiles to the Captain and even to the hardened baroness. And at the ball, it brings broader smiles to Captain Von Trapp’s guests as his children bid them goodnight, smiles especially welcome as the powers of Nazism rumble in a distant thunder. Moreover, in the Von Trapp children, we see throughout extraordinary Potential, in their musical talent, their intelligence, their loyalty to their father, and their functioning as a loving unit.
Langerian Potential humor provided by the children pervades Sound of Music. But even more important for our sense of life breaking forth than their great Potential is the family’s Re-creation. These children are brought back to life as children. “Lonely Goatherd” Performance vitalism can be tour de force, demonstrating great potential in the children. But in terms of fundamental relationship to human success and survival—which after all is at the heart of our definition of comedy—such Performance vitalism pales in contrast to the saved life of a child.
The Von Trapp children have regained life; they have been reborn, recreated. The children are reborn to child affection, reborn to child innocence and naiveté, reborn to child delight, reborn to child kinesthesis whether rowing a boat or climbing a tree, ultimately reborn to music and to a child wonder at developing one’s own musical gift in harmony with others.
The Captain, too, is reborn to all he lost with his wife. That includes a poetically melodious patriotism. It includes openness to music itself. The Captain is reborn to a life in which he can be a person again instead of a war hero and ship captain, reborn to a life in which he can again hear and appreciate the sound of music, reborn to be able to see in his children their great potential gifts , reborn to see and appreciate the wonderful potential in this strangely awkward woman whose first impression centered on the ugliest dress in the Western world, reborn ultimately to again know that he is a being who can love and to know that in him love itself has been reborn.
It would be hard to argue against the predominance of rebirth, and thus Re-creation, among Regain forms of Sound of Music. Most claims about the direction of Sound of Music are finally not very controversial. It has become a great cultural favorite precisely because it so forcefully is itself that all audiences understand it without deep inspection.
The Captain and his children all demonstrate genuine Re-creations, the birth of something new which hadn’t been. They have a gestation process, yet there is a previous point at which they weren’t. This is not the case for Maria. For our analysis of the forms of vitalism, we must at this point make a careful distinction. As much as Re-creation dominates the vitalist form of Sound of Music, it would be incorrect to say simplistically that Sound of Music enacts the rebirth of all the central characters. Maria herself is not Re-created either as a person or as a character. She has not been reborn.
At some time before the opening curtain, she looked down from the hills at the cloister and was drawn to it. She ends the movie fleeing the cloister, but obviously still drawn to it even at great risk. She chose to be the bride of Christ. She never chose to be something else. But she found, under the wise direction of the Reverend Mother that Christ didn’t ultimately call her to be his bride as a nun. Because she is faithful, she is also obedient. She has not changed. What she thought was her calling has been changed by command. As a servant of Christ, she discovers that her calling is not to the monastery but rather to the Von Trapp family, first as a governess, then as a wife and mother. But Maria herself has not been Re-created.
Instead, Maria has been Re-constructed and Re-presented. We will be talking about both these Re-forms a great deal more in subsequent chapters, but here let us simply say that a life lived into old age goes through many reconstructions. Maria is reconstructed from naïve to worldly wise, from cloistered to widely traveled, from celibate to chaste in marriage, from restless and impulsive to peacefully and joyfully disciplined. From an awkward and unnatural novice she is reconstructed into the most naturally lovingly graceful of governesses and wives, growing from stage to stage, grace to grace, strength to strength. And Maria’s appearance changes—her ugly costume which so revolted the Captain on their first meeting could hardly stay. But it is the same Maria who is moving from stage to stage, miraculously changing her appearance from being an awkward and unfit novice to a graceful and powerful wife and step-mother.
And the fact that Maria is not reborn to a new character but is being reconstructed to meet the challenges of a new phase of life adds texture to the film, the warp of the rebirth of eight people around her and the woof of Re-construction in Maria guided by the wisdom of the Reverend Mother, engineered together to make a more complex whole.
In Maria we also see Re-presentation, shown to us in her changing roles. Her costuming itself re-presents Maria in different phases of growth as she takes on new roles. As a novice, she is dressed in a black habit, which is always coming undone. As a potential governess, she is dressed in the drabbest and ugliest of common lay garb. Once in the Von Trapp estate, she is presented as a feminine young woman in a modest nightgown and as an impish yet vibrant ingénue in re-constructed drapery, as an innocently alluring woman in a modest blue party dress, as a triumphant bride in a long-trained white gown, as a competent wife and mother in her trousseau, and finally in her traveling clothes as a mature woman facing an unknown world, bringing to the challenge all she learned from the abbey and from the hills. Her costuming presents her—through a series of Re-presentations—as an ugly duckling turned into a swan.
Maria is re-presented to the world she was originally born into but which she forsook for the sake of what she believed to be her calling as a nun. She is thrust back out into that secular world much against her native will but not against her disciplined will as one preparing for Christ as a husband. And it turns out that she is a “natural” in that secular world, that very special kind of novice who is both called and endowed with gifts for a very special ministry away from the rule of an order.
If Maria is re-constructed and re-presented but not re-created, then the central character need not define the dominant form of Regain Vitalism in Sound of Music. In The Student Prince, Karl’s Re-creation dominates the Regain form of the film. But in Sound of Music, the numerical superiority of the seven children and the captain ensure the dominance of Re-creation vitalism. The fact that Maria as a person is not reborn allows her to act as the attending “midwife” to the others’ rebirth and makes Sound of Music a far more interesting work of art.
So there is a real patterning involved here in the various expressions of Regain vitalism, a pattern created by the contrast of the Von Trapp family Re-creations to Maria’s Re-construction and Re-presentation. If Maria were also reborn at the core of her being, then Sound of Music as a whole would resemble a nest of eggs hatching, Maria alongside the children and alongside Georg. Or in terms of patterning, it would be like a solid red shirt. The redness of Re-creation would be overwhelming, but there would be no patterning in the red.
But Maria is not just more red in a red shirt, more rebirth among the rebirths of Georg and the children. She is, if you will, a recurrent blue stripe of Re-construction and Re-presentation amidst the red of rebirth, and the contrasts of Regain forms in themselves create patterning. And of course additionally Georg seeing her with new eyes introduces a Re-visioning element within the structure and patterning as a whole.
We then find that virtually every variation of each of the three vitalist techniques—Impulse Gladness Spirit, Langerian humor, and Regain form—is present and even memorable in Sound of Music. It is thus an indispensable exemplar in any attempt to define Vitalist Comedy. But given this extraordinary and general vitality, we are also arguing for a clear, special character for Sound of Music’s Langerian Potential emphasis, its Re-creation form, and its Spirit of Song Impulse. It would be hard to make such a strong case for the dominance of any other three vitalist humor techniques.
We then have two representatives of the Spring Vitalist variant, Student Prince and Sound of Music, and we can begin to talk meaningfully not only about Vitalist dynamic but more specifically its Spring variant. That dynamic discussion, however, will be rather halting if we do not first consider at least briefly the comedic import, the basic comedic pattern that must reinforce and, in fact, direct the power of the screenplay’s vitalist techniques.
What is the patterned success and/or survival of Sound of Music? First of all, it is essentially a pattern of survival, not of success. The Von Trapp Family Singers were obviously a major artistic success of the post-war era. And Captain Georg Von Trapp had clearly been a major success as a war hero in Austria before the beginning of the film. But the film itself is not about such grandiose accomplishments. It is, instead, about the “still small voice” accomplishments that bring to life, that sustain, that provide the will and courage to resist, to relinquish, to flee, to value something greater than self. These are survival accomplishments, and however self-effacing, they meet more basic human needs than flashy successes in the public world.
In one sense, the survival celebrated in the Sound of Music is survival based in love—one of the most obvious and oversimplified themes of comedy throughout history. In another sense, it is a survival which cannot do without music because there is music, particularly a sense of harmony around melody, which is a necessary metaphor for love worth talking about.
But in a deeper sense, the movie circles back from the many spectacular rebirths to Maria herself, unreborn as we have just argued, yet repeatedly thrust out of the cloister into the secular world, to create a new kind of survival. Yes, Sound of Music celebrates survival, survival through love and love energized in music. But within that great pattern, the film started with a problem, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” “How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?” And it is the Reverend Mother who finally has the responsibility for guiding the answer, not Maria herself, who has voluntarily announced her true love and moved decisively to make that her life.
In “Climb Every Mountain,” the Reverend Mother makes clear that survival is not finally enough. And not surprisingly, “Climb Every Mountain” gets quoted or represented at one graduation ceremony after another.
In deference to secular modes of thought, the Reverend Mother talks in terms of finding one’s “dream.” But in her dialog and in the entire comedic situation, it is calling rather than dream that the Reverend Mother is talking about and that Maria is seeking to discover. She has decisively moved not toward dream but toward calling. And she has failed dismally in her first attempts to fulfill a calling as a cloistered nun. However, God never closes a door without opening a window. And the same interview in which the Reverend Mother must deal with Maria the flibbertigibbet is also the interview in which she can and must insist that Maria is still in search of her true calling and must bravely move out into the world to do so.
So in a deeper sense, the real patterning of Sound of Music is a patterning not of dedication to a calling but of being thrust out in search of calling. Before her marriage to Georg, Maria is twice thrust out of the convent, in the intervening time thrust out of the Von Trapp world, after her marriage thrust out of a beautiful home she had momentarily become mistress of, then out of the temporary asylum of the convent, and finally out of Austria itself across the Alps into Switzerland and into a new life entirely. The great celebration of Sound of Music is that one can find true calling even in and through repeated exile.
And as the film concludes in the high Alps with just such magnificent prospects, we have a fairly sudden trigger of vitalist comedic dynamis. Not all vitalist comedic dynamis is sudden, as we will explore in later chapters. But in both Student Prince and Sound of Music we do have sudden movement from plot and import to a sudden springing forth of dynamic, a feeling that “We too can and should. . . .”
Spring comes suddenly. One day it’s winter, the next day there are crocuses in bloom. Life is waiting to burst forth in spring, and when it does, it carries a dynamis of its own that is typically irresistible, a dynamis to get at it.
We have said that vitalist dynamic or dynamis is a strong surge. In its Spring variant, it is very much a forward-moving urge. It is an up-and-about-it surge. If it pleases you, it is a “rush” like the rush that distance runners so often talk about, a surge of energy after much exertion.
Spring dynamis makes us feel that the world is before us. It may be a cruel world in a cruel time of year. But we feel it is time to be moving out, moving up, taking things on, starting to build, pressing forward on a set course. This is the alive sense of resolve dynamis of Student Prince as a grimly determined Karl is carried back to the train that will carry him to Nordhausen, back to kingship. The world is providing plenty of movement over which Karl has abdicated all control.
But in the background the student corps sings, and in the foreground Juttner emphasizes, “Gaudeamus.” And it is the “Gaudeamus,” the let us rejoice which Karl can command and, in fact, must command in becoming the king but also in becoming the man and the husband of Johanna. The Spring dynamic rejoices in the world before it (even though Karl has not quite fought through to rejoicing in the closing moments of the film).
The sense of a sudden surge in Spring Vitalism gives it a feeling of being unencumbered, not tied down, even a sudden feeling of being radically free.
The operative words we are looking for are not arbitrary, especially not psychologically. Instead they follow from the kinds of vitalist humor employed and emphasized throughout. Langerian Potential is unencumbered precisely because it is still Potential. When we see it actualized, it becomes Performance and takes on baggage. Re-creation is unencumbered and free because it has no past to be encumbered with.
Similarly, it is psychologically reasonable to expect that the Spring variant of vitalist comedy will have a light or uplifting dynamis, if only because it derives from the Spirit of Song. Song floats and lifts the spirit with it; even on the banks of the Mississippi in Showboat’s “Old Man River,” it lightens the load. In the terms of our two Spring vitalist examples, Student Prince is consistently lightened by “Gaudeamus Igitur” even though the lyric ends in “Aus jucundum juventutem aus molestam Senectutem/ Nos hababit humus” (After the joys of youth and the molestations of age, the earth will have us). In Sound of Music, “The hills are alive with the sound of music,” goatherds occasionally hear a responsive Yodelehioo, and once you’ve learned the notes, “you can sing most anything.”
The Spring variant of vitalism is typically optimistic, specifically optimistic in an untried sense. Captain Von Trapp has already been a war hero. He has stood alone against the Nazis. He has led his family to the top of the Alps. All true, but he now looks down on a free Switzerland as a political refugee. The world is all before him, but it is a world in which he has no track record. Maria has brought a family back to life. She has no track record for holding a family together in a strange land. Yet the Spring dynamis here creates a sense of profound optimism. In Student Prince, Karl has just said goodbye to the one woman he has ever loved in order to marry a woman he didn’t particularly appreciate. He’s never faced this kind of trial before, and yet Juttner optimistically urges him to take Heidelberg with him, “rejoice.”
And finally, the Spring variant of vitalism creates a sense of coming into strength. It is empowering. Potential suggests a coming into strength as it turns into accomplishment. The Spirit of Song is routinely a movement toward higher power by the close of the song. Re-creation has all the growing power of new life.
The dynamis is a feel, not a fact or a statement or a thought. We are each entitled to feel the dynamis to some extent for ourselves and in our own idiosyncratic way. We would assert that for a normal appreciative audience, the screenplay has been directing us toward a central “typical” dynamic consensus all along, a consensus strong surge or rush, perhaps coming on suddenly at the end of an “adventure story” plot, which plot has until almost the last moment dominated our attention. However, the last word is not the last word of plot but rather the last word of dynamis, a vitalist dynamis of life responding to strongly lived and represented life.
And here, in its Spring variant, that dynamis which is more a feeling than a thought can still be somewhat represented by words and phrases like “Forward,” “Let’s get on with it,” “The world before us,” “Onward and upward,” “Time to move out.”
We may come into the theatre incapacitated in some way, perhaps literally not able to get out of our chairs by ourselves. The dynamis does not overcome every disease or every incapacity. But it does surge, and thus it is right to say that all the variants of vitalist comedic dynamis are incipient surges, the feel of power to do, even if in fact our infirmities or the circumstances do not allow us actually to do.
And such an incipient surge, far from being weak, is something very strong and something very valuable, which explains why so many people have been willing to buy such entertainment. Because the incipient surge, in the Spring variant, the incipient surge to move out of our seats and onward, empowers us to a very great deal. We feel, for a while, unencumbered, uplifted, optimistic, and empowered.
And life is always willing to pay a great price for empowerment.