Search This Blog

Friday, July 24, 2015

Laughter in Ancient Rome. On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up. Mary Beard. University of California Press (2014)

An engaging, unexpected, thoughtful and smartly argued book about a possibly absurd question, what made ancient Romans laugh?
Laughter is an involuntary response, it is unruly and uncontrolled, "polite laughter" is a deliberate response to a attempt to make someone laugh rather than leave someone stranded without the hoped for response. Genuine laughter comes from us without any conscious intervention, something has struck a response, laughter is there a dangerous activity, making a joke of someone or something is to rob it of power. In ancient Rome, power was vitally important, power and respect were central to the functioning of the society and laughter by its unruly nature was a problem. Mary Beard looks at what made ancient Romans laugh as a way to get closer to understanding how ancient Romans lived, what was safe to laugh at and what was not.
People like to laugh, therefore getting people to laugh is a route to profitable creativity, people will pay to be made to laugh. Playwrights, songwriters, performers and writers have all worked at making audiences laugh, the problem is that anything more sophisticated than basic slapstick depends on a shared context to explode the joke. A joke is probably the worst traveler in the world, a joke out of context is less than unfunny it is puzzling, why is that funny? Given the gulf in time and cultural assumptions and context between us and the ancient Romans there is very little chance that any joke designed to make a Roman audience laugh will resonate today.
Mary Beard tackles this head on with an examination of a Roman comic play to see what was designed to tickle the audience and if possible why. Mary Beard manages an astonishingly difficult task, she makes examining the entrails of a joke absorbing and engaging. The focus is on the joke in the context and the historical exploration of the context is fascinating. Romans at play reveal themselves much more than in the carefully constructed histories and biographies, Romans as people emerge more clearly.
One of the great pleasures of the book is the way that Mary Beard looks at a a Roman joke book and traces the emergence of the independent joke, not part of a play or performance, and the structure of the jokes. The ancient jokes are recognisable as jokes today, not always funny but clearly intended to be, Mary Beard makes a case that the Roman joke book is the direct ancestor of jokes today, setting a pattern that is still in use.
This is an academic work, there is a great deal of deliberate argument regarding the points and propositions that Mary Beard wishes to make. Due to the fact that Mary Beard is an engaging and very talented writer I enjoyed the arguments and followed the critical examinations with interest rather than feeling locked out. A enjoyable, informative and engaging look at ancient Romans at play.

No comments:

Post a Comment