High Hoops

by Brian Quirt

Act One: Manchester, 1975. A group of working class men assemble for their final night school class in Stand-Up Comedy. They’ve been working for weeks to create routines, guided by an elderly master famed for his success in the British music hall. Jokes fly back and forth as they arrive and their teacher offers his last pearls of wisdom about technique and content. He particularly urges them to pursue truth: jokes can be simple or complex but, he argues, the ones that truly ignite an audience are those that speak a truth. There lies the art. The class, a motley crew of tension and desire and excitement and ambition and thwarted dreams, then receives an utterly different lecture from a booking agent in London, who will be assessing their routines later that night. He’s interested in maximum laughs and the lowest common denominator. The students are screwed – it’s clear that the agent and the teacher have diametrically opposed approaches to audiences, comedy and life. What will the students do? Please their mentor or the man who might launch their career?

Act Two: Later that night, at a local bingo hall, the would-be comedians present their acts. As they each perform their short routines, we quickly see who has stuck with the teacher’s ideals and who has dumped their prepared gags in favour of Irish jokes, wife jokes, sex jokes and worse. A pair of brothers who have a ventriloquist routine suffer the anguish of their set self-combusting as one tries to stay true and the other simultaneously tries to sell out. Disaster. Finally, Gethin Price comes out. We’ve met him in Act One as the teacher’s pet. In punk clothes and with punk attitude he has mocked the others and consistently demonstrated his superior wit and delivery. But when he appears, he’s in the white face of a clown. He proceeds to do a brutal and bitter clown turn in which his character attacks two mannequins dressed as middle class dupes. The crowd is silent.

Act Three: The men reassemble to hear the agent’s verdict. He too is brutal, dismissing the losers and awarding two men with club try-outs, the two whose instinct for the basest joke possible won them the most laughter. He rejects Price altogether, admitting he didn’t get it and didn’t want to. The agent leaves, the men battle each other now that the victors have been named. The teacher is appalled by the sell-outs, by the truth that their work is rewarded. At the end of the night, finally alone, Price confronts the teacher, demanding to know what he thought of his clown scene. The teacher reluctantly admits that is was brilliant (as indeed it must be in performance) but hateful. And that comedy can never survive hatred. Price notes that the teacher has never once laughed in class and challenges his mentor to defend his beliefs. The play concludes with the teacher relating his loss of laughter when he visited one of the German concentration camps at the end of the war, and perhaps for the first time, reveals that he was in thrall to the scene.

So, in my description, Trevor Griffiths’ 1975 play Comedians probably doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs. But it is. This play is a remarkable achievement and one that has stayed with me vividly from the moment I first read it almost twenty years ago. It led me to read all Griffiths’ plays, to study his work on stage and for television in detail as a graduate student, and to include this play among the very very few existing plays on my list of shows I someday must direct.

It is almost beyond me to articulate every delicious quality of this text: the fact that the humour is almost completely politically incorrect yet outrageously funny; that the aspirations of a generation of working class men are presented in almost novelistic detail and then thoroughly dismembered; that the working class is elevated by this play and at the same time relentlessly punctured for being no more noble and just as contemptuous as the middle or upper class; that the characters are sketched with a supreme economy and clarity; that it offers a remarkable range of roles (granted, for white men) within this subculture; that that subculture is truly a grim yet beautiful (in terms of artistry) commentary on England as a whole; that the issues of art versus entertainment that plague us so frequently today are addressed with such passion by these men and by the author who created them; that social action through art is offered as a possibility while the enormous opposition to it is both satirized and acknowledged for the truths that is holds; that generations fight the fight and there is no winner.

Griffiths’ also offers perhaps the best straight-man role ever created. The one non-white character is a south-asian man who wanders into Act One looking for another night school class. He returns at the end of the play, tells his one joke and departs. It is a brilliant moment: a coda to the comedy of the play, but also to everything the play has said about race and class.

Comedians sets demands that few of Griffiths’ own plays measure up to; this is good. Somewhere in my head, I think I seek out work, both as a dramaturg in my position at Factory and as artistic director of my own company, that meets or is capable of meeting Griffiths’ work in Comedians. I know that this is a useful, good and effective standard because few of the plays I work on meet it. It is the hoop that cannot easily be reached. It sets for me a standard in construction, in political content, in social commentary, in merging drama with comedy, in finding the right moment, in tackling and attacking a community both on stage and in the audience. Although I’ve never seen a production, Nightswimming did a reading of it with Julian Richings as the teacher and Greg Kramer as Price: It is a hard play to sit through, but a pleasure to watch. That has long struck me as a supreme goal. When I’ve had the honour to be part of shows that get close to that mark – Jason Sherman’s Reading Hebron comes immediately to mind – I know that my addiction to creating theatre is right. At least for me.

I’ve been happily and powerfully inspired by many works. Among them I urge you to take a look at Moss Hart’s Act One, Howard Barker’s Arguments for a Theatre and Max Stafford-Clark’s Letters to George.

I also urge you to read Comedians – but don’t even think about doing it without me.

Reprinted with permission from Grammelot 1.3 (Summer 2002), a theatre journal published by Soraya Peerbaye. Contact her at grammelot@cyberstage.org. Grammelot is available at the Theatre Centre, at Canadia dell’Arte and at Book City on Bloor St. West, Toronto.

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