The plot premise of Comedians can be told as simply as a joke. Five working-class Englishmen in Manchester who have taken a course in how-to-be-acomic from an old has-been comedian meet for the last time, in Act I, to polish their acts before performing before a talent scout, in Act II, in a private club; and in Act III only two barely emerge from the audition with any promise, the most talented having failed most miserably. But unlike the jokes, the Trevor Griffiths’ play is not funny. One laughs at the ill-assorted, ill-timed, ill-prepared jokes that Neil Simon could have constructed into a Broadway hit like The Sunshine Boys, at the risk of feeling the pain that drives those laborers to lunge so desperately for the brass ring.
The concept illustrated in the plot development is just as simple: display the desperation behind all laughter by showing men who would normally be members of the audience as they try pathetically to rise above their station by replacing the comics whose job is to make men like themselves forget their predicament.
The theatrical image Griffiths has imagined for articulating that plot and concept reveals his genius. The clever notion and the action line might have occurred to any inventive mind—novelist or playwright. But Griffiths shows us a sad, drab public schoolroom, a dark wet night at the windows, among other rooms being used for similar adult education classes, and an old custodian—who treats all adult students as intrusive foreigners—in a hurry to close up. In this setting five men respond together to warm-up exercises and try, with the aid of their teacher, as old as the school caretaker, to hone the comic techniques they have acquired in a crash course. Into this setting comes, like Godot, the man they have been training to appeal to—Bert Challenor, once a famous comic.
That theatrical image changes in Act III to a private club, but we retain the after-image of the sterile schoolroom, with its scarred desks and chalk dust. We see only a small stage and a single spot on a microphone, with a piano and a player in the background. The stage resembles the one on which the master’s desk sits in the schoolroom. In the light spill from the spot, we faintly see Ed Waters, the teacher, sitting on one side and Challenor, the agent, on the other, watching. Just as the men warmed up for an unseen audience in the presence of a live audience in the theater, the audience in the club, annoyed at having their bingo game interrupted for these auditions, is unseen, making us still the only audience.
We remain the audience when the comedians return to the schoolroom in Act III to face the music. Now the theatrical image of the schoolroom, which in itself suggests so much about other settings in the lives of working-class people—their homes, their dirty factories, their dreary pubs—augmented by the contrasting but not very different image of a public stage, is all the more powerful. It is now a kind of naturalistic setting, no longer straining for seedy music-hall glamor; here the men contend with the realities of the situations that their try for “stardom” has made brutally clear.
This theatrical image is brilliant because the settings and the actions within those settings dramatically enhance each other and express the plot, the character relationships, the concept, and the theme of the play. The settings are not simply “where the action takes place.” The image we are viewing—of the schoolroom and the club stage—has a mark of inevitability that gives force to the action: here, we feel, no other action but the one we are watching could occur. It is a purely theatrical image not because it is a schoolroom-club stage but because of the use the playwright has made of it. Once the characters, who are always rehearsing to be actors, have all made their entrances and the teacher is in place on the little desk-stage before them, and we learn that tonight they will appear on a stage before a live audience and an examiner, so to speak, who will pass or fail them, we have taken in an image that is already dynamic enough to satisfy the appetite for theater that brought us to view or to read the play.
The schoolroom is a rock-bottom image of our everyday lives—so much of what we have become was shaped there or during the period we served time there. Griffiths has conceived a double image more potently theatrical than any play in recent years has offered us. The effective articulation of that image begins with the deliberately humdrum device of letting each person make his separate entrance, not only to define him, but also to give an aura of routine beginnings. The dullness of this device dramatizes the men’s desire to escape lives that are in every respect as routine. The most menial of workingmen is the old school caretaker who enters to clean up. He is erasing a dirty graffiti from the blackboard when the most forceful character, Price, a truck driver, enters in a raincoat and shaves at the teacher’s desk—a parallel to putting on make-up, and a ritual-like rehearsal of the student’s attempt to surpass the teacher who taught him from that position. The caretaker mistakes him for a student barber, practicing on himself—a line of work more suitable for most of these men. Price, profoundly confident, is considered to be the teacher’s favorite, the most likely to succeed; he will, however, fail most miserably. The next to enter is Phil, an insurance agent who, with his partner brother, will fail differently. “Are you ready then? I am. By God, I am.” Then McBrain, a dock worker in a parka, an extrovert, enters. “I have what it takes.” By current standards, he does; he will succeed. Samuels, fat, well-dressed, Manchester Jewish, and Connor, who has just been laid off his job, enter together. Not to dole out his characters too mechanically, Griffiths introduces Ed Waters, the teacher, next. “Let’s get cracking.” Last in is...
(The entire section is 2438 words.)