Trevor Griffiths Peter Ansorge - Essay

Peter Ansorge

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The six young apprentice comics who attend the evening classes organised by one-time master comedian, Eddie Waters [in Comedians], are under no illusions about the state of their chosen profession…. [They are training for] TV-satiated audiences who have come to accept a whole new repertoire of outspoken radicalist and ugly, sexual jokes. 'It's not the jokes. It's what lies behind them,' insists their teacher who is trying to maintain his humane standards against the increasing amorality of the business. At the end of the first act we meet the London agent, Challenor, who has come to judge the comics with the offer of contracts for the most successful. He tells the student comedians to forget the wisdom of their teacher. 'I'm not looking for philosophers. I'm looking for comics…. Any good comic can lead an audience by the nose. But only in the direction they're going. And that direction is quite simply … escape.'

The second act is taken up with the acts, observed by Challenor and the stoical Waters. It is an enthralling demonstration of how we can choose either to sell or to save ourselves on a stage. (p. 22)

The last scene is a moving epitaph to the comedian's art, an acknowledgement that jokes are, perhaps, a reflection of our worst rather than our best instincts. Reviews have criticised this moment as an instance of bad taste, excess and fantasy on the part of the writer. But the whole scene comes from a sense that the joking has ended, 'all the funny men have gone home'. Price [who is Waters' "favorite and most gifted pupil"] quotes from Robert Frost's poem about the world ending in ice rather than fire. He leaves the stage, but not, one imagines, to follow a career in comedy.

Griffiths has written a beautiful, multilayered and unforgettable account of the comic art. I hope that its very lucidity won't be taken as mere analytical dissection of something which remains, finally, undefinable—humour….

There's a sense of staying power and parable about Comedians…. (p. 23)

Peter Ansorge, in Plays and Players (© copyright Peter Ansorge 1975; reprinted with permission), April, 1975.