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The anatomy of the gag: Havel, Stoppard and comedies of political censorship


Edwards, F, The anatomy of the gag: Havel, Stoppard and comedies of political censorship, Proceedings of the 2022 Australasian Humour Studies Network (AHSN) Annual Conference, 02-04 February 2022, University of Tasmania, Hobart, pp. 1 piece- abstract. (2022) [Conference Extract]

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When British playwright Tom Stoppard was asked what made a joke funny, Stoppard’s first recourse was to his good friend, fellow playwright Vaclav Havel. Havel maintained, said Stoppard, that ‘it all came down to incongruous juxtaposition. [The jokes] were only funny because two ordinary things were put together and one thing became amusing.’

When the Czechoslovak refugee, Tomáš Sträussler, was asked to provide a theory of humour, he referred to an academic essay entitled The Anatomy of the Gag , written by exiled Czechoslovak political dissident Václav Havel. Stoppard’s discussion elided both the detail of Havel’s exposition, which dealt in terms of the defamiliarization of the automatism of reality, as well as the political uses to which both he and Havel had put the theory.

The attempts of totalitarian states to control what language can be used is crucial to both Havel’s The Memorandum and Stoppard's Cahoot's Macbeth. Comparing the two, especially given their common debt to Czechoslovak politics of the 1960s and 1970s, is instructive in itself. But analysing them within Havel’s conceptual framework shows far more: it makes clear how it is the use of humour in the plays that forces the audience to engage directly with otherwise nebulous systemic issues of political control and coercion. This denies the audience the comfort of a culpability that collapses around a single character, and explains why critics have struggled to pinpoint the reasons for the ominous tone of both comedies.

The presentation will also contain a uniquely Australian aside discussing Havel’s use of both ‘wombat’, and ‘possum’ as punchlines in The Memorandum, and the lamentable absence of similar references in Cahoot’s Macbeth.

Item Details

Item Type:Conference Extract
Keywords:drama, theatre, stoppard, Havel, literature, Shklovsky
Research Division:Language, Communication and Culture
Research Group:Literary studies
Research Field:British and Irish literature
Objective Division:Culture and Society
Objective Group:Communication
Objective Field:Literature
UTAS Author:Edwards, F (Mr Fergus Edwards)
ID Code:154907
Year Published:2022
Deposited By:English
Deposited On:2023-01-18
Last Modified:2023-01-18

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