Laughter - Chapter One
I have spent the last few days writing the first chapter of my Laughter book (and finished it today). I had, in fact, written this chapter some time before, a couple of months ago -- but it wasn't right. In fact two colleagues, one in Berkeley and one in Cambridge, tactfully told me that it wasn't quite right.
Looking at it again, I saw what they were getting at. It was frankly a bit boring. So I have had another go at it.
What I have wanted to do is introduce a book on Roman Laughter with a couple of vignettes that somehow capture the complexity and interest of the subject -- and tell the reader how fascinating it is, without just doing the "here are a few dirty Roman jokes" routine.
Anyway, what I have done is to start by scrutinising the anecdote told by Dio about his stifled "giggle" in the Colosseum. It's the great one where he explains how he had to stop himself laughing at the antics of Commodus (which including shooting an ostrich, decapitating it and then brandishing it in a threatening way at the senators on the front row -- as if to say, you next). He claims that he had to take a handful of the laurel leaves from the garland in his head, and chew on them hard. I have a good go at this, wondering how tendentious Dio's account was. It is all very well writing this up 20 years later and saying that the only reaction was to laugh. Oh yes? Easy to say that two decades later. At the time he might have been shitting himself.
So I have added this to another key laughter text (which was there in version one), to get the book going -- that is the couple of passages in Terence's Eunuch, in which we actually read one of the characters twice laughing, that is going "hahahae". These are also very rich, interpretatively - as they raise the question of what it is we, or the Romans, recognise as funny. The great thing about Terence is that he really presses you to see how tricky laughter is..."What are you laughing at?" as the characters repeatedly say.
So onwards I go. I shall try to do a review this weekend and then make a stab, dv, at the next chapter -- which looks at theories of laughter and what the Romans might or might not add.