Romance and love, in their glorious and twisted forms, feature
prominently in our 2012 season, from the erotic game-playing of
Dangereuses to the small-town sauciness of
Under Milk Wood to the
feel-good charm of Midsummer [a play with
songs] and Sex with
Strangers. Here Axel Kruse explores the
evolution of the romcom in theatre...
Romantic comedy, or romcom, deals in sex and love, those two
similar but not necessarily identical human conditions. In romantic
comedy sex and love go together. Young lovers meet and fall in
love, or begin to fall in love, and the process turns into a series
of absurd mistakes and misadventures, a potent mixture of farce,
jokes and dreamlike fantasy. The play ends when the lovers accept
the fateful power of romance. The ending is like a shared
revelation for the lovers and the audience.
Part of the attraction for the audience is that it all seems so
simple and inevitable. Sex, love and mating are among the most
complicated human experiences - romantic comedy celebrates them in
a way that allows for the complexity and everything ends in bliss,
or something that promises bliss. Marriage actually.
Ancient Greek and Roman comedy established the tradition of clowns
and farce. But there is nothing quite like the kind of love
in romantic comedy. In Roman comedy such as Plautus's The Haunted
House (circa 210 BC) love means a special
preference for one particular partner in a world of drunken, randy
young men and their slave women and prostitutes.
Romance as it exists in classic romantic comedy developed under the
conditions of medieval patriarchal society and Christian
religiousness. With the rise of romance, love became even more
special - a sudden religious mystery, an act of devotion, a
ceremony, something essentially optimistic, an affirmation of the
current human conditions of lifelong, monogamous domesticity.
Shakespeare is the great master of classic romantic comedy.
Shakespeare picked up on the long established tradition of clowns
and farce and combined it with romance. The three Shakespearean
plays that define the genre are A Midsummer
Night's Dream (1595-6), As You Like
It (1599) and Twelfth
Night (1601-2). They establish the grand
Shakespearean pattern: a world of high society, wit and fashion
that seems like the ordinary world; extraordinary fun and games; a
strange combination of knowing comedy and innocence.
Another basic characteristic Shakespeare defined is that while it
is all about the power of sex and love, and the ending looks
forward to the wedding night, and might even seem like an act of
sex in a dreamy and magical way, no one has sex in classic romantic
comedy, or rather, the two young lovers do not have sex.
In A Midsummer Night's
Dream Hermia and Lysander decide to run away to
the woods of Athens because her father wants her to marry someone
else. But they go to the woods on midsummer's eve, a time
associated with pagan rites and carnival. What follows is a wild
exploration of romance and its absurdities - sudden changes about
who loves who, violence, low jokes and strange wisdom found in
bizarre fantasy. The high and beautiful fairy queen falls in love
with a clown who has been transformed into an ass and who is
something of an arse, and called Bottom. When he wakes from his
adventures Bottom says, 'I have had a most rare vision' and that it
is 'past the wit of man'.
After the libertine Restoration period, the 1700s saw a return of
romantic comedy. Love mattered more and women began to gain more
power within the patriarchal marriage system.
Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer; or, The Mistakes of a Night
(1773) is one of a series of later variations on Shakespeare's
night of dreamlike mistakes. Young Marlow has a problem. He is
experienced with women of the lower orders but goes to pieces with
women of his own class. He meets Kate Hardcastle when she is
dressed as a lady and fails to even look at her properly. Later he
recovers his manhood when she allows him to mistake her for a
servant girl. But romcom forgives and forgets, and celebrates the
silly side of sex and romance.
After Shakespeare Jane Austen's Pride and
Prejudice (1813) is the next great version of
classic romantic comedy. Austen was aware of change and a dark side
to romance. Like Kate Hardcastle, Elizabeth Bennet is a strong,
intelligent and clever young woman aware that she is confined by
traditional social codes and conventions and in some ways ready for
revolutionary change. With Bingley Austen added a romantic villain,
almost Gothic in the context. Bingley certainly has sex, and in an
irresponsible and opportunistic way.
The second half of the nineteenth century saw widespread changes in
belief and the onset of radical change to romantic comedy that has
continued to the present. Romance transforms the basic human
conditions of mating and procreation that keep the species going.
On the Origin of the
Species (1859) redefined romance and romantic
The new directions were signaled by Oscar Wilde's The
Importance of Being Earnest (1895) and George du
Maurier's novel Trilby, first published
in the same year. Trilby was adapted for
the stage, became a smash hit in London, New York and across
Europe, and eventually became a film. Trilby turns romantic
comedy towards dark sex and tragedy. The story is set in
Bohemian Paris (as in La Boheme (1896)) where
Trilby is an artist's model and a fallen woman. Abandoned by Little
Billee she is taken up by Svengali, a dark, satanic lover with
strange hypnotic power. Like Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), Trilby
answered to new stresses and strains in the history of sex and
From the early twentieth century to the present new versions of
romantic comedy have flourished in the new conditions of radical
change in religion, marriage, sexual codes and the status of
women. As romantic comedy becomes romcom the comedy is darker
but still optimistic. As the religious framework falls away, like
Christmas, romance becomes even more magical. Recent romcom is one
of the great mediums for a contemporary sense of wonder.
One of the great classics of the last hundred years is The
Philadelphia Story, which appeared first as a
Broadway play (1939), written by Philip Barry. The play became the
classic movie, The Philadelphia Story
(1940) and later transformed into the film musical High
Society (1956)). The
Philadelphia Story is another imitation of
Shakespeare's mistakes of a summer's night. In the film version
Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord is a high society divorcee like a
modern love goddess, or fairy queen, and about to marry for the
second time. The events of the night before the wedding include
that she might have, or definitely has not, or again just might
have had sex with a drunken, working class reporter, Macaulay
Connor, played by James Stewart in a performance as a decent and
randy young drunk good enough to have impressed Plautus. At the
last moment, she walks down the aisle to remarry her first husband,
C. K. Dexter Haven, played by Cary Grant.
Recent romcom reflects the current mass culture age of digital
technology, sexual freedom, condoms, gender equality and relative
lack of censorship. The lovers tend to be older and more
experienced. Many characters have sex, whether they are married or
not. One way to say it is that there is a lot of shagging in recent
English romcoms. There is also an element of pragmatism,
considerable disillusion and the setting tends to be more or less
real. The cinema has been a major force. The major successes of the
last ten to twenty years include When Harry
Met Sally (1989), Notting
Hill (1999), and the Jane Austen imitations
Bridget Jones's Diary
(2001) and its sequel, in which the Hugh Grant character makes Jane
Austen's villain Bingley look like a nun.
Romcom is one of the most popular genres of contemporary global
culture. While there is an emphasis on the dark side (including a
revival of vampires), the new transgressive, hybrid versions shaped
by global television, cinema and popular music continue to explore
the mystery that brings lovers together at the end in a moment of
celebration and heartbreak. The ending when the lovers accept the
power of romance is still a strange kind of revelation, as Bottom
said, 'a most rare vision', even if at times it can seem even
harder to understand and the modern urban world is very different
to the pastoral woods of Athens.
Romcom gains from continuing renewal in the theatre, where there is
a strong sense that the tradition includes Shakespeare as well as
Hugh Grant and Bridget Jones. David Greig and Gordon McIntyre's
Midsummer [a play with
songs] (2008) renews the romcom tradition
with experimental theatricality, songs and a challengingly
different pair of lovers who share a lost weekend in Edinburgh.
Midsummer takes romcom
further into the contemporary world of social crisis and dark
questions about identity and survival.