essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
In a documentary on PG Wodehouse i watched recently, a reporter asked a friend of the family where Wodehouse’s characters came from; he was nonplussed by the response that they were just stock characters, as old as ancient Greek literature.
We don’t think much of stock characters now. We call them types, or worse, stereotypes. Ever since Stendhal in The Charterhouse of Parma (1839) attempted the accurate portrayal of human emotions, critics have derided other forms of literary representation. They forget Realism is just another convention, that all we ever have is a book with printed letters, and our imaginations.
Once stock characters were all there were, and were highly appreciated.
Take the three characters that work in all genre fiction. The hero; his lover, or the heroine; and his opponent, the villain.
In romantic fiction the emphasis is on the outcome of a love affair which the villain obstructs: the important bit is the happy ending. Jane Eyre, or its reverse, Wuthering Heights, would be an example.
In adventure fiction the emphasis is on the obstacles and dangers the hero faces, and overcomes. He’s strong, brave and resilient, and wins the girl and defeats the villain. Star Wars 4 would be an example.
In horror fiction the emphasis is on the villain. He’s powerful, frightening, and seems to prevail over the hero and his love, right till the last minute. Dracula, or The Silence of the Lambs, would be examples.
In sex fantasy or pornographic fiction the emphasis is on the heroine, and we see her reduced to her sexual characteristics, of body and behaviour. Fanny Hill, The Story of O, or the hentai Girlfriends For Ever are examples.
These stock characters of ‘pulp’ fiction or popular novels, were preceded by other, similar, types. Shakespeare has a rich variety of them, Fools, heroes, heroines and villains, bumpkins, men dominated by a ‘humour’ such as melancholy or choler. His contemporary Ben Johnson wrote in a ‘comedy of manners’ format inherited from Italy and from ancient Greece.
Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac of 1897, about the 17th century French fantasist, is itself a fantasy relying on stereotypes. Cyrano is a hero, Roxane his star crossed lover. It would become an example of realism if Roxane had a big nose, and was an accomplished duellist and poet who was unable to express herself because she was a woman.
The person interviewed about PG Wodehouse was right about stock characters. They go all the way back to ancient Greece. The Iliad and the Odyssey are full of stock characters. Not only Thersites the foolish Upstart, but the wily Odysseus, a model for Han Solo, Achilles the Brave Warrior and Helen the most beautiful of women. These poems wouldn’t have worked as realist inventions. But as the depiction of types they are extremely powerful and effective. They are the product of broad strokes of description and the surge of the metre’s melody.
Athenian drama, which was derived from Homer, is full of types. Such is the skill of the Greek dramatists that they place Oedipus, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Cassandra in a structure that makes them, not stereotypes, but archetypes, ones that affect us to this day.
Tragedy aside, we know types best through Geek comedy, that of Aristophanes, the earliest surviving comic dramatist, who wrote through the horrific Peloponnesian War of 431 to 404 BC; and the Roman comedy of Plautus, who adapted Greek New Comedy to Roman tastes and who lived through the demoralising first two Punic Wars of the third century BC (Greek drama is categorised as Old, fifth century, Middle, fourth century, and New, second to fourth century BC).
Athenian drama had lost its fantasy based political satire under the domination of first Macedon, and then Rome. The late drama of Euripides had influenced other dramatists towards non heroic treatments in drama; not realism, but in situations where typecast characters were involved in predictable domestic plots. In Greek drama the audience always knew the plot. Myth was introduced in these late plays of the second century BC only to be made fun of.
The easiest way to experience New Comedy and its types is to watch the 1966 film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (with Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, Michael Crawford and Buster Keaton, directed by Richard Lester). The film, and the Broadway play it’s based on, takes elements of Plautus’ Pseudolus, or the conman; Miles Gloriosus or the braggart soldier; and Mostellaria or the ghost.
There is a dim witted patrician youth called Hero who falls in love with a beautiful slave girl called Philia (love). His parents, the hen pecked Senex (old man) and his wife, Domina, wouldn’t hear of their son associating with Philia. But Hero’s own slave, his gentleman’s gentleman, Pseudolus, makes a deal. He will get Philia for Hero if Hero will grant him his freedom.
One’s mind goes back to Wodehouse, Bertie Wooster, Jeeves and Aunt Agatha.
A word about originality might be a good idea at this point. Originality is quite a new idea, and a false one I think. I follow Eccesiastes in thinking, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”.
Much pre 20th century literature references other writings. This is done for two reasons. To demonstrate the writer’s culture. And to orientate the reader, familiar with the referenced work, as to what the writer’s point is all about. If you thought of something original, the first thing you did was to ascribe it to someone else, someone venerated, like Solomon.
In this connection Wodehouse was of his times. He was classically educated in Greek and Latin, and knew Shakespeare’s plays very well, as anyone would know who’s read Wodehouse (a volume on “Wodehouse’s Shakespeare” would be an entertaining one). Shakespeare in turn had read Plautus (The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew). But then agin, nobody pretends that Shakespeare was ever original. Just good.
Just to confuse matters, here are some lines from A Funny Think Happened on the Way to the Forum film script. Could writers Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove possibly have read Wodehouse?
Hero: For us there will never be happiness.
Philia: We must learn to be happy without it.
Philia: That’s the brute who raped my country, Thrace!
Pseudolus: He raped Thrace?
Philia: And then he came and did it again! And again!
Pseudolus: He raped Thrace thrice?
Senex: Son, if you’re only as happy as your mother and I have been… my heart bleeds for you.
Stock characters start with the later plays of Euripides, who makes mythological characters have lives like ordinary Greek men and woman (of course he lived through the Peloponnesian War like Aristophanes and was exiled to Thrace, er, Macedonia). Euripides influenced Athenian New Comedy, which was adapted by Plautus for Romans, and versions of Plautus’ plays are thought to have been performed or at least read until the period of the Renaissance.
Plautus in turn affected the evolution of the Commedia dell’arte. This was a professional theatre which employed both actors and actresses, used improvisation and music heavily, and in performance the actors wore masks. What was taken from the contemporary ‘learned’ comedy was Plautus’ characters, who evolved as Pantalone, the miser; Graziano the pedant; Pulcinella, of Punch and Judy fame. There were lovers, repressive parents, and conniving slaves. Servants such as Harlequin, lovely girls such as Columbina, and sad clowns such as Pierrot. From this came also the opera.
This characterisation was a way of looking at life which was in accord with then current medical views, that human beings were the product of four humours, quantities circulated by the blood, and each of which might come to dominate the body and be responsible for exaggerated behaviour. So although there were old miserly men, feckless young lovers, conniving slaves or servants or blustering bullies or old soldiers, there was a fatalistic aspect to the view, that this was what could happen through excess of a ‘humour’. Only tentatively, through the work of physicians like Paracelsus, was there the idea that medicine could do more than let blood to relieve the effects of a humour.
The commedia dell’arte was influential on Italian drama as a whole, which in turn for a time absorbed Shakespeare, who seemed to be entranced with Italian literature generally for a while, as though it were a wonderful discovery (though experienced perhaps in translation or adaptation). Perhaps from the conversation of John Florio at Southhampton’s court. From there it’s a short trip to the Shakespeare smitten PG Wodehouse.
I seem to be talking of stock characters and PG Wodehouse mainly in terms of the drama. The drama was a chief survival of classical literature, along with epic poems by Virgil and Homer and the scandalous poems of Ovid and the wise ones of Horace. Perhaps Wodehouse was mainly a dramatic writer rather than a novelist? He did have a parallel career as a writer of stage plays and musicals (40 shows between 1904 and 1960). If drama provided the structure for his stories, he added a dexterity of language which defies dramatic representation. All the plays or TV series I’ve seen of Wodehouse’s work rely on parody and typecasting; but the stories are dramas that rely on language, on something you can’t show. The best I think was the English series The Wodehouse Playhouse, with John Alderton and Pauline Collins, made in the 1970s. I think you have to read Wodehouse, as you do Jane Austen: drama misses something essential these authors have.
Which leaves me where I came in, with stock characters and genre fiction, realism and the novel, and belief in originality, a belief fostered since, and by, the industrial revolution. There’s a lot more to say, said more clearly, by the following, for a start.
The Adventurer by Paul Zweig (Dent, London 1974) which surveys adventurers like Odysseus, Casanova and Robinson Crusoe, and notes the differences between them and heroes.
The Hero by Lord Raglan (Oxford 1937) looks at heroes from Robin Hood onwards, and tries to separate history from myth.
The Anatomy of Villainy by Nigel Balchin (Collins London 1950) is an examination of villains from Judas Iscariot, the Marquis de Sade and Rasputin, and an attempt to see what function they serve.
The Fool by Enid Welsford (Faber London 1935) treats of court fools, mascots, holy fools, Shakespeare’s fools, clowns, and Harlequin, and all the roles they played.
The Dangerous Sex by HR Hays (Methuen London 1966), an enquiry into why women have so often been confined to and described by their sexual role, and the origins of misogyny.
And if all this sounds too studious, try PG Wodehouse by Frances Donaldson (Weidenfeld and Nicolson London 1982), an absorbing and entertaining story about a man who lived to over ninety and did nothing every day except write meticulously crafted ‘light’ books, about nothing at all, and who became one of the greatest of writers in English, with not a single claim that somebody else wrote his works.
©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.