Sunday, November 17, 2019

'This Concatenation of Events'

Sophisticates condescend to slapstick comedy and pretend not to find it amusing. It’s beneath them. Face it: life would be less bearable without Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy – and Samuel Beckett, who is prominent among their admirers. Consider the showdown between Humbert Humbert and Clare Quilty in Lolita, or the war between Dolf Beeler and the Bullards in Thomas Berger’s The Feud. William Cowper, the drollest of madmen, savored life’s slapstick. In a letter he wrote on this date, Nov. 17, in 1783 to his friend the Rev. John Newton, Cowper describes a scene worthy of Monty Python:

“[The son of Molly Boswell] had stolen some iron-work, the property of Griggs, the butcher. Being convicted, he was ordered to be whipped, which operation he underwent at the cart's tail, from the stone-house to the high arch and back again. He seemed to show great fortitude, but it was all an imposition upon the public. The beadle, who performed it, had filled his left hand with red ochre, through which after every stroke he drew the lash of his whip, leaving the appearance of a wound upon the skin, but in reality not hurting him at all.”

There’s the set-up: a thief and his soft-hearted punisher. That the latter is a minor church functionary makes what happens next even better:

“This being perceived by Mr. Constable H——, who followed the beadle, he applied his cane, without any such management or precaution, to the shoulders of the too merciful executioner. The scene immediately became more interesting. The beadle could by no means be prevailed upon to strike hard, which provoked the constable to strike harder; and this double flogging continued, till a lass of Silver-end, pitying the pitiful beadle thus suffering under the hands of the pitiless constable, joined the procession, and placing herself immediately behind the latter seized him by his capillary club, and pulling him backwards by the same, slapped his face with a most Amazonian fury.”

Cowper’s pacing is superb. And that’s often the secret of comic writing – doling out the information at the appropriate rate, sometimes with understatement (“it was all an imposition”), something hyperbolically (“a most Amazonian fury”). Cowper ties it all up neatly:

“This concatenation of events has taken up more of my paper than I intended it should, but I could not forbear to inform you how the beadle thrashed the thief, the constable the beadle, and the lady the constable, and how the thief was the only person concerned who suffered nothing.”

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