Friday 3 October 2014

Funny Females Ancient and Modern

Aphrodite Practises Stand-Up Routine
‘A woman that always laughs is everybody’s wife’. So claims a Chinese proverb. Medieval German conduct books equated a laughing woman’s mouth with the opening of her other orifice. The Greek goddess whose epithet was ‘laughter-loving’ was of course Aphrodite, in charge of all things erotic.  

Surely it is the groundless drawing of an inevitable connection between female laughter and female sexual accessibility which has meant funny women have had and are still given such a hard time?

Gloomy Thalia
What we need is a new symbol of the funny woman. Those grim statues of Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, are enough to depress anyone. There were comic actresses in late antiquity but the roles they performed all directed the jokes against women—as ugly, old, drunk, lewd, or cruel.

Myth offers one ancient Greek stand-up comedian, Iambe (pronounced I-am-bee). She gave her name to the metre, the iambic, in which mocking poems were composed. Her jokes cheered up the goddess Demeter enough, when her daughter Persephone had been abducted, to get back on her celestial bike and demand that the male gods do a deal. But Iambe, sadly, seems to have kept her jokes for female-only contexts and was not allowed to perform in the company of men.

Laugh-a-Minute Spartans
The ancient Greek god of laughter, GELŌS, or RISUS in Latin, was worshipped by the militaristic Spartans, famous for their gallows humour. But Gelōs/Risus was  male.  Another city in central Greece held a festival for him which I intend to revive when we have found a female comedy-hero to add to his cult. It was described by the man-turned-into-an-ass in Apuleius’ Golden Ass:

‘Of the thousands of people milling about, there was not a single one who was not splitting his sides with laughter… Some cackled in paroxysms of mirth, others pressed their hands to their stomachs to relieve the pain. In one way or another the entire audience was overcome with hilarity.’ 

Ball with favourite co-star Vivian Vance
I want to be there! And at the festival we could celebrate as demigod the first and greatest funny woman to achieve global fame, Lucille Ball, reruns of whose uplifting 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy are still playing. If you are feeling blue, enjoy the comic masterclass constituted by the final sequence of Lucy Wants a Career, in which she tries to film a TV advert for a breakfast cereal called Wakey Flakies after taking a sleeping pill.

Both Lucille and the character she played were attractive, monogamous, maternal and absolutely hilarious. She could do physical comedy better than Buster Keaton and verbal repartee like the Marx brothers. This week I was lucky enough to tell her story, along with her now nonagenarian friend Carole Cook and the broadcaster Matthew Parris, on the BBC Radio 4 Great Lives series. You can hear it until Tuesday here. And in Lucille’s honour I’m definitively rewriting that Chinese proverb: ‘A woman who always laughs is the woman everyone wants as a wife.’

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