Sunday 27 November 2016

DEAD FUNNY: Comic Underworlds Ancient & Modern

Fidel, Rejuvenated, Snapped crossing the Styx Yesterday
As Fidel Castro sails off on Charon’s ferry to the Underworld, perhaps he will be greeted by a chorale from the musicians who have arrived there during 2016—David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen. He may want to have words with Nancy Reagan, who died last March, since the Cuban Security Service calculates that the CIA tried to assassinate him during her husband Ronald’s presidency no fewer than 197 times.

Castro’s death coincides with my quest for comedies set in the Underworld subsequent to Aristophanes’ dazzling Frogs, which features the world’s first deceased ‘sit-up’ comedian in the form of a mordantly witty corpse. There are surprisingly few Hades comedies (despite its title, Dante’s Hell epic The Divine Comedy  isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs).
Corpse Centre Stage-cast of Toronto Uni Frogs (1902)

In Frogs, Dionysus gets the idea for the trip to Hades from Heracles, who once did the downward journey (technically known as a katabasis) and knows the ropes. Aristophanes’ greatest ancient admirer, Lucian, was inspired by Frogs in several amusing dialogues between travellers on Charon’s ferry or longstanding incumbents of Hades.

The Underworld was also visited in Greek myth by Orpheus and Odysseus. In Orpheus’ case I have the final scene of Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (1858), where the gods hold a riotous party in Hades. They are so bored  by Zeus's old-fashioned taste in dance that they invent the ‘infernal gallop’, better known as the can-can. For the Odyssey,  there are hilarious passages in Margaret Atwood’s 2005 novel The Penelopiad, in which Penelope muses on life in Hades alongside Helen and the hanged slave women.

All-Male Boardroom of Patriarchal Hell in Your Pretty Face
An American friend recommended Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell, which has been showing on Cartoon Network since 2013; the rather plodding humour results from transferring the familiar idea of ‘workplace comedy’ to Hell, adding morbid piquancy to office-situational jokes.

I can also talk about the side-splitting BBC radio comedy series Old Harry's Game, written by Andy Hamilton, who starred as Satan.  The best episode featured a Jihadi suicide bomber, furious that he had not been awarded his promised thousand virgins, getting into a scrap with an evangelical Christian fanatic. But I have always been worried that a leading character was an academic historian called Edith, a murder victim, who thought she knew a lot about the ancient Greeks.

Surely there must be other comic plays, novels and movies set in Hell or Hades which have embarrassingly slipped my notice? I genuinely believe in crowd sourcing for this kind of thing, so all suggestions gratefully acknowledged when I give the lecture at Warwick Uni. And if you have nothing better to do, you can enjoy composing that comic script in which Fidel finally tackles Nancy.