Beginning our new series “Responding to Tragedy” in which we examine different artistic methods of remembering and memorializing the past, we look this week at the use of comedy in response to tragedy.
What is the place of comedy in exploring tragic events? When thinking about rebuilding memory in conflict and post-conflict societies, laughter is not generally the first element that comes to mind. However, humor can be a vital tool to resist the life of tragedy imposed by horrific events, to point out certain absurdities inherent in any attempt to move on from tragedy, and to work towards conflict resolution. Here of some examples of how comedy has been utilized in tragic circumstances.
Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour:
Appearing with Israelis on stage is considered forbidden for Arab performers. Palestinian-American comedian and columnist Ray Hanania has been prohibited from several Arab organizations for doing just this by founding the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour, along with Israeli comedian and podcaster Charley Warady. This show, consisting of several other Palestinian and Israeli performers, attempts to evoke a common sense of humanity among conflicting groups. Hanania argues that, “If people can laugh together, we can live together” (Hanania). However, this show doesn’t shy away from tension, as performers discuss painful and difficult emotions surrounding the conflict. By exploring this hostility through the lens of humor, groups can appeal to each other on a more universal and humane level.
Sarajevo Survival Guide:
During the Siege of Sarajevo, a long and brutal siege of the capital city during the Bosnian War, Aleksandra Wagner, Miroslav Prstojević, and Željko Puljić wrote a parody travel guide for the city. This guide included details regarding recipes using UN rations, recreational activities such as running from sniper fire, and how to get around when no public transportation existed. By ridiculing this sight of terror, the authors of the guide were able to both point out the gross absurdities of a city under siege and allow for a moment of joy in a place where it seemed almost impossible. The preface to the guide states that, “It is a chronicle, a guide for survival, a part of a future archive which shows the city of Sarajevo not as a victim, but as a place of experiment where wit can still achieve victory over terror” (Sarajevo Survival Guide).
The Act of Killing:
In Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary, “The Act of Killing,” he asks perpetrators of the 1965-1966 Indonesian Communist Purge to reenact their atrocious crimes in a ridiculous, fanciful, american-gangster style movie. Anwar Congo, the protagonist of the film, retells his brutal tortures, rapes, and killings with pride and glee. There are absurd scenes, such as the perpetrators dancing next to waterfall in ridiculous costumes and makeup, that are just as comical as they are chilling. This method of reenactment allows the audience to see the performativity of remembrance and witness how victors reconstruct the narrative of history.
Guillermo Calderón, playwright and director of Villa, also utilizes comedy in his exploration of the politics of memory in the context of the Pinochet regime in Chile. When we asked Calderón about the place of comedy in exploring tragedy, he commented,
“In the case of my country and my own experience, tragedy is an imposition, right, something that you received from the government, the people in power… And with that imposition comes trauma, and trauma sort of, sets an emotion, a path, it defines lives…So in many ways, a sense of humor, when exercised correctly and in the right context, it becomes a way of saying, ‘I am not going to live according by those rules set by the people who committed human rights violations.’ So it’s a way of resisting, sort of cultural impositions…” (Calderón).
When tragedy is forced upon us, comedy can be a powerful tool of resistance.
Calderón’s Villa is running at The Wild Project through April 1st. For more information, please visit: http://playco.org/plays/villa/