Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Comedy among the Modernists: P.G. Wodehouse and the Anachronism of Comic Form

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Comedy among the Modernists: P.G. Wodehouse and the Anachronism of Comic Form

Article excerpt

The roof of the Sheridan Apartment House, near Washington Square, New York. Let us examine it. There will be stirring happenings on this roof in due season, and it is as well to know the ground. The Sheridan stands in the heart of New York's Bohemian and artist quarter. If you threw a brick from any of its windows, you would be certain to brain some rising young . . . Vorticist sculptor or a writer of revolutionary vers libre. And a very good thing too. (7)

Thus begins P. G. Wodehouse's 1927 novel, The Small Bachelor. "It is as well to know the ground," indeed, because this particular roof will provide a stage for innumerable farcical events as the plot of the novel unfolds: impostures, concealments behind water towers, hasty retreats down fire escapes, the throwing of pepper into the face of an officious policeman, and more. Such farce, however, requires more than these comic free-for-alls; farce also requires comic belief. Readers must allow Wodehouse's characters to cavort as they do, and it is not accidental that Wodehouse prepares for this by heaving a hypothetical brick at those figures who represent an incapacity to believe in comic narratives: modernists. We are told by the comic spirit as it is embodied by the narrator that Vorticist sculptors and writers of revolutionary free verse should be beaned by bricks early and often. For Wodehouse knows that no force poses a greater threat to a welcoming reception of his comedies than the modernist sensibility of the twentieth century.

Can anything be more anomalous than the position of Wodehouse in twentieth century fiction? What beyond quirkiness, after all, can explain Alexander Cockburn's claim that Wodehouse's Bertie and Jeeves saga stands as the "central achievement in the twentieth century" (xii)? Equally extreme praise has come from Hilaire Belloc, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, and W. H. Auden, among others.(1) Hugh Kenner, lamenting the betrayal of high modernism by the dons of Oxford (no don, it seems, would really read Joyce, Lawrence, or Pound on his own time), finds particularly galling the fact that "in 1939 Oxford conferred on Psmith's creator the honorary doctorate it'd not dream of offering Leopold Bloom's" (34). Donnish enthusiasm in the long run has meant little, however, for the formation of the canon in twentieth century literature excluded and continues to exclude Wodehouse.(2) Even one of the most perceptive of Wodehouse's critics, Stephen Medcalf, has held that Wodehouse seems to possess "neither the conscious irony nor the undercurrent of Angst which make [sic] Evelyn Waugh a candidate for high seriousness" (190). Under such circumstances there is occasion to ponder why the brilliant comic plots that garnered the support of Waugh, Orwell, and Auden should fail to be considered worthy of serious scholarly interest.

Wodehouse's exclusion is curious given the ancient lineage of comedy. Comic structures--which characteristically include happy endings and a newly remade society marked by a sense of tolerance and accommodation--have been a central mode of the Western imaginative experience since the classical Greek theater. As Northrop Frye defines them, comedies embody a basic structural pattern which moves from unhappiness to happiness, through the eventual removal of obstacles erected by an intolerant and unjust society. The restrictions to be overcome may take the shape of overbearing parental figures, oppressive social institutions or, in more serious comedies, flaws and self-imposed bondages within the protagonist's own character. But eventually in a comedy all such bonds are cut, and a liberating and festive resolution follows, often signaled by the erotic consummation of a wedding or the social consummation of a feast, or both (Frye 163-86).

It must be conceded that these sorts of traditional comic plots, which Wodehouse unrepentantly fashioned, have become unfashionable in the twentieth century. Comic narratives, unfortunately, rarely find acceptance with modern audiences except when they occur in popular culture (the Hollywood film, the sitcom, the drugstore bodice-ripper, the mystery or detective novel). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.