Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Friday, November 9, 2012

Naughty Language from Naughty Iago

Moment from The Imaginary Invalid

A week ago, Joyce and I saw the Great Lakes Theater Festival production of (an adaptation of) Molière's The Imaginary Invalid.  After seeing the production I decided to read the original (sort of: I read it in English) because I could not believe that Molière's play was as, well, gross as the Cleveland production, which seemed to have used as a model for diction and behavior films like The Change-Up and other recent Hollywood hits that feature fecal humor.  (In Change-Up: a baby squirting a father changing a diaper, an intestinally-stressed wife suffering on a toilet.)  In Cleveland, the invalid at one point popped his head into the room (he's been to the bathroom) and said something like I don't remember eating any corn.  Get it?  A sixth grader would.

I was right about the original--although there is a lengthy speech from the invalid at the beginning about the various treatments his physician has prescribed.  Listen in: The invalid complains about the cost of the various clysters he's had to, uh, experience:

So that during this month I have taken one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight mixtures, and one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve clysters; and last month there were twelve mixtures and twenty clysters.

In Cleveland, the revised text used not clyster but our contemporary word for it: enema.  Here's the OED definition of clyster, a word dating back to 1398:

 a. A medicine injected into the rectum, to empty or cleanse the bowels, to afford nutrition, etc.; an injection, enema; sometimes, a suppository.

I enjoyed discovering, by the way, that clyster can also mean A contemptuous name for a medical practitioner.  Try calling your doctor an enema next time you see him/her.  See how that goes.

And this carries me to Othello, a play I taught a few times in Hiram's Weekend College back in the late 1990s.  In Act II, Scene 1, Iago--who is forming and executing his plot to bring down all who have offended him--is watching his rival Michael Cassio chat with Othello's wife, Desdemona.  He speaks about how what he's witnessing--the courtly behavior of the man and woman--will serve his plan: With as little a web as this, he says, will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio.  He sees Cassio kiss Desdemona's hand--then his own fingers.  At that point Iago says: Yet again, your fingers to your lips? would they were clyster-pipes for your sake!

Ah, the clyster-pipe.  A device for injecting medicine directly into the rectum.  A pleasant image--one that's particularly haunting for those who have experienced the multiple pleasures of a colonoscopy.  Think what Iago is saying: You're kissing some fingers; I wish they were clyster-pipes.  Pleasant thought.

Shakespeare knew his audience--especially those standing close to the stage, those who had paid but a penny to enter the theater.  He knew what they wanted, and so he gave it to them, now and then: bathroom humor, kicks in places you don't want to be kicked, jokes about sexual plumbing and performance (and lack thereof).  He gave us Falstaff, that cowardly, drunken lecher.

But too often today, it seems to me, Falstaff is onstage everywhere and all the time.  His humor so often is the only humor.  But don't get me wrong: I'll laugh, too, at an unexpected kick (like that classic one in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid), but I yearn for other humor, too.  The gentle kind (Will Rogers), the bitter, satirical kind (Mark Twain), the fumbling kind (Red Skelton), the clever, sophisticated kind (Oscar Wilde)--and more.

Don't think it's coming back, though.  Not anytime soon.

1 comment:

  1. Humor is odd that way. I can remember thinking Harold and Maude was the funniest thing--gallows humor is a family specialty, but Jim didn't see anything funny in it. At the same time, I have to force myself to laugh at Will Farrell and a lot of seemingly funny films. They have a kind of duh-twang effect on me.
    And then, some quite serious movies--my sisters and I have been asked to leave the theaters bc we have laughed so hard . . . The more serious, the more we laugh . . . Go figure. All we have to do is look at one another and say, this is symbolic. Meaningful. Get it? Want me to explain?