Where’s the Humor in Romance?

By Poison Ivy,

People often ask why don’t you put more humor in romance? The easy, technical answer, is that writing humor is difficult and it often falls flat. There aren’t many writers who can manage to be funny in print. But that’s not the main problem. When you put humor in romance you run the risk of undermining the grand seriousness of romance.

I just experienced a vivid example of this situation. I went to see Cinderella—Rossini’s opera version, not Disney’s cartoon—the other night in Philadelphia. The director had decided to treat this 190-year-old work as an opportunity for clowning. Not only were the costumes retro 1950s, but Cinderella cleans the house with an upright vacuum, wearing a bouffant, many-petticoated silk dress and high heels with her maid’s cap and apron. (This is typical of 1950s media nonsense about domestic life. In old TV shows like “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” the wives wear similar get-ups—including pearls!—to do housework. Right. Like this really happened.)

Anyway, in this Cinderella, the ugly stepsisters, one skinny, one buxom, were garbed in pink plastic hair curlers and later in swimsuits with flowered swim caps (all the rage in the late 1950s, but you may only have seen these atrocities on women doing that bizarre Olympic competition, synchronized swimming). When Cinderella got all gussied up in the last scene, she looked like Lauren Bacall or Princess Grace in a “fur” stole, tiara (!), and strapless cocktail-length gray gown.

[[By the way, just to interrupt myself, have you noticed how cumbersone it is for me to describe what these people were wearing? Do you see why I love the comics medium, which gives a picture to go along with my words? I tried to find a photo of the production from the Philadelphia Opera’s web site that showed the characters and the stage backdrop, but there was nothing comprehensive.]]

Right. Back to Cinderella. Sounds good so far, you say. And it was. Sort of. The ugly stepsisters hammed it up, and the costumer managed to make them both look remarkably unattractive by clever mis-positioning of seams and decorations on their dresses. They were funny, and so was their father, played by a standard comedic basso.

But here’s where the romance got messed up: In addition to the upright vac that glided about the stage with a mind of its own (funny, but what’s the point?), there were three panels suspended in the air that from time to time lit up and featured comic book style art. These obviously were meant to be symbolic, not part of the direct action. But what they did was cause the audience to start giggling just when some important emotional revelation occurred.

When the prince-disguised-as-a-servant meets Cinderella in her maid’s uniform, they fall instantly in love. Their emotional turmoil is expressed by the actors being drawn together and then shying away, sneaking peeks at each other and closing in again, only to shy away again. Sounds romantic, if a bit juvenile. (And of course, they are singing during all this.) But then the three graphic panels above them show a valentine heart drawn in a cartoony style with sun rays coming from behind fluffy clouds. And Cinderella’s mental confusion is shown as visions of vacuums and brooms dancing in these panels, in which her filmed, moving figure is superimposed! The audience cracks up.

Laughing when love at first sight is occurring totally flattens the emotional balloon. It’s a fairly delicate balloon to begin with, for how many people really believe in love at first sight? Oh, we give lip service to the idea, but true love, the real thing, is such a complex grouping of emotions that few of us think it can be recognized in an instant. Attraction, yes. Lust, sure. But the meeting of souls that is what we call true love? Not so fast, buster. Let’s get to know each other first.

So laughing at the precise moment when the hero and heroine are first meeting and sizing each other up, dealing with a possibly overwhelming physical attraction and their shock at experiencing same—well, to laugh at this key moment is to laugh at love, not with it.

I was pretty upset. I came to see Cinderella, the classic story with all the bells and whistles, not a mockery of it. Other people in the audience felt as I did. During the intermission, one man told me he thought the production was a monument to the director’s ego, not to art. And during the second act, I heard one woman say “That’s a shame!” as the bit players were mugging and making the audience giggle during the tenor’s most strenuous, bravura arias. The hero was singing his heart out (and, folks, what a voice! Wonderful tenor Lawrence Brownlee), perfectly hitting the demanding high Cs again and again—and the audience was sniggering at two male chorus members embracing.

Clearly, the director had injected laughter into this love story the wrong way. The humor wasn’t falling flat, but it was interfering with the romance that is the basic story of Cinderella. You don’t come to see Cinderella to laugh at it. You come to see Cinderella win the handsome prince because she is good and modest and her selfish, vain stepsisters are not. And when she forgives them, you want to bask in her generosity of spirit. This is hard to do if the humor has been made too obstreperous, as in this production, and the romance itself has been mocked and laughed at. As in this production. Laugh at the stepsisters. Laugh at the stepfather. Laugh at the prince’s servant pretending to be him. But don’t laugh at true love.

And that, in a nutshell, is why there isn’t much humor in romances. It’s hard to do. It’s even harder to do right. And when it goes wrong, it destroys the magic of romance.

I haven’t given up on Cinderella, though. I hear that another composer did a Cinderella opera, Jules Massenet. I’m going to try again.