Pack up your Troubles and Smile, Smile, Smile
It’s a funny old life. I am an English academic, and I first came to Northern Ireland about ten years ago as part of my work as a theatre scholar. I was writing chapters for a couple of books, each on the work of the Belfast playwright, Gary Mitchell. My work was earnest and sincere, moved and fascinated as I was by the history of this part of the world, and the struggles of its people. And then something funny happened – quite literally – I kept hearing laughter. ‘This can’t be right’, I thought. ‘These people have lived through the Troubles, and are part of the peace process – they should be taking everything deeply seriously.’ But the hilarity continued. I heard laughter on the streets, and in the pubs. I heard jokes, and funny anecdotes, often related to the tensions between, and within, the two communities.
I would spend my days beavering away in Linen Hall Library, and in the evenings, try and find comedy. I went to the Grand Opera House to see The History of the Troubles Accordin’ to my Da, the Troubles comedy by Martin Lynch, Conor Grimes and Alan McKee. I was especially interested as the production had come to the Tricycle theatre, London’s main theatre for Irish plays, a year or so earlier. I was working at the Tricycle at the time and the production had died on its feet – audiences were poor, and the press hated the show. But the Grand Opera House was packed, and the audience loved it – the whole building rocked with laughter. The same script, the same actors, but a hugely difference response. Why was this? Surely, it was not just a question of local people liking what they can relate to, as I had seen plenty of other Irish plays do well at the Tricycle, including many comedies. Something was going on. My furrowed brow, and ever-so-serious research, seemed frankly a bit out of place. ‘This can’t be right’, I thought. I was like an awful tourist, annoyed that the locals were failing to live up to my preconceived, media-generated, stereotypes. Clearly, I needed a shift in focus. I needed to understand comedy and laughter.
Northern Ireland was the start of a journey for me, in examining comedy. We are not the only animal that laughs, but we are the only ones that use laughter to such profound psychological and social purpose. Chimps, for example, will make a laughter sound when taking part of chasing games, but this seems largely to be a physical response to excitement. As Freud pointed out, humans use comedy to find a socially safe space to work their way through the taboo and their most intense anxieties. Our bodies produce stress-reducing hormones such as oxytocin (known as ‘the cuddle hormone’) when we laugh. We feel safe, better able to address and deal with terrible events and feelings. This is what, I think, the audience at the Grand Opera House was experiencing, and why the London audience, removed from the day-to-day implications of the Troubles and its legacies, struggled to find anything very funny.
Comedy can divide people – people tend to have strong views as to what comedy they like and what they may find offensive. But it also brings us together. We laugh as a collective, encouraged to laugh by the laughter of others. We like to ‘share a joke’. We viscerally experience the physical sensation of being part of an audience, all laughing at the same time. Laughter brings a sort of community cohesion with it. Moreover, it acts as a sort of all-clear signal. Jokes set up tensions which are then released. It’s like having a massage and therapy session all rolled into one. The act of laughing at a joke is, quite literally, a peace process. If you want to understand a people, especially people who have gone through difficult times, look at what makes them laugh.
Tim Miles is a Senior Lecturer in Drama at Liverpool John Moores University. Feel free to contact him anytime, especially about comedy: T.J.Miles@ljmu.ac.uk