“They say that he was buried in the Caucasus, among the crocuses, but no one knows for sure” – Jack Handey, Alexander the Great
This line is intended to be silly, coming as it does at the end of a mock-heroic tribute to Alexander the Great published in the humor section of the New Yorker. It is also beautiful, the way Caucasus and crocuses chime together, then fade into the single syllables of “but no one knows for sure.”
And what I think is (you can guess where this is going) that this line is beautiful because it is silly; if it were not, the Caucasus and crocuses would seem too gaudy, the “no one knows for sure” too familiar a lament. It is only because we are not intended to take it seriously that it slips past our defenses and pleases, like an odd insect flying through the crack in our car window and buzzing, buzzing.
I have always enjoyed The Silly Beautiful, and it has been present in my writing since at least Riding the Bull, with last year’s Jane the Plain written almost entirely in this vein. I have also long admired its cock-eyed dazzle in the plays of Adam Szymkowicz and more recently, Larry Kunofsky. Johnna Adams has a gift for it when she chooses, most recently deploying it to surprising depths in the cat sequence that ends Gideon’s Knot.
Perhaps no play captures The Silly Beautiful better than Dog Act by Liz Duffy Adams. Zetta’s description of China is both precisely silly and deliriously beautiful. Vera’s benediction to the players only lands because it leaps from so a high ladder of earnest-fancy: a player playing at being a player plays at being a Scavenger and so becomes their Queen (in part) to save the players.
The Silly Beautiful is different than whimsy, which, when in its pure form, always carries as much terror as delight. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the work of Lewis Carrol, these are stories of dangerous whimsy, where you are at the whims of inscrutable powers that may turn you into a beast as soon as serve you tea.
Nor is The Silly Beautiful made only of Irony, or Irony’s derelict cousin, sarcasm. It is instructive, I think, that both Dog Act and the Handey essay strut their vaudeville stuff over ruins. The Silly Beautiful is always born out of ruins. My generation of playwrights are inheritors of traditions that have both pursued the sacred with a blinding sincerity and blinded the sacred with a pointed shrug. We can’t quite pull off that romantic sincerity anymore, but the shrug was never quite enough, either.
So we look around at all these traditions of wringing meaning from the overwrought world, humming at our feet like fax machines. And they’re a little bit silly, aren’t they? And it’s kinda beautiful, right?
And then there you are, with the sacred sudden in your pocket like a ten dollar bill that made it through the wash, faded and wrinkled and made for you to spend.