All too often humour is seen as somehow secondary to satire – Harry Levin, for instance, describes satire as ‘purposeful comedy’, with the implication that humour alone is insufficient. Indeed, as the privileged critical category, satire often serves ‘to defend comic art against charges of frivolity’ (Green 106). This tendency is understandable given the distinctions between satire and comedy, with the former generally defined by two key characteristics: aggression and the aim of effecting change, and the latter seen as more ‘light-hearted or amiable’ (Caron) and less concerned with correcting folly or falsehood. W. H. Auden articulates this conception in his account of satire as ‘angry and optimistic – it believes that the evil it attacks can be abolished’ while comedy is ‘good tempered and pessimistic – it believes that however much we may wish we could, we cannot change human nature and must make the best of a bad job.’
What, however, of those instances when humour – agreeable, amiable and thus seemingly toothless – is used to effect change? The film The Personal History of David Copperfield is, I would suggest, such a case. And it is all the more interesting given its director, Armando Iannucci, is often referred to as one of our most eminent satirists. When he announced his new project as an adaptation of Dickens’s novel, there was much comment about his move away from straight satire – Veep, In the Thick of It – those caustic political satires which made his name. There was concern that the new direction presaged a mellowing, or a loss of appetite for grappling with social ills. And Iannucci himself seemed to declare some kind of crisis of faith in the satirical project with his comments about current political circumstances being ‘beyond satire.’ Whether or not the film indicates a permanent move away from satire, there is little doubt that tonally it bears little resemblance to the ferocity of his earlier work and is instead more akin to what C. L. Barber called ‘festive comedy.’ With the hugely likable Dev Patel as the lead and an array of heart-warming comic performances, including Hugh Laurie, Daisy May Cooper and Peter Capaldi, the film is an exuberant romp through Dickens’s story. One particular sequence gives a flavour of the film’s playfulness: during the height of David’s infatuation with Dora he sees her blonde curls everywhere, topping the most unlikely faces – grubby children, the weathered face of a carriage driver – and the escalating medley of incongruity culminates in the coiffured curls ludicrously atop the dome of St Paul’s.
Pleasurable certainly, but what is purposeful about this ‘festive comedy’? Perhaps one of the most notable aspects of the film is the much discussed ‘colourblind casting’, and it is this aspect of the film that I would argue potentially effects social change. Iannucci has been keen to steer commentary away from the decision – emphasising that the choice wasn’t a ‘big manifesto’, rather it was a way of making the film feel more modern and ‘relevant’ and moving away from ‘period trappings.’ He is right to feel apprehensive about any continued preoccupation with the casting, which tends to justify either a salacious fixation on degrees of colour difference or alternatively a kind of liberal complacency, or both. However, given colourblind casting has not been used as extensively in film before, this aspect of The Personal History is arguably its most substantial achievement; and one that is predicated to a large degree upon the film’s ‘festive comedy.’ The robust, sometimes farcical energy of the film ensures a comic license which might not work within a more strictly realistic form. Conditioned as we are to the habitual use of whiteness as the representational norm, there is still a jolt on encountering difference, and a pause while we assess the historical or biological realism of that difference. And while that jolt is potentially disruptive to the spell of realism, comic forms are more accommodating.
Thus, the film defies Auden’s characterisation of comedy as morally inferior to satire and shows comedy to be both good tempered and optimistic in its attempts precisely to ‘change human nature.’
Armando, Iannuci, Dev Patel and Hugh Laurie interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVDNiyiBRxw
Auden, W. H., Introduction, The Selected Prose and Poetry of Byron. New York: New American Library, 1966.
Caron, James ‘The Pernicious Use of “Humorist” to Describe Mark Twain (and Other Comic Writers)’ Studies in American Humor, 1 October 2018, vol.4, pp.192-204.
Green, Daniel. Review of Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel 1930-1980 by Steven Weisenberger, The Midwest Quarterly, vol.37, no.1, 1995, pp.106-107.
Levin, Harry, ‘The Wages of Satire’, Literature and Society: Selected Papers from the English Institute 1978, edited by Edward W. Said. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1980, pp.1-14.
© Emma Sullivan 2020.