Laugh? I thought I’d never start. Penelope Gilliatt’s To Wit is a promising enough idea – a celebration of comedy and the philosophy of laughter, by an elegant and erudite writer. Unfortunately, elegant and erudite writers tend not to be made of the same common clay as the rest of us. Gilliatt is one of those people who totally lack vulgarity, and without it, much of the world’s humour passes her by. After a baffling preface, in which she discusses that knockabout comedian Sigmund Freud, out comes a significant confession:
‘I don’t believe that the general public is anything like as devoted to the old narrative conventions as it is still assumed to be. The avant-garde hostility to the well-made comedy isn’t a closeted snobbism; it expresses a doubt about whether the form still has the power to be genuinely popular.’
Gilliatt’s snobbism leaps out of the closet at an early stage. Like many clever, posh people, she believes that the general public would gladly swap Ray Cooney’s Theatre of Comedy for Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, if only the matter was properly explained to them.
Comedy is in the eye of the beholder, and this beholder thinks Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco and Bunuel are funny. Penelope Gilliatt does not really like jokes. She likes sly, exquisite nuances which shed a quirky sidelight on the human condition. This should warn off readers who weep tears of laughter