Charley’s Aunt – Still Funny after All These Years?
By Ryan D. Paul
Here’s a joke for you. A young New Yorker was introduced to a Boston girl, and before they were acquainted thirty minutes, she got so spoony that she had called him an asterolepis, a Silurian placoid, and cartilaginous vertebrate. He returned to New York by the evening train. Hilarious, right? I am not sure I got it either. This came from an 1890s joke book and is evidence that some things just don’t hold up well with the passage of time. Language and cultural context are often grounded in a specific era. How then does Charley’s Aunt, a comic farce written in 1892 and produced this season by the Utah Shakespeare Festival, hold up? Should it be in the comics section or the obituaries? I spoke with the play’s director, David Ivers to find out.
“This is a great, joyous comedy,” said Ivers. “Often people refer to it (I have myself) as an ‘old chestnut.’ Charley’s Aunt stands the test of time, and looking critically at the play, I find it’s brilliantly constructed. Charley’s Aunt is full of character driven action, full of optimism. I’ve acted in the play twice, so I know it requires rigor, detail, and specificity to make it appear easy, loose, and chaotic. As I have rediscovered the play, this time with a director’s eye, I have found myself laughing out loud again; refreshed and invigorated by what it all has to say.”
Ivers argues that while some find Charley’s Aunt to be a typical piece of comedic theatre, the message of the play goes much deeper. “Anyone can and should find love in any circumstance, and sometimes, we will go to great lengths at the expense of a great many to shape our destinies. Once in a while, a small window of opportunity presents itself—are you going to jump through it with reckless abandon or shut it out? At its core, Charley’s Aunt allows us all an opportunity to vicariously answer that question for ourselves. Through this comedic vehicle, the audience is asked the question: How far are we willing to go for love?”
Speaking about his vision for Charley’s Aunt, Ivers added, “This incredible situation the characters find themselves in results in comedy because the obstacle is so large. We can almost see the wheels inside their heads cranking away. ‘How are we going to pull this off?’”
Someone once said that jokes are like frogs, once you dissect them; they are no good any more. That’s something you will not have to worry about in this season’s production of Charley’s Aunt. This play is funny because comedy, true comedy, transcends generations. The relatable characters in this play remind us of the strange and often comic things we do for love. Those human stories, the ones that really make us laugh to our core, the ones that are told over campfires and bridal toasts, they resonate through this play. To answer my own question, yes, like my Great Aunt Alice, Charley’s Aunt is still funny after all these years.