Even though tragedy might account for many elements of The Trial of God, farce must also play a part, as tragedy does not explain the bizarre and contradictory positions of the meta-play and the play as a unit. Wiesel presents the minstrels and the Purimschpiel as literary devices to present farce-like conditions even in the context of a tragic struggle against God and the injustices of reality. What is a farce, though? In contrast to tragedy, a single definition does not capture what a farce is in a direct way – elements are merely described, and the purpose of a farce can vary from play to play. However, the common definitions create a starting point for discussion. A farce could be a “a comedy characterized by broad satire and improbable situations,” as Princeton University would define it, but the definition remains too broad – what constitutes “satire”, for example, and what becomes an “improbable” situation if one believes in the supernatural?1 If a farce is a play with supernatural events, one cannot remove the fact that Wiesel’s play takes place in a very real situation that contains few, if any, supernatural occurrences. Anyone who would say that Berish’s concerns about God are not “serious” does not understand Wiesel’s beliefs as integrated in The Trial of God.
Examining some actual examples of farce, from both the ancient and modern eras, should clarify the issue somewhat. In effect, one can more easily construct the elements and ideas of a farce through its actual use than by a simple definition. The Greeks, like in the tragedy, created the idea of the farce. This dramatic form finds its best representation in the works of Aristophanes, a comic playwright who lived in the fifth century B.C.E. He has been called the “father of comedy” for his innovative mixture of political criticisms and cleverly disguised sexual and scatological innuendo. For the purposes of examining The Trial of God, only the former element becomes important.
Aristophanes’ play The Clouds represents his scathing criticism of the philosophical movements of his day, most notably Socrates’ philosophy.2 The story begins with Strepsiades, an elderly Athenian who has been put into debt by his wife and son. Soon, Strepsiades will have to meet his creditors in court; if he can defeat his creditors in court, he will win. Thus, he attempts to convince his son, Pheidippides, to join the Thinkery, founded by Socrates, a place where bad arguments can be transformed into good arguments and the rhetorical skills can be learned.3 However, Pheidippides thinks the students of the Thinkery become hopeless charlatans and bums, so Strepsiades joins the Thinkery and meets Socrates. Socrates descends from the heavens, as he is observing the Clouds in the air, who have become the “gods” of the philosophers in Aristophanes’ play. Socrates, and subsequently the clouds (who are the Greek chorus), promise great knowledge to Strepsiades if he will join the Thinkery; Strepsiades accepts this offer.4
However, Strepsiades ends up being too old to retain the knowledge given, and too set in the old ways of Greek pantheon. Thus, Strepsiades convinces Pheidippides joins the Thinkery. Strepsiades, not knowing what will occur, goes home happy knowing his son is learning essential knowledge. When Pheidippides returns home, he has become the exact same hippy/bum that he initially rejected. Strepsiades is able to defend himself against his creditors, but his son justifies horrendous acts with his new skills; specifically, Pheidippides attempts to convince his father of the right of a son to beat his father, and vice versa.5 However, Pheidippides also threatens to beat his mother as well, throwing Strepsiades into a rage in which he burns down the Thinkery along with a mob.6
Aristophanes sought to convince his audience of the stupidity of Socrates, who rejected the Greek pantheon of gods. To dispute the validity of Socrates’ claims, he makes Socrates into a non-believing buffoon who believes that he must go into a basket in the clouds to think: “I’d never come up with a single thing about celestial phenomena, if I did not suspend my mind up high, to mix my subtle thoughts with what’s like them.”7 Aristophanes calls Socrates a nature worshipper, specifically the Clouds: “they’re heavenly Clouds, great goddesses for lazy men—from them we get our thoughts, our powers of speech, our comprehension, our gift for fantasy and endless talk, our power to strike responsive chords in speech and then rebut opponents’ arguments.”8 The author has a clear bias towards Socrates, thinking him an idiot with his “head in the clouds”, so to speak. However, the absurdity of his methods and his discoveries is obviously a satirical and farcical device – by displaying his ideas as absurd and weird, he creates a motive in the audience to distrust this new philosopher.
Furthermore, Aristophanes believed the gods brought order and reason to the cosmos, and ignorance of them would certainly lead to doom and ruin. Take, for example, Pheidippides and his arguments for beating his own father; the gods, who favor justice and order, would never allow such a thing to occur. During their argument, the chorus leader states: “Now down to work, you spinner of words, you explorer of brand new expressions. Seek some way to persuade us, so it will appear that what you’ve been saying is right.”9 For Aristophanes, these arguments are folly, in that they are not real arguments that seek to convince one of what is true and just; instead, they are designed to justify whatever action the person in question wishes to justify. The moral of the story occurs when Strepsiades realizes that his own desire to avoid his creditors eventually brought his son to this sorry state. The chorus, again, relays the message: “That’s what we do each time we see someone who falls in love with evil strategies, until we hurl him into misery, so he may learn to fear the gods.”10 Fear of the gods is essential in Aristophanes’ conception of human society, and anything else leads to chaos.
1“WordNet Search: Farce,” WordNet, Princeton University, 2010, 5 December 2010 <http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=farce>.
2Noting that because the source for this particular play is online, there are no page numbers; thus, I will list the line number where appropriate so that the reader can find the source on the web page if he/she chooses.
3Aristophanes, Clouds, trans. and ed. Ian Johnson, 2010 (Nanaimo, BC: Malaspina University College), Digitized 2010, 5 December 2010 <http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/aristophanes/clouds.htm>, lines 115-121.
4Aristophanes, Clouds, lines 605-625.
5Aristophanes, Clouds, lines 1787-1796.
6Aristophanes, Clouds, lines 1901-1904.
7Aristophanes, Clouds, lines 275-278.
8Aristophanes, Clouds, lines 389-394.
9Aristophanes, Clouds, lines 1783-1786.
10Aristophanes, Clouds, lines 1866-1869.