In this short essay, the author relates a description of the comic genre–written by Dr. Louise Cowan–to the musical Into the Woods.
What are the laws and customs of [the land of comedy], acknowledged even by those who flout them? Its supreme law, of course, is love; its concern is with physis, the flow of being that animates and connects all things. Comedy takes place in a fallen world; it begins in established disorder, usually with an old regime in control, where people have lived by law, by reason, or by custom, neglecting wholeness, pleasure, and love. It moves toward the recapturing of those qualities by ingenuity and audacity. It may resort to the fantastic in order to effect a needed break with routine, and it pulls others along with it in a creative recapturing of community, with friends and helpers serving as guardians and counsellors. Its justice is mercy and forgiveness. Its supreme fiction is the journey of the soul; its virtues, faith, hope, and charity, its vices the seven deadly sins. Its mode of action is deception and delay, since if Fortune and not Fate is to be the governing authority, one must do whatever is necessary to stave off the ultimate fatal defeat. Life must go on, at any cost, since in comedy life can blossom again even out of impossibility if only the final, unthinkable event does not occur. Life, the élan vital, is far more important than established morality, since the very continuance of the human species is in question. In the end, however, the comic seeks to reestablish morality and to reanimate the life of moral and spiritual forms. The terrain of comedy is, in fine, an image of the world as organic rather than mechanic—as living, interrelating, aspiring, growing, and healing. It is a vision of matter particularly in spirit, of grace permeating nature, of the body being lifted up, like Bottom, in an overwhelming and irrational joy.
—Louise Cowan, introduction to The Terrain of Comedy (Dallas: The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1984).
For me, this rather long but mind-opening quote seems to be the perfect basis of Into the Woods, a musical by Stephen Sondheim about characters – taken from fairy tales – who all wish for something.
As Louise Cowan says at just the beginning “[Comedy’s] supreme law, of course is love,” and that is what brings the characters and us through the whole story: Would it have been a happy ending at the very end, despite all the losses and deaths, if the surviving characters (and maybe also the dead ones, like the Baker’s wife or Jack’s mum, hadn’t loved each other? I think love is the main reason for the happy ending in the musical.
It is claimed in the quote that “Comedy takes place in a fallen world; it begins in established disorder,” which is true for this musical as well. Each character has a wish, through which they think they could get their “wholeness” and “pleasure.” For example, the Baker and the Baker’s wife wish for a child, and Cinderella wishes to go to the festival, to dance before the Prince.
So, to achieve what they are wishing for, the characters start to work. They need the qualities of “ingenuity and audacity” during their journey – shown, for instance, in the way that the Baker and the Baker’s wife search ingeniuosly for the ingredients of the potion to lift the spell of the witch: they do anything they can, the Baker’s wife is so audacious, she even cuts off the hair, yellow as corn, of an unknown woman (later revealed as Rapunzel).
The “fantastic” in this case has more than one form. It is the witch and her spells and potions, but it is also present when Cinderella goes to her mother’s place, magic happens, and she gets a ball dress.
Characters become each others’ “friends and helpers”: for example, Little Red Riding Hood helps the Baker and his wife by giving them her cape, red as blood, and they eventually become friends, and it is the same with Jack: at the end they become friends, even though at the beginning the Bakers only want his cow, white as milk.
They go through ups and downs and finally they think they have achieved what would make them happy. This is where the deception comes in, delaying the play. The first act seems to be the perfect ending, but we get surprised, because it was only the first act. Then in Act 2 we realise that “Fortune and not Fate is to be the governing authority”; we realise this is not the end, this stage of their life must not be Fate, their life that continues depends on Fortune, just as in real life. They have to deal with the consequences of their decisions, like Jack, killing the giant, or Cinderella, who decides to leave the prince. All characters have to face the Giantess, who wants to take revenge on Jack. Their houses are destroyed by the Giantess, and many of them die, even the narrator, because of her. In this very low situation, the play proves that “Life must go on, at any cost, since in comedy life can blossom again even out of impossibility if only the final, unthinkable event does not occur.”
And how does life blossom again? Through love and friendship. The survivors—the Baker, the Baker’s baby, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Jack—become friends and decide to live together, helping each other. So they seek to “reestablish morality and to reanimate the life of moral and spiritual forms.”
As I see it, the second act perfectly represents “the world as organic rather than mechanic – as living, interrelating, aspiring, growing, and healing,” making the world of the comedy as close to real life as possible. I particulary liked the part of the quote when Louise Cowan explained, that in the terrain of comedy “It is a vision of matter […] of the body being lifted up.” It is the characters’ attitude that allows them to truly solve their problems (realising that they are not alone and are there for each other), and I believe that is true for us most of the time in our lives.