The Spike or Victoria University College Review Silver Jubilee 1924
It may not be out of place before concluding to say a few words on the manufacture of humour, and, more particularly, student humour. It may save advice from sterility. We are apt to think of humour as spontaneous. Yet it may be doubted whether a comic paper could carry on for a month unless the sources of humour had been more or less scientifically considered and the results tabulated. The output of "Punch" is not greatly dependent upon the digestion nor the private afflictions of its staff. It. is dependent upon the fact that, from the editor to the office boy, it is recognised that humorous effect is produced by placing the accustomed thing in the unaccustomed position. Place a silk hat on a Rugby rough or a Cardinal's hat on a Presbyterian elder. The effect is the same. Even put the Cardinal's hat at a rakish angle. It is the same old trick. That is the first, the crude stage. When "Punch" during the war published its pages of cartoons of politicians dressed in khaki, it carried the process further. Instead of the one familiar and accustomed thing you had at least two—you had the politician and khaki. You had more, you had two sets of things, a series of politicians and a series of grades of khaki. So Private Asquith saluting his superior officer Major Lloyd George made a pretty picture. The interplay of army and politics had a further complication. The personal appearance and characteristics of the individual were exploited, the accustomed solemnity appearing under unaccustomed conditions. It. is a very simple and obvious device. It is reproduced every day, and it delights us at every turn—if it can only be effected with surprise. Put the City Fathers in football jerseys, the Professors riding on an elephant at the Zoo. Make Professor Mackenzie an acrobat, Professor Hunter a curate—but the series is infinite.
With this knowledge concerning the manufacture of humour clearly in our minds, we are in a position to contrive further expedients for our purpose. It has been noted that in its simplest form the process, though it may be effective, tends to crudity. How can we get a more complex effect, the double cross? The most illuminating answer I can give may be expressed in the words page 38 "general idea." A general idea fixes a point of view. The sceptic may be referred again to the idea of "duty" in the "Pirates of Penzance." It irradiates Mel" irradiates the opera almost as "old Mel" irradiates "Evan Harrington." It is dished up at every meal. It has a curious magic. Apply, as "Punch" did, the idea of military discipline to politicians, the idea of political procedure to the army. Apply the ideas and clothing of an ancient or alien civilization to our own times—and you have established a whole series of dramatic possibilities. At its best the idea is philosophic and simple, for humour is at bedrock philosophic and exploits truth at some angle. It ought not to be beyond the ingenuity of a University College to find an idea appropriate to any set of tableaux suggested for the year. Without the "general idea" it seems to me, there is an overwhelming tendency for work, otherwise good, to degenerate into triviality.
It will be observed that illustrations of the theory of humour derived from comic papers are subject to the limitations of pen and ink. When a Roman Praetor or a Prehistoric Chancellor steps upon the scene he is subject to no such limitation. He is given a new and appreciative audience, a wealth of local colour, and his discussion of old themes in new settings is apt to be very diverting. It forms a cross-current with the general idea in the manufacture of humour.
Much more might be said and many illustrations given to show that, if the matter be approached in the right way and in the right spirit, much may be done even with a mediocre team. With such a team as a University may select great extravaganzas will appear from time to time if good work is attempted. It is thought we are drifting away from this ideal. It is conceded that with increasing numbers it is becoming more difficult to score with the purely personal touches. This is of moment in capping song, which depends on personality. It is of little moment when the capping song is rooted in ideas, and personalities are merely incidental. The point that needs to be stressed is that the capping song belongs for good reasons to the genius of student carnivals and should not be discarded. The price paid for the recent commercial successes has been too high, but it has also been unnecessary. The way out, it is suggested, is not third-rate revue but a reincarnation of the capping song in the form of a musical extravaganza. Under modern conditions the capping song must suffer eclipse or become much more important than it was in the old clays. Some machinery has been suggested for use in the production of the yearly offering to the University gods. It may be thought that the matter is taken too seriously. My answer is that, in its own way, the literature of capping carnivals has, and should have, a niche in the literary Pantheon. It is a thing worth doing to produce a good song; it is better to produce a good extravaganza. Wit and humour, literary form and expression, are given very extensive opportunities—the opportunity, moreover, is given to men and women, some of whom are thoroughly well equipped to avail themselves of it. At any rate the work has to be done, well or ill. Victoria University College had a tradition worth maintaining. The modern tendency, to produce a spectacle without literary merit or University character, a spectacle which challenges comparison only with third-class revue, is surely degenerate. Though the University public is tolerant, it appreciates merit. Is it possible to bring about a reversion to type?
F. A. de la Mare.