Thursday, October 9, 2014

An amateur, a simple amateur is all that I am - the plays of Alphonse Allais made me laugh

I have in my hands the Selected Plays of Alphonse Allais, another collection of the French humorist’s columns, monologues, and whatnots, including even a couple of miniature plays, the sequel to last year’s enlightening Captain Cap: His Adventures, His Ideas, His Drinks.  That last part of the title is enough to identify the earlier book as the superior one.  No drink recipes in Selected Plays.  Dates of publication run from 1879 to 1900.

Here we are in the theatrical realm not so far from today’s stand-up comedy and yesterday’s sketch comedy.  The monologist has a little story to tell, and although one hopes the end is good the jokes and asides along the way are just as important.

The narrator is ill and receiving house calls from his doctor:

One morning when I was feeling not at all well, my doctor, after auscultating me more carefully than usual, asked me:

“Are you content with this apartment?”

“Why yes, pretty much.”

“How much is your rent?”

“Three thousand and four.”

“Is the concierge acceptable?”

And on like that.  “Etc., etc.”  I know this joke in its later New York City version.  Now a comedian would have to modify it somehow to get rid of the house call.  Plus, who’s going to have the better apartment these days, the doctor or the comic?

You really have to imagine the performance.  In “The Umbrella,” the narrator comes up with an amazing invention to keep off the rain, a silk cloth attached to a cane by rings and rods.  “That’s all there is to it, but you do have to think of it.”  He even comes up with an elegant name at the end, “’little shade’ in Italian.”  There is barely any joke aside from the monologist describing the umbrella in utter seriousness, as if he had no idea it already existed.  I’ll bet the bit killed.

“A Malcontent” is about a grump who shouts “Hooray for Boulanger,” a political slogan, whenever anything goes wrong for him, which is often, like when the bus is late.  The odd thing is that I met this fellow on a train in Paris once, an ancient man wearing a number of Catholic medals, who when forcefully informed he was sitting in the wrong seat shouted “Vive la République!  Vive la privatization!”  A true story, pointless, but true.

I wonder if I am emphasizing the wrong thing.  Allais has some importance as a forerunner of the Surrealists, and this book and Captain Cap make it clear why.  But I found myself laughing at the mother-in-law jokes,  the publisher jokes, the door-to-door salesman jokes, many of which would not have been out of place on Your Show of Shows.  The sex jokes, probably not on American television, back in the 1950s, I mean.

Somebody else can do a post about Allais as a proto-Dadaist.  I’ll just admire a humor writer who at the distance of 130 years and another language remains funny.

The book is like Captain Cap a production of Doug Skinner, friend of Wuthering Expectations, who translated, annotated, and even illustrated it.  It is another gift to English readers.  Great job; many thanks; more, please.  Title quotation from “The English Accent.”


  1. There's a very old translation in Portuguese, part of a black-covered collection of short grotesqueries that included Marcel Schwob, Gérard de Nerval, Boris Vian, Cyrano de Bergerac, Gustav Meyrink, Lovecraft, Octave Mirbeau, Rachilde. So much food for the soul.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it! And you're not emphasizing the wrong thing: one of the interesting things about Allais is that he appealed to general readers looking for a laugh, as well as to writers like Jarry, Breton, Duchamp, Eco, and Mathews. I don't know how he did it.

  3. Miguel, that is the kind of collection that could forever change the fortunes of an impressionable youth. I love that Lovecraft is included.

    Doug, it was a treat to read the book. There were several pleasant examples where the humor of the piece snuck up on me, the surprise of real comedy.

  4. Other than our gracious host, my 2 favorite literary bloggers are Claro and his Clavier cannibale and Eduardo Berti and his Bertiginous blog. From the latter, I'm a steal Allais' Funeral march for a late, great, deaf man:èbre_composée_pour_les_funérailles_d%27un_grand_homme_sourd_-_Alphonse_Allais.jpg

  5. Gee, thanks - thanks for the good company.

    Doug, and Allais, are gradually convincing me that Allais's jokes are more significant than I first thought. The funeral march is a good, good joke.