Burlesques and Parodies

by Unknown

Among the signs of intellectual barrenness and the vicious pandering to lower appetites, consequent upon the trading spirit of literature, we note with regret the growing tendency to desecrate beautiful subjects by using them as materials for burlesque. We have had a Comic History of England—one of the dreariest and least excusable of jokes, and capable of for ever vulgarizing in the young mind the great deeds and noble life of our forefathers—and we have had burlesques in which the loved fairy tales that have charmed the imaginations of thousands, or subjects of mythology that belong to the religious history of the greatest people on record, are turned into coarse pot-house jests, with slang for wit, but without the playful elegance by which Planché justifies his sport. It is a sign of intellectual barrenness in the writers; for what is easier than parody? what means of raising a laugh so certain and so cheap as to roll a statue from its pedestal and stick some vulgar utensil in its place? Laughter always follows the incongruous; and to make a Grecian Deity call for a pot of half-and-half, or to ask a Fairy Princess if her mother has parted with her mangle, is to secure the laugh, though contempt may follow it. To our minds there is something melancholy in such spectacles. Degrading lofty images by ignoble associations must operate maleficiently on the spectator. And if it be absolutely necessary to appeal to the coarse tastes and vulgar appetites of the crowd, let it be done without at the same time dragging beautiful objects through the mire.

We can understand the ribald buffoonery of Lucian, who first invented this species of burlesque. His object was to make the gods ridiculous. Whether the spirit which moved him was a mocking, skeptical spirit, like that of Voltaire, or whether, as we think more probable, he was a bitter satirist made bitter by the earnestness of his conviction, and ridiculing the gods only as a reductio ad absurdum of their pretensions, the fact is indubitable, that he ridiculed them in a polemical spirit, and not to excite the vulgar laughter of the vulgar crowd. But we, who do not believe in those gods, need no such warfare. To us they are beautiful images associated only with high thoughts, until the burlesque writer, in his beggary of wit and invention, takes them as the facile material out of which he can raise a laugh. Our complaint is twofold: first, that these subjects are soiled in our imaginations; secondly, that there is no compensating pleasure in the burlesque itself. The tendency is earthward, coarse, vulgarizing. It spoils a whole world of fancy, and it keeps down the creation of comic subjects by supplying writers with an easy and certain success. Surely, there is folly and humbug enough living and lying in the open day to supply the satirist with material. Surely, these imitators of Lucian (unconscious imitators, no doubt, for many of them never read a line of his dialogues) would be better employed in imitating the spirit of his works as well as the mere contrivance for producing the ludicrous, than in devastating Fairy Land for materials. It would be more difficult, no doubt, but is that a sufficient reason for abstaining?

Music may be parodied with success, and without evil consequences. That lies in the nature of music, which cannot be degraded. Let a hoarse, beery voice, chant slang words to a melody of Mozart, and the next time you hear the melody, it is as fresh and beautiful as if it had never been turned "to such vile purpose;" but it is not so with the beautiful creations of impassioned fancy. Fancy is a Butterfly which must be delicately handled; if rude fingers tamper with it, the flower-dust is rubbed off and the gay insect perishes.