Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The sound of laughter

As my mum was a schoolteacher, I was familiar from an early age with that eerie feel of empty classrooms at night when the other pupils have left and only the smell of disinfectant wafts through the corridors. It’s felt a bit like that in this building recently, as we’re moving out of it at the end of the month. Today we saw a fox sunning itself on the lawn - bold as you like, casing the joint, perhaps ready to move into my office when I'm gone so it can keep up with its paperwork.  

It’s been a nice old cove, this building, albeit an acoustically leaky one. A scraping chair in the room above sounded like the crackle of gunfire, and you could hear the low murmur of conversations emanating from other offices – punctuated, often, by the sound of laughter. I’ve never been very good at laughter myself – either producing it in others (at least, not without a script) or allowing it to emerge from within myself. So I’m more than usually aware that a laugh is a beautiful sound, a little piece of natural music that no other animal creates. (Hyenas don’t count because they laugh at anything, even Mrs Brown’s Boys.) The paradox of laughter is that it's both an involuntary expression of approval and a cultural reflex, a way of oiling the wheels of human interaction.

‘Laughter appears to stand in need of an echo,’ wrote Henri Bergson in Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. ‘Listen to it carefully: it is not an articulate, clear, well-defined sound; it is something which would fain be prolonged by reverberating from one to another, something beginning with a crash, to continue in successive rumblings, like thunder in a mountain. Still, this reverberation cannot go on for ever. It can travel within as wide a circle as you please: the circle remains, none the less, a closed one. Our laughter is always the laughter of a group … laughter always implies a kind of secret freemasonry, or even complicity, with other laughers, real or imaginary. How often has it been said that the fuller the theatre, the more uncontrolled the laughter of the audience!’

Spontaneous laughter is the best review you will ever get – so much more precious and truth-telling than polite applause. How many comics would love to bottle it up and store it somewhere so it’s more than just a memory? But laughter has no archive: it dies on the air without an echo. And this building, which is just a pile of old bricks, will never know how much laughter emerged from within its walls.

1 comment:

  1. That Bergson! What a card. It's the way he tells them.

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