love and marriage

I studied Shakespeare in high school and college, and one question came up a few times: "Why are Shakespeare's comedies called 'comedies' when they're not funny?"

Different teachers had different answers to that one. One answer was: "Those plays were very funny when they were written, but humor has changed a lot since Shakespeare's time. Audiences back then wouldn't have laughed at our jokes either." The other answer was: "The word 'comedy' meant something different in those days. Tragedy meant that everybody was dead at the end of the play. Comedy meant that it ended with at least one wedding."

As far as I know, both explanations are probably at least somewhat true, but it's the second one that I've been thinking about. Why is the wedding at the end? A lot of the movies classified as "romantic comedies" these days seem to work the same way. Two people meet, various misunderstandings and otther difficulties come up and are eventually overcome, and then, at the end, they Get Together (not always getting married, though).

And I'm not saying you can't do a lot with that template (as I pointed out in my post "My Genre Is Better Than Your Genre," genre forms always look restricting until you start to work in the genre), but I'm wondering why that's the template for a romantic story.

What about if the wedding (or the equivalent commitment) was at the beginning, not the end? After all, marriage (or some sort of equivalent) is a far more complex, interesting, multi-layered (and funny) relationship between two people than dating and courtship.

What if you ran into somebody you hadn't seen since high school and they wanted to get caught up on what had happened to you since then? If you're married (or equivalent), would you describe how you and your partner got together in detail,and then say, "Since we got together, nothing interesting has happened"? I expect (or at least I hope) not.

Which is not to say that you can't do a good "courtship" comedy (Bringing Up Baby is often cited as the funniest movie ever made), and I'm not proposing that one sub-genre replace the other, but hey, equal time for marriage! Look at The Thin Man, for example. There's a couple who are married, having a great time, and solving mysteries besides. What more could you want?

Hollywood came up with another interesting solution to this, by the way, which was the great divorce comedies of the 1930s (The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, Philadelphia Story), where the "courtship" was between two people who had previously been married (or who were in the process of getting divorced) and therefore knew each other very well already.

And even in superhero movies, where are the married couples? Where's Ralph and Sue Dibny, or Hank and Janet Pym? (In the comic books, of course, both of those women are dead, which is a different – though probably related – problem). (It is worth noting the one of the great moments in The Avengers is the brief appearance of Gwyneth Paltrow, since Pepper is the one person who always has Tony Stark's number. Later: Joss Whedon has said that it was Downey who insisted Paltrow be in the film, but Whedon didn't complain. He got to have Gwyneth Paltrow in his movie, and, as he put it, he got to write three minutes of The Thin Man.)

Anyway, I think this is reflected in my writing. I've never really written about dating and courtship (which doesn't bode well for the teenage protagonist of Stevie One, I guess). Various people I write about do get into relationships, of course, but it's usually an adjunct to whatever else is going on, rather than the central story.

And I've spent the last 20+ years writing about a certain very well-dressed amateur detective and her assistant (and husband), and I'm certainly not stopping now. They're even more fun to write about now that they're married. 🙂

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2 Responses to love and marriage

  1. sonje says:

    I have to disagree with you on this one. Courtship is, by definition, more dramatic than marriage. You can walk away from a courtship at any time. It is a try out period. Of course, you can also walk away from a marriage at any time, but it is much more difficult. You have pledged that you will *not* walk away. And that removes the drama. When we are writing books (or making movies) we are usually showing dramatic storylines that are as intense as possible. “Notes” on a work in progress often center around ways to amp up the drama.

    And there is nothing more intense than the feeling of falling in love, especially when you are uncertain of the other person’s feelings for you and there are no ties between you. You feel raw and exposed and dangling in the wind. One thing many people like about marriage is the stability, the lack of drama.

    Of course an intense, dramatic story can be written about marriage, but it will almost always be about whether or not the marriage will dissolve (so really it’s about divorce, whether or not the divorce happens). Or you can write a story that features married people but is about something else–which I believe is what you do with your detective and her assistant. You’re not really writing about their relationship. You’re writing about a crime, and their marriage is the backdrop.

  2. You’ve brought up some very interesting points.

    One thing that occurs to me is that I agree that people often get married because they want stability and lack of drama. My experience and observation has been that actually stability and lack of drama mostly come from the people involved, not from the institution of marriage. I remember when I was in high school there were couples who stated dating and immediately became “old married couples” (as we called them at the time). And there are certainly marriages (my own included) where drama and lack of stability are the rule rather than the exception.

    And I don’t think either is “good” or “bad,” it’s just people trying to find what suits them. There are couple of characters in my stories who always seek the maximum instability and drama in whatever relationship they’re in (they haven’t been married, but marriage wouldn’t change that about them). And in A Sane Woman there’s a teenage couple who are clearly an “old married couple,” and then in a flashback we find out they’ve been together for three weeks. 🙂

    But I think the main thing is that I disagree with is that the drama in a story about marriage mostly comes from the possibility of divorce. There can be a lot of drama (and, as I said, comedy) in how couples stay together (not just about whether they will or not).

    To refer to one of my favorite all-purpose examples, in the movie Gosford Park there are three couples at the center of the story. Three sisters, from an aristocratic family with no money, made three very different marriages. One married for money, one for status, and one for love. These marriages are not new when we see them, and there is no question of any of the couples breaking up (1930s, England, aristocracy – divorce was not an option), but there is a lot of very powerful observed drama (and comedy) in how they stay together and how they live.

    As for Jan and Marshall, one of the interesting things about working on the mystery story book has been the extent to which it’s turned from showing the relationship as the backdrop for the investigations into the story of a family who happen to solve mysteries.

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