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literature

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Comedy of Manners  
 
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John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces (1980) opens, for example, with protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly standing in a crowded New Orleans department store studying the masses of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius notices, are new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person's lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one's soul.

W. H. Auden habitually expressed his disapproval by noting that "Mother doesn't approve," granting himself, through a fictive third-person persona, an Edwardian matron's authority to dictate the manners, values, and behavior of those around him. The very title of Quentin Crisp's How to Have a Lifestyle (1979) suggests both the ignorance of an audience that needs to be instructed in such a matter and his role as social arbiter.

Sponsor Message.

The fops of Restoration comedy who criticize the dress, coiffure, and wit of others are the progenitors of brothers Niles and Frasier Crane, television's finicky psychiatrists who debate the best care of suede, the proper seasoning of crêpe pans, and the appropriate behavior in an opera box. Not surprisingly, the head writer and co-executive producer of the situation comedy Frasier is Joe Keenan, author of two rich, gay comedies of manners, Blue Heaven (1988) and Putting on the Ritz (1991).

Employing Verbal Wit to Combat a Censorious Society

A final possible reason for gay mastery of comedy of manners stems from what theater historian John Clum calls "the play of anarchic wit, the virtuosic manipulation of language as a means of dismantling censorious judgments," which is both generically at the heart of comedy of manners and has proven historically to be gays' best defense against a heterosexual majority's presumption of superiority.

When Earl Leofric tells Rev. Mother Superviva in Ronald Tavel's Life of Lady Godiva (1966) that "words are an art form. Stop trying to use them to communicate with," he might well be describing the aphoristic wit of Oscar Wilde, which challenged society's pat verbal formulae while reversing its simplistic, and often hypocritical, moral expectations. Wilde's own speaking style became the prototype for the clipped, polished delivery of Noël Coward, the arch dogmatism of Quentin Crisp, and the bitchy bons mots of Truman Capote.

The sexual double entendres of performers such as Mae West and Bette Midler allow the female impersonators who imitate them to criticize the artificiality of society's construction of femaleness--and of the entire heterosexual enterprise if a woman's dress and physical mannerisms can be so easily travestied--while subversively voicing a male's desire for a male sexual object. Wit has become a stereotypical feature of gay style, as is witnessed by the quips exchanged by Jack and Will at their "bitch brunches" on television's Will and Grace.

Post-Stonewall: Policing and Reclaiming Gay Culture

The Stonewall revolution both created an introspective gay culture that polices its own excesses and an awareness of the need to reclaim vanishing fashion and linguistic codes that once discreetly signaled gay identity to the cognoscenti, thus ensuring that gay manners have themselves become the subject of comedy.

Ethan Mordden's four-volume series, "Tales from Gay Manhattan" (I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore, 1985; Buddies, 1986; Everybody Loves You, 1988; and Some Men Are Lookers, 1997), does for New York City what Armistead Maupin's better-known "Tales of the City" (six volumes, 1978-1989) had done for San Francisco—that is, it shows gays in the process of creating both a community and a lifestyle for themselves.

The gay behavior and concerns recorded in Mordden's series are sometimes frivolous and highly ephemeral, as in the celebration of clone couture, disco bars, Crisco parties, wet-jockey-short contests, roller-rink cruising, and designer colors; but they are often serious, as in the politics of gay-pride marches, governance of gay communes, administration of gay health care, and marketing of gay-identified or gay-friendly performers.

The emergence of recognizably gay social types, and the comedy that such stereotypical behavior evokes, is documented by the very titles of Robert Rodi's novels: Fag Hag (1993), Closet Case (1994), Drag Queen (1996), and Kept Boy (1996).

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