My poor wristwatch sits forlorn in its nook on the kitchen shelf. I only wear it when going out to the theatre or cinema, so I can keep an eye on the time without rousing my phone. It has gathered six weeks of dust. It is longing for an outing. The absence of theatre in my life is beginning to be painful. I watch various plays online, and that is okay; but I ardently desire to be back in a crowded auditorium. I will never complain about the sweet-paper rustlers again, or the smell of a sweaty patron beside me on a hot July night.
In 1642, the Puritan-dominated English parliament ordered the closure of the London theatres, seeing them as a seat of vice and corruption, and as haunts of "lascivious Mirth and Levity". Actors were subjected to persecution. A single offence merited a whipping, a subsequent infringement had the actor declared a rogue and vagabond. It would be 18 dark years before the restoration of Charles II to the English throne and the ensuing period of theatrical effervescence, a style of work that became known as Restoration Comedy. After the long theatrical drought, the theatre developed a mode almost totally dedicated to having a laugh, with plenty of topical satire. The first professional female actors emerged, as did the first professional female playwright, Aphra Behn.
So what will arise from the darkness caused by Covid-19? My money is on the comedy writers emerging into a golden period. We'll all have had enough doom and gloom and be looking for fun. And there are a number of up-and-coming comedy writing talents poised to take advantage of this: Sonya Kelly's breakthrough play Furniture for Druid Theatre Company opened in Galway's tiny Mick Lally Theatre in 2018; it subsequently packed out a national tour on the strength of word-of-mouth. Kelly's style of aphoristic comedy has a Wildean feel and is a thorough crowd-pleaser, as well as having impressive intellectual agility. Last year saw Lisa Tierney-Keogh's social comedy This Beautiful Village debut on the Abbey main stage; it went on to win Best New Play in the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards, and is scheduled for a national tour this June/July, lockdown permitting. Tierney-Keogh's mode is urban social comedy - influenced heavily by contemporary social satirists, writers like Yasmina Reza and Bernard Farrell. David Ireland's Ulster American last year continued his development of a Northern Irish Protestant humour, with his signature pitch-black mordancy and gleeful provocativeness. The writing team of Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney gave us The Alternative during last year's Dublin Theatre Festival, a hugely funny political satire on Brexit Britain and the state of Irish national identity - brought to the stage by Fishamble: the New Play Company.
Laughter is contagious (in a good, non-viral way). The nervous giggle of the genuinely threatened easily tips over into giddy mirth. It is a communal activity which doesn't work as well without a crowd. Canned laughter tries to fill the void for TV viewers, but it's the one aspect of recorded drama that is never really satisfactory. Nothing can replace the live ripple of a laugh through a crowd, developing into an irrepressible wave.
The performative joker with the ready quip is of no practical use in a pandemic. Their talents are inappropriate to the time, and the wise joker knows when to shut up. But the joker comes into their own in the aftermath, as part of the repair process.
There is something of the Puritan about Covid-19. It has particularly damaged recreation: sports, concerts, theatre, and jolly packed pubs. But comedy can always be relied on to do battle with the anti-fun brigade. And we laugh communally when danger has passed; it is a signal to the herd that it is safe to come out, that the predator is finally gone.