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Anna Krohn: Laughing at death dealing

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Cary Grant in a slapstick comedy classic with a macabre twist, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).

Sometimes, when logical argument fails to persuade and when the issue is complex, the only way to deal with unbearably large and serious moral drama is with absurdist humour or cutting satire.

Dean Swift, Flannery O’Connor and G K Chesterton were just a few of the creative Christians who had acute and serious reasons for wielding the knife of humour, grotesquery and paradox. The surprise of humour imaginatively transcends static tags like “left” or “right” since it shakes the fences which hold these positions in safely defined paddocks.

Evelyn Waugh’s acid narrative about mid-century American attitudes to death and dying, The Loved One, has been described as “tasteless, irreverent, perverse, and merciless” but, at the same time as refreshing sane.

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Wrote Waugh:

I found a deep mine of literary gold in the cemetery of Forest Lawn and the work of the morticians and intend to get to work immediately on a novelette staged there.

W H Auden, commenting on the comic in Shakespeare said:

Christian comedy is based upon the belief that all men are sinners; no one, therefore, whatever his rank or talents, can claim immunity from the comic exposure and, indeed, the more virtuous, in the Greek sense, a man is, the more he realizes that he deserves to be exposed.

It is striking that it is just this exposure of the “respectability” and the indescribably twee culture surrounding the assisted suicide and death “industry” that is a feature of the work of Liz Carr, particularly since her 2013 radio documentary When Assisted Death is Legal for BBC 1.

Liz Carr is no Christian, but her wit like Waugh’s, could also be described as: “tasteless, irreverent, perverse, and merciless.” Hers is the The Loved One with a more homicidal subject matter.

Carr found it difficult to caricature the madness and inanity of some the encounters she had.  As a woman living and working as a professional actor, along with a life-threatening disability, she undertook arduous and intelligent research in countries where euthanasia or assisted suicide had been made legal.

Here she found:

Surreal highlights include eating canapés at a cocktail party in a death clinic, even more surreal when someone asked me if I was ‘suffering unbearably’; visiting the little blue house aka Dignitas with its shooting range across the road; providing decorating and design tips to the owners of a ’boutique’ death clinic and heading to Disneyland Paris on a day off, riding the rides in my Euthanasia Road Trip t-shirt.

Recently Liz Carr came to Australia with a theatrical production that might be best described as a euthanasia burlesque: Euthanasia: the Musical.

This production was the result of Carr’s genuine concern regarding the coercive appeal to disabled people themselves of legalised “medicalised killing.” Instead of writing a treatise against these dangers, Liz Carr clowned around with the “nice” regimes of euthanasia and “assisted death.”  Because she is visibly and defiantly disabled her comedy has an extra-sharp razor edge.

In a recent Catholic Weekly article, Natasha Marsh comments that the musical very effectively counters the glib liberal clichés about “freedom of choice” and “assisted dying.”

Comedy is an invaluable medium for clear thinking, for exploding muddled social discourse, and for shining a light on our moral foibles and self-deception.

Arsenic and Old Lace, is a “classic”comedy written for the stage in 1939 by a relatively little known American playwright, Joseph Kettelring who was then teaching in a Mennonite school. The play is in fact far better known than its creator and it is often re-staged right around the world.

A particularly and uproariously slapstick version of this black farce is the 1944 film of the same name, directed and adapted by Frank Capra, starring Cary Grant, who combines his debonair film presence with his earlier skills as a circus performer.

The hero of our comedy is Mortimer Brewster, played by Cary Grant.  He travels to an old-fashioned neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York, undercover.  He is fashionable drama critic who has risen to fame with his published denunciations of matrimony. The trouble is, he has fallen in love with a decent “girl-next-door” and wants to marry her.

His family, the Brewsters, are rusted-on Yankee establishment and he visits his two “sweet ol’ ants” to tell them coyly of his wedding plans. Things become chaotic from the moment Mortimer steps into Aunt Abby and Martha’s quaintly Edwardian attired world.

His “lovely” old aunts are dispatching lonely old men, seeking lodging at their house, using elderberry wine laced with a cocktail of arsenic, strychnine and “just a pinch of cyanide” and enlisting Mortimer’s delusional brother, Teddy (who thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt) to bury them in the cellar.

When Mortimer in a state of abject panic, tries to question them, the Aunties are hurt.  They cannot understand why their kindly motivations to put these lonely old people out of their misery and to give them a “decent burial” with hymns (even) should be shocking. They explain that they are ministering compassionate death but Mortimer replies in a high state of alarm: “But darlings … don’t you see … it’s not just illegal … it’s WRONG!!”

They don’t see, and added to the mayhem, Mortimer’s criminally insane brother, Jonathan Brewster, turns up with a drunken doctor Dr Einstein (played with great comic turn by Peter Lorre). Einstein has done a strange job of plastic surgery on Jonathan and he now looks like Boris Karloff. Jonathan also discovers that his Aunts using their kindly potion have bumped off as many men as he has in bouts of malicious rage. Dr Einstein laughs: “Don’t you see Jonathan, they’s as good as you? They’ve got 12 and you’ve got 12!”

The madcap comedy, whether intentionally or not, fires shots at confusing social respectability with “goodness”, at trendy ideas and at “kindly motives”. The plot in fact revolves around how lethal and insane things become, when we replace “motives” for objective intentions.

This is, of course, still a core issue at the heart of the debate about legalising medicalised and “intentional” death dealing.

Is it still deliberate killing when we end someone’s life “nicely” or “cleanly” or with the motivation of “relieving them of suffering? Would Mortimer have been relieved if the lonely old men had asked Aunt Abby to finish them off?

The premise of Arsenic and Old Lace is that of course it is crazy to confuse “kindly motives” with the objective wrong of homicide. Perhaps adding to the edge of comedy at that time was the realisation that across the water from the staid corners of Brooklyn were regimes that made the ending of “useless lives” or “political opponents” a feat of diabolical engineering brilliance.

In Western domestic common law, it was still clear, that in relation to such serious matters as the “ending human life”, especially because our motives, the flock of “reasons” for our actions (or inactions) are often mixed and tangled, we need to judge actions by our “intentions” or “the why and the what we aim at.”

The brilliant English analytical philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001) (who by the way was Catholic and cuttingly funny) closely unpacked this danger in her academic writing.

She saw that the terrible shift was made very quickly, from the type of communal moral clarity of Arsenic and Old Lace in 1944 to a confusion of “motive” and “intention” in 1945, scrambled in the lethal apocalyptic clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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