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Laughs From the Past : An Actor Known for His Comedy Is Also an Uncowed, Unbowed Dilettante Historian

April 06, 1986|CARROLL O'CONNOR

"Personal pleasures? Well, I have some toys: a couple of old cars and cameras and a couple of newer cars and cameras. These serve as distractions from routine, as hobbies, I suppose. But I am not active. What I mean is, I don't move much; hardly more than a slug on a leaf, though in bygone years I was sometimes seen in motion. There was a time when I greatly enjoyed outdoor sports; it was in childhood.

Mainly for diversion nowadays I do what I was planning to do when a theatrical producer in Dublin tempted me to the stage: I study history. I hunt down (moving slowly, of course) books, pamphlets, treatises, monographs, essays, documents--anything that purports to be informative--in a desire to know what really happened yesterday. My hunt is impelled by the conviction that what I have been told by statesmen has generally been faulty and frequently false, and that popular historians and media persons, being humanly ambitious for popularity and security (and humanly scared to death), fashion their products mainly for the pride market.

I might once have become a professor of history, but I don't regret not becoming one. The intellectual weakness of the position, the tyranny of academic chairmen, are endurable only by the callous and the dull, and I am one of the soft and crafty. I am not, for my bread, compelled to evoke for the young an evenly heroic national past; to serve them up the better class of facts and gloss over dishonor, disgrace, incompetence, sham; to publish an inconsequential book; to be forgotten in the end like all Establishment press agents who languished before me in halls of ivy. Studying by myself, for myself, I am an uncowed, unbowed dilettante historian.

Can this diversion possibly offer some unsuspected benefit, like the wholesome hobbies of decent folk? I am thinking now of an acquaintance who crafted violins as a relief from the terrible sadness of his regular work, writing half-hour comedy scripts. He gave the violins to worthy young people. No, I see nothing like this in my main hobby; it does nothing but generate for me a lot of useless, wicked laughter. Take, for instance, the historical dramas on TV like 'The Winds of War' and 'George Washington.' To the ordinary right-thinking citizen, such offerings are pleasantly soporific. To me, they are hilarious. No intentional comedy can ever touch these things; they are rivaled only by the old films that had American Indians--truly the most marvelous cavalry the world has ever seen--riding idiotically around the wagon trains, getting picked off like paper ducks in a shooting gallery.

Or take politics. My neighbor, a businessman, listens attentively as the President (who picked off some of those Indians in his day) laces a speech with historical analogues and parallels. My neighbor, a respectable man, is deeply moved. I laugh.

Take historical writing itself (not that anybody will or should). To me, the righteous explanations of our 150-odd military invasions of far-off lands, one or two of them currently in process, are among the most amusing creations of modern literature. Also highly comical is the deification of past Presidents, invariably those who strove mightily to make an old empire out of a new democracy. Even Lincoln is worth a guffaw or two when you reflect that closing up a newspaper, suspending habeas corpus , jailing dissenters, allowing a score or more of teen-aged deserters to be shot and hanged are something less than godly measures. When finally, on the steps of the White House, Abe told a gathering of black folk that, victory notwithstanding, they could never reasonably expect to be accepted as equals, did the gods gape? Popular historians buried the fact and shuddered. I uncovered the fact and howled.

I could go on. Indeed, I could write a jolly perverse book and be rewarded with widespread indignation. But I don't want to do more here than reveal sparingly, as promised, my dark avocation and show a sample or two of its manic pleasures. I've said enough and need only, if I call myself honest, confess that there are moments when I wonder whether I might not have been better summoned to golf or Frisbee throwing. I certainly do not urge my pursuit on the contented man. The laughs to be mined are not spontaneous. The historical joke first causes a stoppage of thought, like a frightful catch in the breathing, and the laugh that comes when thought resumes is probably not as salubrious as a laugh should be. Then, too, long after the laugh has faded, one wonders grimly. . . .

But no. No more. I must keep to my resolve to finish on a light note."


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