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Eric Parisot (2015-2016)
Flinders University
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No Laughing Matter? Suicide and Comedy in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain

We certainly don’t think it’s socially acceptable to laugh about suicide today, so why did people laugh about suicide in late eighteenth-century Britain? This project examines the emotional strategies that underpinned comedic representations of suicide during this period, and how they functioned as a means of social regulation and reform.

No Lauging Matter

 

The strident reforming discourse of late eighteenth-century Britain has been traced along moralizing and sentimental lines according to our own modern sensibilities, but the persistence of older and less sympathetic modes of reform, such as satire and ridicule, has been obscured in the process. Accordingly, this project—which represents a developmental phase of a book-length study—will examine comedic representations of suicide and the suicidal in the popular culture of the mid to late eighteenth century, including satirical vignettes in the popular press, pamphlets ridiculing suicide as a fashionable vice, and parodies of prominent suicidal figures (real and fictional, such as Thomas Chatterton and Goethe’s Werther), and the unpublished but frequently-staged play, The Suicide, a Comedy (1778), by George Colman (the Elder). In doing so, it will expose the various and often competing emotional strategies that underpin the reforming and regulating capacities of comedy during a time in which suicide was seen to be a national scourge on an unprecedented scale.


Image: Thomas Rowlandson, Englishmen in November, Frenchmen in November, 1788. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittesley Fund, 1959, www.metmuseum.org