Four years ago I went to visit my sister, Emily, and her British boyfriend, Hamish, in New York City. Upon Hamish’s recommendation, we went to see “One Man, Two Guvnors”, a British comedy that originally debuted on the West End and then opened on Broadway. I was 16 years old, had just flown back from a study abroad trip in Italy, and the very first thing my sister wanted to do was take me to see this play. In addition to the fact that I was incredibly jet lagged, the British humor made the play much harder to understand than any other typical Broadway show I had ever seen.
“One Man, Two Guvnors” is about Francis Henshall, a man who in attempting to make money takes on employment with two men- Roscoe Crabbe, a small time gangster, and Stanley Stubbers, an upper-class criminal. Francis attempts to keep his two employers (or “guvnors”) from finding out about each other. However, unbeknownst to Francis, Roscoe is actually Rachel Crabbe (Roscoe’s twin sister) in disguise, and Rachel’s lover (who killed her twin brother Roscoe) is none other than Francis’ second employer Stanley Stubbers. While the confusing plot line was hard enough for me to follow, the British humor confused me even further. I could not understand why everyone in the theater was laughing so hard until I read the chapter on humor in Kate Fox’s Watching the English. Satire, understatement, and irony pervaded every moment of “One Man, Two Guvnors”. The play is built around dramatic irony with the audience constantly aware of things of which the characters are not aware.
Going to see “The Play That Goes Wrong” further portrayed to me the importance of irony and understatement in British humor. While at the beginning of the play I found the humor a bit forced and predictable, after the first few scenes I was cracking up along with everyone else in the theater. I understood the British appreciation for understatement when the narrator at intermission commented that they had “hit a few snags” in the first part of the play but that it “was nothing out of the ordinary for any play” when things had been flying off the walls and characters were getting knocked out by doors. Our visit to the West End helped me further understand British humor not only in plays but in everyday life as well.