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Why do the Good die Young? Or else really Quite Old? RIP George Farquhar and Alfred Hitchcock.

April 29, 2015


Alfred Hitchcock died 37 years ago today.  He was eighty.  Hitchcock was the first Director I’d ever heard of.  He was the first person who indicated to me that “directing” was a thing.  I think prior to my awareness of Hitchcock, I must have vaguely assumed that actors just wandered back and forth in front of cameras until the dinner bell rang.

The delicious thing about Hitchcock’s best films (like those very best Coen brothers films that owe him so much) is that they get stranger and stranger every time you see them.  A straightforward adventure story like North by North West, which entertains but does not look like a work of avant garde absurdism, becomes more and more bizarre on repeated viewings.  Perhaps the scariest thing in Hitchcock is the ease with which people will accept a very sinister form of logic.  If you could learn one thing about human nature from Hitchcock (and that’s a big if), it’s that anyone is capable of murder.  If you could learn one thing that’s probably true about human nature from Hitchcock it’s that you have no way whatsoever of identifying the murderers who walk among us.  They are us.  They/we just took a wrong turn.  Or found their way into the wrong railway carriage.

Scariest, tensest scene in Hitchcock?  Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in the wine cellar in Notorious.

Favorite thing about Hitchcock?  Supreme economy of expression.  Hitchcock doggedly refuses to fill in back story, refuses to tell his audiences anything that they don’t really need to know in order to appreciate filmic narrative.  So much of storytelling is ruined by explanation.  Hitchcock rarely if ever ruined a story that way.


George Farquhar died 310 years ago today.  He was about thirty.  He was the funniest anglophone dramatist writing between the heyday of Ben Jonson and the heyday of Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  His own heyday was very very short.  He was also the funniest Ulster protestant ever.

There is no dramatist whose early death I regret more than Farquhar’s.   He really was on an upward curve and his final two plays continue to delight audiences and students.  While earlier “Restoration” dramatists have modern audiences keeping one finger in their programmes, re-checking who’s supposed to be who – Farquhar specialises in “fish out of water” comedy, where many of the characters are as bewildered as the audience. Comedies that are about bewilderment are, oddly enough, far less bewildering and far more empathetic.

The happy improvised divorce ceremony that caps The Beaux Stratagem (1707) is one of the wisest and yet most delicate things the eighteenth-century stage can offer.  Two people discover that they can only talk truthfully and tenderly to each other in the act of parting.  Like Hitchcock, Farquhar does not trouble our heads with the longer term legal viability of any of the arrangements these people have carved out for themselves.  A Farquhar play is a world entire, and its beneficiaries survive entirely on their own terms.

If Farquhar had enjoyed another twenty or even just ten more years of life, the anglophone stage would have been enriched with at least three more plays that we’d still be laughing at today.  Lost laughs.  Jokes untold.  Feel robbed.

So I’m properly sad about Hitchcock, but I’m getting over it, whereas I’m proper angry about Farquhar and I can’t see myself being reconciled to his loss any time soon.

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