Black Comedy (play)
Marquee for the Original Broadway Production at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 1967
|Written by||Peter Shaffer|
|Place premiered||National Theatre
|Setting||9:30 on a Sunday Night
South Kensington, London
Brindsley Miller's Flat
The play is written to be staged under a reversed lighting scheme: the play opens on a darkened stage. A few minutes into the show there is a short circuit, and the stage is illuminated to reveal the characters in a "blackout." On the few occasions when matches, lighters, or torches are lit, the lights grow dimmer. The title of the play is a pun.
Brindsley Miller, a young sculptor, and his debutante fiancée Carol Melkett have borrowed some expensive, antique furniture from his neighbor Harold's flat without his permission in order to impress an elderly millionaire art collector coming to view Brindsley's work, and Carol's father Colonel Melkett. When the power fails, Harold returns early, and Brindsley's ex-mistress Clea shows up unexpectedly, things slide into disaster for him.
- 1 Synopsis
- 2 Development
- 3 Reception
- 4 The White Liars
- 5 Production History
- 6 Film Adaptation
- 7 Licensing
- 8 References
- 9 Notes
- 10 External links
Brindsley Miller, a young sculptor, and his debutante fiancée, Carol Melkett, have stolen some very expensive antique items and furniture from his neighbor Harold Gorringe, who is away for the weekend, in an attempt to spruce up his normally slum-like apartment in order to impress a wealthy art collector, Georg Bamberger, who is coming to view his work, and Carol's father, Colonel Melkett. As they contemplate the coming evening, Carol inquires about Brindsley's previous mistress, a painter named Clea. Brindsley tells her that he saw her for only three months and that the relationship took place two years ago. Just as Carol places a Sousa march on the record player, a fuse short circuits causing a blackout. The stage is instantly illuminated.
As Brindsley and Carol search for matches, the phone rings and Brindsley answers it. It is Clea, who has just returned from Finland, and wants to arrange a liaison for that evening. Brindsley hurriedly distracts Carol with a bogus story about fuse wire in his bedroom loft. He desperately denies to see Clea, and informs Carol when she returns that it was "just a chum."
Miss Furnival, a spinster and lifelong teetotaler, the occupant of the flat upstairs, enters seeking refuge from her fear of the dark. She informs them that the street lamps are still alight, and Brindsley deduces that the short-circuit occurred in the main power box in the cellar. He and Carol ring the London Electricity Board, but are told only that an electrician might arrive sometime later that night. Miss Furnival suggests that Brindsley look for candles in Harold Gorringe's apartment across the hall, and he exits.
Carol's father, Colonel Melkett, arrives with an illuminated lighter, and is unimpressed with one of Brindsley's sculptures—a large work in iron with two prongs. Miss Furnival realizes that the room is full of her friend Harold's furniture, including a fine porcelain Buddha—Harold's most valuable possession. Carol frantically decoys the Colonel into Brindsley's studio to see the rest of his work. She explains the situation to Miss Furnival, who reluctantly agrees not to betray them to Harold.
When Brindsley returns unsuccessful from his search, the Colonel takes an almost instant dislike to him. At his suggestion, Brindsley exits to retrieve torches from a nearby pub. But just as he is leaving, Harold Gorringe returns from his weekend early. Brindsley quickly pulls him into the flat so that he will not go into his own and find his possessions stolen. Harold is unable to recognize his own furniture in the dark, and in order to keep him from lighting a match and discovering the thievery, Brindsley concocts the excuse of a possible gas leak.
Brindsley pretends to leave for the pub, and as Carol blindly mixes drinks, he attempts to restore as much of the stolen furniture to Harold's flat as possible. As Brindsley enters and exits with various objects, wrapping the Buddha in Harold's raincoat, the four guests discuss the imminent arrival of Georg Bamberger. Harold reveals some facts he read in the Sunday Mirror: The reclusive Bamberger is known as "the mystery millionaire," and is apparently stone deaf.
There is a mix up as Carol hands out the drinks in the dark, Miss Furnival is mistakenly given the Colonel's whiskey. The four attempt to rectify the confusion, but to no avail, Miss Furnival now receives Harold's gin. Finally, the Colonel angrily illuminates his lighter, revealing Brindsley. He lies unconvincingly, claiming that he has been to pub, found it closed, and returned. The Colonel rages at him "If you think I'm going to let my daughter marry a born liar, you're very much mistaken sir!" It is now that Harold discovers Brindsley and Carol's engagement, and he is furious at the news. It is obvious that he himself has secret feelings for Brindsley.
Brindsley and Carol manage to arrange grudging reconciliations between themselves, the Colonel and Harold, and Miss Furnival, hooked after her first taste of alcohol, stealthily procures more liquor. Just then, Clea enters unannounced. Unaware of her presence, the others begin to speak ill of her. Harold spitefully deems her "ugly," Miss Furnival continues by recalling her as "tiresomely Bohemian," and Carol proclaims of a photo she found of her "she looked like The Bartered Bride done by Lloyds Bank Operatic Society." At this, everyone bursts into a gale of laughter, and Clea slaps Brindsley in the face. In the confusion, Brindsley catches hold of Clea's bottom, and instantly recognizes it. He manages to retreat with her to the loft, where his desperate pleas that she leave dissolve into passionate kisses. When she refuses to go, he concedes that she can stay in the loft, if she will not come downstairs.
Just as Carol begins to grow suspicious about the activity in Brindsley's bedroom, Schuppanzigh, the German electrician sent to repair the fuse arrives, and everyone excitedly mistakes him for Bamberger. The electrician, with his lit torch, catches sight of Brindsley's sculpture, and is extremely impressed with it. In order to hide Harold's still unreturned Regency sofa, Brindsley challenges the German to examine the sculpture in the dark, claiming it was made to be appreciated in the dark. Schuppanzigh agrees, and turns off the torch. In the restored darkness, Brindsley pulls the sofa into his studio, unaware that the drunken Miss Furnival is lying on it. Upon catching hold of the two metal prongs, Schuppanzigh proclaims to everyone's astonishment "It's quite true! When viewed like this the piece becomes a masterpiece at once!" The electrician proceeds to give an eloquent lecture, praising Brindsley as "a master!" and calling the prongs "the two needles of man's unrest. Self-love and self-hate leading to the same point!" Just as the statue seems on the point of being sold for five hundred guineas, Schuppanzeigh's true identity is discovered, and everyone turns on him in outrage. He is at once cast down to the cellar to mend the fuse.
Just as the electrician descends, Miss Furnival is heard in the studio, singing "Rock of Ages" in a high, drunken voice. Attracted by the sound, Clea emerges from the loft, dressed in one of Brindsley's night shirts. She overhears Carol consoling Brindsley with an idyllic portrait of their future married life. Outraged on discovering Brindsley's secret, Clea dashes Vodka over the startled guests. In an utter panic, Brindsley invents a cleaning woman named "Mrs Punnett," and to his surprise Clea goes along with him, speaking in a contrived Cockney voice of great antiquity. But to Brindsley's horror, Clea uses the guise of Mrs. Punnett to infuriate Carol and the Colonel with shocking tales of parties and "kinky games in the dark" and reveal her affair with Brindsley.
When Clea confesses her true identity, in complete charge of the situation, Carol is horrified. But her hysterics are interrupted as Miss Furnival emerges from the studio, lost in a world of her own fears, proclaiming a passionate, drunken tirade in which she rants on the terrors of the supermarket, calls to her dead father, and prophesies a judgement day when "the heathens in their leather jackets" will be "stricken from their motorcycles." She is led out by a consoling Harold.
Brindsley and Clea are left alone with Carol and the Colonel. The disheveled Carol breaks off their engagement and the Colonel advances on Brindsley in blind fury. But the Colonel's rage is interrupted and surpassed as Harold re-enters with a terrible shriek of anger, a lit taper burning in his hand. He has just discovered the state of his room and screams at Brindsley in betrayed anguish, demanding his remaining possessions be returned.
As Harold moves to exit again, he grabs his raincoat. But inside it, of course, is the Buddha. It falls out and smashes beyond repair. Harold snaps. He turns on Brindsley and declares "with the quietness of the mad," "I think I'm going to have to smash you Brindsley." Abruptly, he pulls one of the metal prongs out of the statue, and advances on him. The Colonel follows suit, pulling the other prong, and together he and Harold advance on the terrified sculptor. Clea comes to his rescue. She blows out Harold's taper, casting the room into darkness once more, and pulling Brindsley to safety on the center table. The two men hunt their quarry in the dark.
Now, finally, Georg Bamberger arrives, dressed in the Gulbenkian manner, and carrying a large deaf aid. This time, the guests mistake the millionaire for the electrician, until Schuppanzigh emerges from the cellar, proclaiming that the fuse is fixed. The startled guests realize that Bamberger has, at long last, arrived, and Brindsley exclaims happily "Everything's all right now! Just in the nick of time!" But just as he says this, Bamberger falls into the open trapdoor. Harold, the Colonel, and Carol advance on Brindsley and Clea, as Schuppanzigh moves to the light switch, saying "God said: "Let there be light!" And there was, good people, suddenly — astoundingly — instantaneously — inconceivably — inexhaustibly — inextinguishably and eternally — LIGHT!" And with a great flourish, he flicks the light switch--there is instant darkness, as with an exultant crash the Sousa march blazes away in the black.
In the early spring of 1965, National Theatre dramaturge Kenneth Tynan commissioned Shaffer to write a one-act play to accompany a production of Miss Julie starring Maggie Smith and Albert Finney. Shaffer later wrote in the introduction to his 1982 Collected Plays: "Without much conviction, but with the sort of energy which Tynan always elicited from me, I described my idea of a party given in a London flat, played in Chinese darkness-- full light--because of a power failure in the building. We would watch the guests behave in a situation of increasing chaos, but they would of course remain throughout quite unable to see one another. Ever one to appreciate a theatrical idea, Tynan dragged me off instantly to see Laurence Olivier, the director of the National. In vain did I protest that there really was no play, merely a convention, and that anyway I had to travel immediately to New York to write a film script. Olivier simply looked through me with his own Chinese and unseeing eyes, said "It's all going to be thrilling!" and left the room."
So, Shaffer set about composing the play. In order to produce a more sustaining dramatic premise than the mere gimmick of inverse lighting, Shaffer devised the notion that one of the characters had a reason to actually keep the others in the dark. It was from this necessity that the idea of the stolen furniture was conceived, and the theme of lies was solidified. Brindsley would keep his guests in the dark--both figuratively and literally.
Tynan would later say of the rehearsal process: "This was farce rehearsed in farce conditions." Due to scheduling difficulties at Chichester, Black Comedy was given very little rehearsal time, and it would later open without a single public preview. The play was directed by John Dexter—who had directed Shaffer's previous play The Royal Hunt of the Sun, and would go on to direct Equus—with what Shaffer called "blazing precision." He went on to say that "it was acted with unmatchable brio by Smith and Finney, by Derek Jacobi as an incomparable Brindsley, and by Graham Crowden as a savagely lunatic Colonel Melkett." Maggie Smith had previously starred in two of Shaffer's previous plays, The Private Ear and The Public Eye, which were performed as a double bill at the Globe Theatre.
The opening night of Black Comedy was a resounding success. Shaffer would describe the performance in his 1982 introduction as "a veritable detonation of human glee." In particular, Shaffer would recall vividly one specific audience member, "an enormously fat man in front of me, who hadn’t laughed once, he was the only man in the theatre, I think, who wasn’t laughing, and I decided that if he disliked it, it was a failure--I didn’t know who he was, just that he was in my eye line, and if he liked it, it was a success, you know how rational one can be—suddenly [he] laughed like...a volcano about to erupt, and he fell in the aisle and began to crawl towards the stage...sobbing with laughter—and calling out to the actors—this was on the first night—crawling down among the knees of the critics and all that saying, “Oh stop it, please stop it, please stop it! I can’t bear it!” It was possibly the nicest thing that ever, ever happened to me as a playwright...the sheer joy of the man holding his tummy and going, “Please stop it!” It was lovely. That was Black Comedy." 
The White Liars
Black Comedy is often performed with another Peter Shaffer one-act, The White Liars, to form the double-bill of The White Liars and Black Comedy. The two plays are published together.
The White Liars was first performed in 1967 under the title White Lies, with the original Broadway production of Black Comedy. It was billed as a "curtain-raiser" to Black Comedy. Peter Shaffer retitled the play for subsequent productions.
The White Liars is shorter than Black Comedy. It concerns a down-on-her-luck fortune teller living in a decaying seaside resort, and the two young men—Tom, the lead singer in a rock band, and Frank, his business manager—who consult her. It is more serious fare than its farcical counterpart.
Black Comedy was first presented at the Chichester Festival Theatre by the National Theatre on July 27, 1965, and subsequently at The Old Vic Theatre, London, directed by John Dexter with the following cast:
Brindsley Miller...Derek Jacobi
Carol Melkett...Louise Purnell
Miss Furnival...Doris Hare
Colonel Melkett...Graham Crowden
Harold Gorringe...Albert Finney
Georg Bamberger...Michael Byrne
Original Broadway Production
Sophie: Baroness Lemberg...Geraldine Page
Brindsley Miller...Michael Crawford
Carol Melkett...Lynn Redgrave
Miss Furnival...Camila Ashland
Colonel Melkett...Peter Bull
Harold Gorringe...Donald Madden
Georg Bamberger...Michael Miller
The production featured the Broadway debut of both Michael Crawford and Lynn Redgrave.
The production previewed from January 31, 1967 and opened on February 12, 1967. It closed on December 2, 1967 after a total of 14 previews and 337 performances.
1967 Awards and Nominations
The original Broadway production of Black Comedy was nominated for five Tony Awards:
- Best Play
- Best Actor in a Play (Donald Madden)
- Best Featured Actress in a Play (Camila Ashland)
- Best Direction of a Play (John Dexter)
- Best Scenic Design (Alan Tagg)
In addition, Jordan Christopher, Michael Crawford's replacement, won the Theatre World Award for his portrayal of Brindsley.
1968 London Production
Black Comedy and White Lies, retitled The White Liars, were presented at the Lyric Theatre, London under the title The White Liars and Black Comedy on February 1, 1968 directed by Peter Wood with the following cast:
The White Liars:
Sophie, Baroness Lemberg...Dorothy Reynolds
Brindsley Miller...James Bolam
Carol Melkett...Angela Scoular
Miss Furnival...Dorothy Reynolds
Colonel Melkett...Robert Flemying
Harold Gorringe...Ian McKellen
Georg Bamburger...Christopher Fagan
White Lies was rewritten extensively by Peter Shaffer for this production and retitled The White Liars.
1976 London Revival
The production featured Timothy Dalton as Harold Gorringe and Tom.
The White Liars was rewritten by Peter Shaffer for this production.
1993 Broadway Revival
Sophie: Baroness Lemberg...Nancy Marchand
Tom...David Aaron Baker
Brindsley Miller...Peter MacNicol
Carol Melkett...Anne Bobby
Miss Furnival...Nancy Marchand
Colonel Melkett...Keene Curtis
Harold Gorringe...Brian Murray
Georg Bamberger...Ray Xifo
Nancy Marchand was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for her performance as Miss Furnival.
Both Black Comedy and The White Liars were rewritten by Peter Shaffer for this production.
The production previewed from August 10, 1993 and opened on September 1, 1993. It closed on October 3, 1993 after a total of 25 previews and 38 performances.
1998 London Revival
Brindsley Miller...David Tennant
Carol Melkett...Anna Chancellor
Miss Furnival...Nichola McAuliffe
Colonel Melkett...Gary Waldhorn
Harold Gorringe...Desmond Barritt
Georg Bamberger...Joseph Millson
Peter Shaffer rewrote Black Comedy for this production.
The performance rights for "Black Comedy" are controlled by Samuel French, Inc.
- Shaffer, P (1998). The White Liars and Black Comedy, Samuel French.
- Shaffer, P (1982). The Collected Plays of Peter Shaffer, Harmony Books.
- Black Comedy at Samuel French, Inc.
- Black Comedy at the National Theatre Archives
- Black Comedy/White Lies at the Internet Broadway Database
- Photos of the original Broadway production at Lynn Redgrave's official website
- The 1968 London production of The White Liars and Black Comedy at Ian McKellen's official website
- The 1993 Broadway production of Black Comedy at Kate Mulgrew's official website
- A scan of the 1998 programme for The Real Inspector Hound and Black Comedy