They may have become popular in the Victorian music halls, and hit their peak in 1920s vaudeville, but since the beginning of television and still today they are a staple of light entertainment, especially on the Saturday evening prime time slot. I’m talking about double-acts.
Whether they are billed as a comedic partnership, characters in a soap opera or sitcom, or even a duo of television presenters, they all work in the same way with the same strict formula; the stooge and the straight man. It’s the way it has to be; for it to work there has to be a serious one and a funny one. The intellect and the idiot. Even Shakespeare made use of double acts, and not only in his comedies but even in his tragedies; Lear had his fool, Romeo had Mercutio, and Prospero had Caliban.
Either way, the straight man can only be funny if he has his idiot to berate, and the clown can only appear to be stupid if there is the no-nonsense presence of his foil. In modern television it is not always clear which one is which, and after each pair of phrasings they may swap over and reverse their roles; such is the case of Ant and Dec, where it is difficult to tell which one of them is really the most ridiculous out of the two. Double acts are a comedic certainty, but they do not only exist in television-land. Oh no; they are in our homes as well. They are our own relationships. And equally for those whose lifestyles are coloured in an alternative hue, even in the situation of a ménage a trois, it is still there, only now it is formed by two separate and sometimes warring double acts.
As a boy, which is a past reality that seems like so many years longer ago than it actually is, my favourite kind of comedy duo came in the guise of the ventriloquist act. Technically only one performer; one person, and one puppet friend, but two opposing characters all the same. And to me they were real; both characters, these two opposing personalities, they were both completely alive. I knew that one of them wasn’t actually living; that it was some kind of performed manifestation of the ventriloquist. A creation born entirely out of the puppeteer’s mind. And yet their relationship, even with some of the lesser quality acts where lips were seen quite obviously to move, even then the forces of their association which held them together and at the same time made them repellent to each other, was all so believable; and in a child’s eyes completely paralleled what could be seen every day at home and in the outside world.
Because it was the same, and is the same. In all marriages, relationships, long-term or short-term, heterosexual or same-sex, there exists always the ventriloquist and his, or her, dummy. There is always a hand up somebody’s back, doing all of the controlling and all of the talking. That is not to say that there is something destructive in this, but only that it seems to be the way of things without anyone ever requiring the need to think about it or analyze its reasoning.
But which one is which? Is there always one person as the performer and one as the puppet? Perhaps in very definitely controlled relationships, where one party demands the dominant role and bullies the other into submission. but I do not think that this is generally the case. I believe there is an organic fluidity to the whole aspect of control, and there is a constant unspoken dialogue going on all of the time, in all interactions, where dominance and submission is passed constantly like the ball in some prepubescent game between one another; neither person being entirely comfortable with either role for very long.
It makes me wonder that people don’t just claim their own divided personality of authority and obedience so that we never have to bow to anyone else’s will, or bend anybody else to ours. But, then again, I don’t think any one of us would be entirely comfortable with that situation either. If we were; if each person alone held onto both of their aspects and kept them checked and in a balance, then we would be completely whole, as one piece, and probably without the need for intimate relationships at all.Maybe then we could do away with all interaction with our fellow man altogether; whoever he or she may be, and whatever their connection to us is. What would happen if that should be the case? Quite simply, the world would be very quiet, and very dull, and perhaps for better or worse in a silent, sterile universe we would lose the sense of a need to survive and to shed new seed to carry on our species. How depressing! We would just die out altogether; a forever forgotten race of lonely individuals not worth the effort of lamenting by any alien race that may come across our solitary histories.
Fortunately our constantly warring aspects remain preeminent. There are times, many times in fact, when we fight to be the one who sets the way things are going to be, the one who selfishly gets his or her own way, often not thinking or caring what our counterpart might want. Because whether we like it or not, the self is often a fraction of the human condition that wins out.
Sometimes though, when a decision comes along that we don’t want the responsibility of making, because the wrong turn could result in disaster, or because either way the road will be fraught with obstacles, we are happy then to be the dummy, nodding and shaking its wooden head, mouthing our words but comfortable in the knowledge that those words are not ours and the responsibility will not lay heavy on our shoulders, but will be borne by the one who has their arm pushed up into our body cavity and who will fold us up into a suitcase and walk away with us when the act is finished and the people have applauded.
Even demanding submissively that our partner take on the role of control, is in itself not really obedience but the sly gesture of power by an engineer pretending to be a puppet. So who is the dummy, when the puppeteer’s hand is up the back of the little wooden man, but when the dummy’s own little wooden fingers are operating the puppeteer? Partnerships sometimes break down, and then what happens to the double act? Often the double act dies along with the relationship. But not always. There are some acts that are just too big, where the entire public identity of each party is tied up so completely in the act, that the ending of it would mean a freefall into obscurity for one or both performers. And when the act is more important that the individual, then the act stays even if the marriage is long dead.
This has been the case all through history. Alexander the Great and his wife, Edward the Second and his, and even the composer Cole Porter and his wife Linda Lee Thomas. In these cases the cause of the rift has been sexuality. Each of these men were gay, in a world where the term did not exist and where convention demanded that a heterosexual marriage take place regardless of male homosexuality. In each case the outcome was similar; the female part of the couple is left bereft of love and care, while the male does his thing. Other couples, political double acts such as Bill and Hilary Clinton, and perhaps John and Pauline Prescott, have had their marriages shaken so vigorously by personal infidelities with so many fragments having fallen away that the foundations are left with no more solidity than quicksand. And still they walk arm in arm in public view; not because of a love that holds them together, but because they need each other. To remain where they are, in the lifestyles they have worked so hard for, and to progress further still in their careers and remain in the public interest, it is imperative that they do not let go of each other even for a second. Who knows if there are feelings left between them, or even if they have been able to continue as friends? That is not important; it is the act, each with a hand up the other one’s back, that holds them together now.
Power struggles and ventriloquism, often in the minute and subconscious, seem to be the way that relationships work whether we like it that way or not. As long as we can still be equal, still be equivalent though we are not the same, then what does it matter? It is the relationship, and the fact that we have them at all, that is important.
And I for one really don’t mind having a hand up my back every now and then, tugging at my controls; just as long as that hand also scratches the itch on my shoulder blade, the one that I can never reach, at those times when I need it scratched.