Volume VII, Number 2, Fall 2011

"Playing with the Rules: Thoughts on a Trickster Spirit and the Soul of Comedy" by Eric Weitz

Eric Weitz is Assistant Professor and Head of Drama at Trinity College Dublin, lecturing in acting and comedy. He is author of The Cambridge Introduction to Comedy (2009) and editor of The Power of Laughter: Comedy and Contemporary Irish Theatre (2004), and has also contributed articles on comedy-related subjects to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance, among other publications. Email:

Most readers, especially those with an affection for things comic, will have crossed paths with various incarnations of the trickster figure in their travels. This strain of mythological and folk character has been identified in cultures across time and place, and includes the Greek Hermes; North American Indian Coyote, Hare and Raven; the Yoruba trickster, Eshu; the German Till Eulenspiegel; Bre’r Rabbit from the African-American tradition; Monkey from China; Scandinavian Loki; and the Japanese Susa-No-o. These figures serve as travelling scamps, lords of disruption and shameless heroes, driven by corporeal hungers and with recourse to dreamlike metaphysical freedoms. As a student of theatre I became acquainted with tricksters through rascally stage figures like the zanni of the commedia dell’arte and the mischief loving likes of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Such dramatic types come fully loaded with the makings of comic activity: naughty, naïve, indulgent, resourceful, driven by base instinct and alive to the spheres of clever illogic we otherwise call humour. I have had occasion to note newer candidates for the label, such as the Marx Brothers who supply a trickster presence to the fictional worlds of their films, as does the title character in the mid-twentieth century television series, I Love Lucy. More recently, from the American animated TV series, Family Guy, Stewie is a baby of amoral (or what we might call pre-moral) disposition, who displays a trickster-like compulsion to meet bodily cravings by whatever audacious and ridiculous means an animator can muster.

One discovers that any attempt to contain all tricksters in a single typological cage misses the point. Alexander Leggatt observes with regard to comedy that it refuses scientific description: “There is no such thing as comedy, an abstract trans-historical form; there are only comedies. But they accumulate to create a body of case law, a set of expectations within which writers and audiences operate” (Leggatt, 1). Similarly it may be more productive to talk about tricksters in the fuzzy plural than the sweeping singular, because by definition they are formed in thrall to the root systems of their specific cultures. Lewis Hyde crystallizes the difficulty, writing that, ‘“All cultures have particular vocabularies that are deployed in paradigmatic patterns, in locally understood webs of signification. Hence the impossibility of a single trickster guise or language” (Hyde 74).

My interest in tricksters has to do with the techniques and issues of humour, and a little groundwork may be in order at the beginning: I use the word ‘comic’ to refer to the incorporation of humorous technique—the means by which humans try to make one another laugh—in texts and performances, regardless of genre, form or medium. Any humorous utterance—a joke, for example—points to a pocket of shared, unspoken thought and feeling between two parties. In many ways, the deeper the joke’s psychic hook in shared thought, feeling and experience, the more potent its effect. No one will laugh more wholeheartedly at a joke about, say, the hellish discomfort of a disastrous blind date than someone who’s ‘been there’ recently (although, perhaps, not too recently). Given, then, the comprehensive formatting of the human psyche by cultural inscription, there lies a mother lode of deep-body joking material ready to be mined by the shrewd storyteller.

Context and shared experience are everything to the social transactions we call humour, joking or the comic. It is, then, impossible by definition for someone from outside a given culture to gain full appreciation and insight into a trickster text’s comic stance. As recorded in Paul Radin’s 1956 publication, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology, a Winnebago trickster story begins with the statement, “Once upon a time there was a village in which lived a chief who was just preparing to go on the warpath” (Radin, 4). Nothing amusing about that – unless you know very well that the Winnebago tribal chief could not under any circumstances go on the warpath. In which case, this becomes a different kind of world based on one’s own, and in the context of tribally sanctioned storytelling it tilts the story-to-come playfully upon its narrative axis; this becomes a different kind of story, open to new horizons of possibility, in ways unavailable to a “serious” discursive register. This pointedly playful re-configuration of the world can provide a most comically fertile scaffolding, with the frame clash that commissions humour as the very stuff of the fictional fabric. We can see this technique in use from, say, The Birds, by Aristophanes to a film like Ricky Gervais’ The Invention of Lying.

Here, then, is what invites a yoked consideration of these huge, amorphous areas of interest, tricksters and the comic: There is certain folly in attempting to posit the existence of a universal joke, owing to the extreme unlikelihood of sufficient overlap among thought, codes and experience across all cultures throughout the world and its history. Jerry Palmer points out that even if we fancy ourselves to be laughing at the same kinds of jokes now as in ancient Greece and Rome, there remain inescapable disparities in our socio-cultural codes and currents that deny direct comparison between these or any other two cultures. We may be drawn to laugh at the same act or utterance, but it is not possible that we are laughing for quite the same reasons – and we may well be laughing at cross purposes to the original joking intention (which is arguably the case in a play like Aristophanes’ Lysistrata). Palmer advises, simply and to the point, that “what people laugh at, how and when they laugh is absolutely central to their culture” (Palmer, 2). There is further likelihood that a joke made in one culture will grate against the deepest precepts of some other. Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane has elicited no small amount of laughter from Irish audiences in its depiction of the darkly dysfunctional relationship between an elderly woman and her unstable daughter. Nigerian-born Bisi Adigun, in an essay titled, “An Irish Joke, a Nigerian Laughter”, recalls being appalled to find himself in an audience laughing unreservedly at the abject disrespect with which a person would treat an elder of any kind: “I … found it extremely difficult to partake in laughing at a helpless old woman, not simply because I am not Irish, but because in my culture – the Yoruba culture of Western Nigeria – such an act is considered taboo. We strongly believe that age is wisdom and as such it is disrespectful to laugh at the aged” (Adigun, 78).

The narrative modes of myth and folk tale represent texts devoted to the very care and feeding of cultural thought and practice, which make for ideal joking vehicles, given the deep inscription of their materials upon body and psyche. These are, for the most part, “serious” texts, charged with vital installation and upkeep of in-group values and codes.

Although it remains inadvisable to generalize about what exactly they do from culture to culture, it does appear that tricksters might represent a collection of anecdotal back doors through which to gain entrance upon a broader apprehension of a comic impulse in humans as manifested in sacred and popular texts. This impulse to play along the fault lines of cultural discourse carries through to certain comic impulses in dramatic, cinematic and literary texts, and at least at this early stage appears to throw up some common constructions for humorous utterance.

William J. Hynes notes several features that seem to attend the analysis of trickster tales, even if none can be considered definitive of all tricksters:

  • Tricksters tend to be ambiguous and anomalous, embodying an in-between of opposites like sacred and profane, god and mortal, fertility and impotence; tricksters harbor an infantile agenda of immediate gratification, even though some of their appetites are decidedly adult by nature.
  • Tricksters are deceivers and trick-players, known for lying and cheating. It is, of course, notable that these activities represent two ways of going about things that are generally unapproved as so-called civilized conduct. Tricksters are resourceful, even though they sometimes outsmart themselves or their clever solutions backfire.
  • Tricksters are often shape-shifters, capable of altering appearance, gender, species and substance: Coyote becomes a tree to capture birds, a dish to obtain food, and a woman to marry the chief’s son. Hermes turns himself into a mist so as to slip through the keyhole and claim that he couldn’t possibly have stolen Apollo’s cattle.
  • Hynes also sees many a trickster as a situation-inverter: “The trickster is often the official ritual profaner of beliefs. Profaning or inverting social beliefs brings into sharp relief just how much a society values these beliefs” (Hynes, 37).
  • Tricksters are drawn to the lewd and scatological: “The Chippewa trickster … transforms his intestines into sweet food for his aunts, and bloody scabs from his rectum into sweet tobacco for his uncles” (Hynes, 42). The Winnebago trickster has a detachable penis, which is so long that he carries it coiled in a box. In one story he sends it across the lake to engage with the chief’s daughter. In another, he unwinds it into a tree to chase down a pesky chipmunk. Upon attempting to retract his penis, he finds that the chipmunk has gnawed at it to render it a more manageable length.

This deep location of tricksters’ desires and doings in the everyday human body suggests that these types of tales are very much anchored in a bodied engagement in the world. By virtue of the fact that we all are built roughly along the same couple of working models, we necessarily are driven to do basic human things like eating, drinking, sleeping, urinating and defecating, not to mention surviving and procreating. It seems also on a day-to-day basis that these urges bring us into conflict with society’s principles and with other people and that both tricksters and comedy initiate a playful dialogue with these actions.

A couple of issues should be mentioned attendant to this basic exploration of tricksters, and would merit much more attention in a thorough treatment:

1) Tricksters are most often male and, for a compulsive sexual predator, his exploits remain contextualized within a heterosexual matrix. A few male tricksters briefly become female to accomplish some task (like having children), but then they change back. As we might expect, Hyde suggests that tricksters are male in patriarchal society as a way of containing dissent by ensuring that even brash challenges to ideology are launched in a way that perpetuates its own assumptions. Other theories hold that a first wave of anthropologists simply dismissed the female tricksters while gathering tales; or that such tales might have been around in pre-Christian times, and then didn’t make the cut.

Ricki Tannen has advanced the notion of the female postmodern trickster as the “physical and psychological movement by a soul embodied as female crossing whatever boundaries they encounter with humor”; she specifies that this “humor is focused upon the appetite for pleasure in life” (Tannen, 176). By no coincidence, I believe, this relates to Susanne K. Langer’s philosophical association of the comic rhythm with the life force.

2) It is all too easy to undervalue the fact that the trickster tale is more properly assigned to the realms of folk performance than literary text. If one tries to read these texts as, say, dramatic monologues rather than armchair fiction, a more palpable sense of comic possibility emerges.

Anne Ubersfeld, in “The Pleasure of the Spectator,” refers both to storytelling and dramatic performance and seems to some extent to celebrate a general phenomenological buzz of the spectator “taking part” in the performance on several levels. She does, however, get around to a “pleasure of transgression” attending trickster-like exploits. She talks, among other things, about unlikely empowerments and subversive fantasies:

One can see how this basic pleasure stems, on the one hand, from the pleasure of the story, and, on the other, from the joy of the performance. It is, for example, the joy of seeing the trickster-actor light-heartedly dupe and mock the powers that be, of seeing him display his eloquence and physical agility. We witness the triumph of the pleasure principle over the reality principle. (Ubersfeld, 135)

The performer’s virtuosity plays no small part in the mix. In storytelling there is ample opportunity for adoption of a narrative tone in voice and attitude which lifts points of irony, lots of room for mimicry, parody and characterization. Franchot Ballinger, in Living Sideways: Tricksters in American Indian Oral Traditions, calls attention to the obvious potential to render characters in different voices: “For example”, he says, “in some traditions Coyote always speaks in a high-pitched , whining manner” (Ballinger, 11).

Cultural practices bear further upon a story’s telling in the manner of formal or informal conditions and framing. For some First Nations traditions these tales carry strong ritual value and can only be told by certain people at certain times. Other cultures, as we know, have strong storytelling traditions based on performance-related abilities in excess of literary ones. Trickster tales also evolve over time and, no doubt, amongst various deliverers, problematizing even further the idea of a valid, consistent or official text of any kind.

There is a lot to observe with regard to the discursive influence of humour-driven performance strategies, both from practical and inscriptive perspectives. Wherever we find humorous transactions in social circumstances we know that there is potential for deep and complex bodied coercion in the service of socio-cultural maneuvering. Trickster tales and their comic strategies should be considered as what Diana Taylor calls, “acts of transfer”, and what Julie Pearson-Little Thunder, citing Taylor, refers to as “embodied practices”: performance functioning to transmit “‘social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity’ from one group of individuals to another and from one generation to the next” (Pearson-Little Thunder, 111). They are “serious” texts, within which the use of comic agency merits analysis.

3) There have, in fact, been calls to abandon the term, “trickster”, altogether – it was coined by a nineteenth-century anthropologist, not the storytellers themselves – out of acknowledgement that attempts to universalize what is always a complex, localized entity have done quite enough violence to cultural dignity while shedding little overarching light. In some cases, it is argued, the sacred meanings of a figure still vibrant in an indigenous culture are devalued by academia’s increasing flocks of eager social scientists trampling upon terrain for which they lack essential critical credentials. Most treatments have come from the social sciences, a fact bemoaned by contributors to a recent collection of trickster-related pieces by and about Indigenous Canadian writers, titled Troubling Tricksters: Revisioning Critical Conversations (2010). This work, they argue, too often carries a whiff of cultural insensitivity if not downright arrogance in pronouncing ethnocentrically upon meanings and resonances. Their points, persuasively made, would urge that ethical explorations undertaken across cultures at the very least bear responsibility to seek out informed contexualization and analysis from in-group sources.

If we are to pursue this perhaps all-too-fuzzy trickster sensibility to the stage, it should be noted that outside of western drama the connection has been quite direct between storytelling traditions and dramatic embodiment: Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins observe how the African trickster, Ananse, can be seen in a play like Efua Sutherland’s The Marriage of Anansewa (1975), which draws directly upon local storytelling tradition. Derek Walcott’s Ti-Jean and His Brothers employs a trickster figure in dramatising a Caribbean folk tale. The indigenous Canadian playwright Tomson Highway has used Nanabush in The Rez Sisters (1986) and Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing (1989) as a shape-shifting embodiment for theatrically inventive effect as well as political intervention.

On a broader basis, tricksters invite us to consider clown and fool figures as natural inheritors of an untamable drive for self-expression and self-gratification by means unbeholden to rational, civilized thought – like the commedia zanni and Elizabethan troublemakers who piqued my interest in the first place. But I would like to suggest there are texts without trickster figures, which nonetheless throw off trickster-like sparks. Gerald Vizenor has coined the phrase, “trickster discourse”, as an avowedly comic impulse to disrupt, counter and confound dominant and dominating cultural narratives.

We do not have to declare the character of Banjo in George S. Kaufmann and Moss Hart’s, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939) a card-carrying trickster to see that he has a reputation for scheming and brings with him a trickster’s penchant for impulsive disruption of social propriety – he is described as “pixie-like” in the stage directions (Kaufman and Hart, 489). The earlier You Can’t Take it With You (1936) puts the whole Vanderhof family in the trickster position of instinctual challenger to “responsible living”: They do things just because they want to. As described in the opening stage directions, “the brood presided over by Martin Vanderhof goes on about the business of living in the fullest sense of the word” (Kaufman and Hart, 233). There is no more articulate description of the trickster prime directive than “living in the fullest sense of the word”. The Vanderhofs would be described as “eccentric” or “unconventional”, but they are every bit the jokers in the deck of proper comportment in mainstream America’s 1930s.

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (1990) exhibits a mythic sweep and carries out a dreamlike blurring of metaphysical borders. The character of Prior is endowed with semi-divine status and he revolts against his terminal condition with a hard-edged spirit of play. Adam Rapp’s Essential Self-Defense (2007) renders a post-9/11 suburban world in apocalyptic strokes, where the creeping terror brought upon a community by increasing numbers of missing junior-high school children ultimately is undercut by the revelation that they had been collectively planning their disappearance for months. (They had been collectively terrified by the fear-mongering rhetoric advanced by government, magnified by media and heavy in the air of everyday life.) Chuck the barber recalls earlier days seeking thrills under the influence of ‘unsavory types’: “I put my willy right there in the opening to the gas tank of a police vehicle and did my duty. Later on we watched the policeman try to start his squad car, and boy, he had some problems” (Rapp, 71). Quite the trickster-like method for debasing such a symbol of authority while rendering it useless.

I remain aware that there are limits to what can be generalized through a western-facing critical lens; but it is hard to ignore the extent to which, whatever else they may or may not have in common across time and culture, in-group analysis consistently refers to laughter-provoking elements of these characters and their exploits. As a provisional observation, trickster tales appear to be born from the spirit of playful, open, full-bodied imagining of a primal argument forged upon the psyche by cultural inscription itself.


Works Cited

  • Adigun, Olabisi. “An Irish Joke, a Nigerian Laughter.” The Power of Laughter: Comedy and Contemporary Irish Theatre. Ed. Eric Weitz. Dublin: Carysfort, 2004, 76-86.
  • Ballinger, Franchot, Living Sideways: Tricksters in American Indian Oral Traditions Norman: U of Oklahoma, 2004.
  • Gross, William. “The Comic Vision of Anishinaabe Culture and Religion.” The American Indian Quarterly 26.3 (2002): 436-59.
  • Hines, William J. “Mapping the Characteristics of Mythic Tricksters: A Heuristic Guide.” Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticisms. Ed. William J. Hynes and William G. Doty. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama, 1997, 33-45.
  • Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art New York: North Point, 1998.
  • Kaufman, George S. and Moss Hart. The Man Who Came to Dinner, in Six Plays by Kaufman and Hart New York: Modern Library, 1942, 405-505.
  • —-. You Can’t Take It With You in Six Plays by Kaufman and Hart. New York: Modern Library, 1942, 229-318.
  • Leggatt, Alexander. English Stage Comedy 1490-1990. London: Routledge, 1998.
  • Jerry Palmer. Taking Humour Seriously. London: Routledge, 1994.
  • Pearson-Little Thunder, Julie. “Acts of Transfer: The 1975 and 1976 Productions of Raven and Body Indian by Red Earth Performing Arts Company.” Native American Performance and Representation. Ed. S.E. Wilmer. Tucson: U of Arizona, 2009, 110-22.
  • Radin, Paul. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956.
  • Rapp, Adam. Essential Self-Defense. New York: Faber and Faber, 2007.
  • Tannen, Ricki Stefanie. The Female Trickster: The Mask That Reveals. London: Routledge, 2007.
  • Troubling Tricksters: Revisioning Critical Conversations, ed. by Deanna Reder and Linda M. Morra. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier, 2010.
  • Ubersfeld, Anne. “The Pleasure of the Spectator.” Trans. by Pierre Bouillaguet and Charles Jose. Modern Drama 25 (1982): 127-39.