Black Comedy is a one-act play by British dramatist Peter Shaffer, first performed in 1965. The play is, suitably enough, a black comedy in which the effect loss of light would have on a group of people who all hold things from each other is explored; as such, its title is a pun.
The play is a farce set in a London flat during an electrical blackout, and is written to be staged under a reversed lighting scheme: that is, the play opens with a dinner party beginning on a darkened stage, then a few minutes into the show "a fuse blows", the stage lights come up, and the characters are seen shambling around apparently invisible to one another.
The plot, in brief, without giving too much away, is as follows. Brindsley Miller and his fiancée Carol Melkett have "borrowed" the fancy furniture from neighbor Harold Gorringe's flat in order to impress Carol's father, Colonel Melkett. Brindsley, an artist, is afraid that the Colonel will not give up his daughter to a starving artist. Things go awry when the lights go out, leaving Brindlsey helpless as characters arrive, one by one. First is Brindsley's elderly neighbor, Miss Furnival. Colonel Melkett, unimpressed by the blackout, arrives, and Brindsley's worst nightmare comes true as Harold returns early, and Brindsley tries desperately to return the furniture without Harold noticing.
The play begins at 9:30 on a Sunday evening, in the London flat of sculptor Brindsley Miller. He and his fiancée, Carol Melkett, are preparing for a party, in order to impress Carol's father (Colonel Melkett) and millionaire art buyer Georg Bamberger (who is rumored to be deaf). In order to "spruce up" Brindsley's apartment, they have stolen neighbor Harold Gorringe's beloved antique furniture (for Harold is away for the weekend). Just as the last piece of stolen furniture is set in place, the lights go out: a fuse has blown in the cellar.
As Brindsley and Carol search madly for candles, torches and matches, the phone rings. It is Clea (Brindsley's mistress), who wants to arrange a liaison for that evening. Brindsley hurriedly informs her that no such thing is possible. First to arrive is upstairs neighbor Miss Furnival, who is seeking company to avoid her fear of the dark. A minister's daughter, Miss Furnival has been a lifelong teetotaler. Colonel Melkett arrives, and is unimpressed with Brindsley's unpreparedness for a fuse. He is also unimpressed with Brindsley's sculpture, which he looks at using his lighter. The voice of Harold is heard outside, and Brindsley desperately pulls him into the flat (so that he will not go into his own flat and find it out of order). In the dark, Harold is unable to recognize his own furniture, and Brindsley embarks on a series of blind acrobatics in his attempt to remove and replace all of Harold's stolen furniture.
As Brindsley enters and exits with various bits of furniture, Carol serves drinks. Miss Furnival is mistakenly handed the Colonel's whiskey and Harold's gin. Having never consumed alcohol in her life, Miss Furnival begins to get a little tipsy. The Colonel illuminates his lighter, and Brindsley is found on the floor. He lies about where he has been ("at the pub, searching for some candles"). Clea chooses this moment to make her entrance. She makes no sound, and thus nobody is aware of her presence even as they talk about her. Carol (thinking that Clea is an ex-girlfriend), calls her "blowsy," and Harold deems her "ugly." Miss Furnival recalls her ugly skin. Clea slaps Brindsley in the face, and Brindsley eventually recognizes her by catching hold of her behind, of which he recognizes the feel. He hides her away in his room.
It is at this point that Schuppanzigh, the German electrician sent to repair the fuse, arrives. All mistake him (due to his accent) for Bamberger, and make misguided attempts to impress him. Schuppanzigh, meanwhile, imparts some of his aesthetic philosophies. When his identity is discovered, he is cast into the cellar to mend the fuse. Clea re-emerges and, pretending to be the maidservant "Miss Punnett" reveals her affair with Brindsley. She insinuates that "this Clea" is pregnant with Brindsley's child, infuriating Colonel Melkett and Carol. The furies are interrupted as Miss Furnival arises from the couch on which she had dozed off, making a loud drunken speech about nothing at all. She is led off home by Harold. Once again Carol and the Colonel advance on Brindsley, until Harold re-enters with a shriek of anger. He has just discovered the state of his room, and is furious about its disheveled condition. Now all three try to catch Brindsley, but are once again interrupted by the entrance of the deaf Georg Bamberger, who loses his way and tumbles down the stairs just as Schuppanzigh returns from the cellar. With a speech about God and the most miraculous gift of the creation, Schuppanzigh throws on the light-switch, and the curtain falls just as Brindsley's doom is assured.
The main character and lead of the play, Brindsley has about three hundred and fifty lines in he single act of Black Comedy. The entire play circles around his descent into despair, and the essential plotline is of his evening-gone-wrong (and worse and worse). He represents the everyman in society: all have secrets they would prefer to keep "in the dark." He is also a morally confused character: he is both villain and victim of the farce. His infidelity and dishonesty vilify him, while his noble attempts to maintain order and survive against his difficulties make him a hero of sorts. Brindsley might be best classified as an anti-hero.
The lead female of the show, Carol's evening goes, if anything, worse than Brindsley's. Carol represents the emotionally shallow debutante branch of society. Her single-minded dependence on Brindsley for emotional well-being makes her stupid and simple, and her own shortcomings become, then, part of her downfall. She is also the character who can be seen as interfering with Brindsley's love for his true soulmate, Clea.
This British military man is stern and harsh in all his judgments throughout the play. He is a caricatured lampoon of the British army, which Shaffer saw as stupid and meaningless. He also, however, represents moral clarity, since he is perhaps the only character who has clear ideas of right and wrong and does not sacrifice them during the play.
A character obviously used for comic effect, Miss Furnival's descent into drunkenness is a mirror of the deterioration of the whole evening. It is also an example of an upstanding individual's moral undoing: that the entire party, conceived, as it were, in dishonesty, infects those at it with its perfidy.
Meticulous Harold is obviously a highly-stereotyped impression of a gay man. When the play was written, homosexuality was such a taboo that Harold's character really made the piece a black comedy. Harold represents emotional turbulence. He is essentially unable to remain cool in adverse circumstances, which leads (especially in Clea's entrance scene) to trouble for Brindsley.
Clea is another character who brings together opposites. On the one hand, she is (obviously) Brindsley's true love: she has the intellectual and artistic capacity to support him where Carol obviously does not. On the other hand, Clea's character becomes a metaphor for secrets, lies and deception. Yet, again, Clea ruins the evening through her devotion to honest truth. Yet, again, she does ruin the evening.
A character obviously used for his humorous potential, Schuppanzigh is a foreign-born philosopher/electrician. His case of mistaken identity, however, does represent a strong theme in the play: people's willingness to jump to conclusions.
A character who is talked about more than he ever actually talks, Bamberger has two purposes. Dramatically, his delayed appearance lends an extra element of angst to the evening. However, his character also represents longing, unfulfilled desires or aspirations.
Themes, Motifs and Symbols
Perhaps the principal unifying element of the entire play is its focus on lies and deception. It becomes, in many ways a morality play: don't keep secrets: they will undo you.
Throughout the play, characters are briefly mistaken for one another, particularly when Schuppanzigh is thought to be Bamberger, and when Clea masquerades as "Miss Punnett." Mistaken identity acts as a metaphor for a social entanglement's ability to strip one of oneself.
Harold's prized Buddha statue is constantly popping up in the drama. It serves to remind us at each appearance that Brindsley's evening is just an ongoing ruse, with no honesty of substance behind it.
Alcohol is constantly being served and consumed during the play. It serves to remind us at each appearance that indulging oneself too much in anything can lead to trouble.
Obviously the most important symbol, darkness represents our ability to keep secrets, hiding both the identity and the actions of its occupants. The physical darkness at Brindsley's party, then, is a symbol for the moral darkness all of the characters are already lost in.
Lighters, Flashlights and Matches
Representing the truth-shedding light, these objects become, over the course of the evening, Brindsley's greatest fear. Pretty clear, no?
BRINDSLEY: Look, people will be here in a minute. Put a record on. It had better be something for your father. What does he like?
CAROL [crossing to the record player]: He doesn't like anything except military marches.
BRINDSLEY: I might have guessed . . . Wait - I think I've got some: That last record on the shelf. The orange cover. It's called 'Marching and Murdering with Sousa', or something.
- - CAROL talking about Brindsley: Of course he can look after me, Daddy. His works are going to be world-famous. In five years I'll feel just like Mrs Michelangelo.
HAROLD (loftily): There wasn't a Mrs Michelangelo, actually.
- - COLONEL: No basic efficiency, right?
BRINDSLEY: I wouldn't say that, exactly . . .
COLONEL: By basic efficiency, young man, I mean the simple state of being At Attention in life, rather than At Ease. Understand?
- - COLONEL: Problem: Darkness. Solution: Light.
[BRINDSLEY muzzles her with his hand, she bites it hard, and he drops to his knees in silent agony.]
COLONEL: Please watch what you say, madam. You don't know it, but you're in the presence of Mr. Miller's fiancée.
COLONEL: Yes, and I am her father.
CLEA: Well, I never . . . Oh, Mr. Miller! I'm so 'appy for you. . . . Fiancée! Oh, sir! And you never told me!
BRINDSLEY: I was keeping it a surprise.
CLEA: Well, I never! Oh, how lovely! . . . May I kiss you sir, please?
BRINDSLEY [on his knees]: Well yes, yes, of course . . .
[CLEA gropes for his ear, finds it and twists it.]
CLEA: Oh sir, I'm so pleased for you! And for you, Miss, too!
CAROL: Thank you.
CLEA [to COLONEL MELKETT]: And for you, sir.
COLONEL: Thank you.
CLEA: You must be Miss Clea's father.