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I am not strong enough in the science of psychology to understand the origin of laughter and to get into touch with the mainsprings of gaiety. The sharp contrast between normal ethics and an abnormality of action provides a grotesque point of view arousing ironical mirth. It is probable also that surroundings of enormous tragedy stimulate the sense of humor of the individual, so that any small, ridiculous thing assumes the proportion of monstrous absurdity. It is also likely -- certain, I think -- that laughter is an escape from terror, a liberation of the soul by mental explosion, from the prison walls of despair and brooding. In the Decameron of Boccaccio a group of men and women encompassed by plague retired into seclusion to tell one another mirthful immoralities which stirred their laughter. They laughed while the plague destroyed society around them and when they knew that its germs were on the prowl for their own bodies . . . . So it was in this war, where in many strange places and in many dreadful days there was great laughter. I think sometimes of a night I spent with the medical officers of a tent hospital in the fields of the Somme during those battles. With me as a guest went a modern Falstaff, a "ton of flesh", who "sweats to death and lards the lean earth as he walks along."

He was a man of many anecdotes, drawn from the sinks and stews of life, yet with a sense of beauty lurking under his coarseness, and a voice of fine, sonorous tone, which he managed with art and a melting grace.

On the way to the field hospital he had taken more than one nip of whisky. His voice was well oiled when he sang a greeting to a medical major in a florid burst of melody from Italian opera. The major was a little Irish medico who had been through the South African War and in tropical places, where he had drunk fire-water to kill all manner of microbes. He suffered abominably from asthma and had had a heart-seizure the day before our dinner at his mess, and told us that he would drop down dead as sure as fate between one operation and another on "the poor, bloody wounded" who never ceased to flow into his tent. But he was in a laughing mood, and thirsty for laughter-making liquid. He had two whiskies before the dinner began to wet his whistle. His fellow-officers were out for an evening's joy, but nervous of the colonel, an austere soul who sat at the head of the mess with the look of a man afraid that merriment might reach outrageous heights beyond his control. A courteous man he was, and rather sad. His presence for a time acted as a restraint upon the company, until all restraint was broken by the Falstaff with me, who told soul-crashing stories to the little Irish major across the table and sang love lyrics to the orderly who brought round the cottage pie and pickles. There was a tall, thin young surgeon who had been carving up living bodies all day and many days, and now listened to that fat rogue with an intensity of delight that lit up his melancholy eyes, watching him gravely between gusts of deep laughter, which seemed to come from his boots. There was another young surgeon, once of Barts'(1), who made himself the cup-server of the fat knight and kept his wine at the brim, and encouraged him to fresh audacities of anecdotry, with a humorous glance at the colonel's troubled face . . . . The colonel was forgotten after dinner. The little Irish major took the lid off the boiling pot of mirth. He was entirely mad, as he assured us, between dances of a wild and primitive type, stories of adventure in far lands, and spasms of asthmatic coughing, when he beat his breast and said, "A pox in my bleeding heart!"

Falstaff was playing Juliet to the Romeo of the tall young surgeon, singing falsetto like a fat German angel dressed in loose-fitting khaki, with his belt undone. There were charades in the tent. The boy from Barts' did remarkable imitations of a gamecock challenging a rival bird, of a cow coming through a gate, of a general addressing his troops (most comical of all). Several glasses were broken. The corkscrew was disregarded as a useless implement, and whisky-bottles were decapitated against the tent poles. I remember vaguely the crowning episode of the evening when the little major was dancing an Irish jig with a kitchen chair; when Falstaff was singing the Prologue of Pagliacci to the stupefied colonel; when the boy, once of Barts', was roaring like a lion under the mess table, and when the tall, melancholy surgeon was at the top of the tent pole, scratching himself like a gorilla in his native haunts . . . . Outside, the field hospital was quiet, under a fleecy sky with a crescent moon. Through the painted canvas of the tent city candle-light glowed with a faint rose-colored light, and the Red Cross hung limp above the camp where many wounded lay, waking or sleeping, tossing in agony, dying in unconsciousness. Far away over the fields, rockets were rising above the battle-lines. A red glare rose and spread below the clouds where some ammunition-dump had been exploded. . . . Old Falstaff fell asleep in the car on the way back to our quarters, and I smiled at the memory of great laughter in the midst of tragedy.


(1) Barts' -- St Bartholomews Hospital, London.

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