This will be the first in a series of three posts dealing with the stretching gallery portraits. This first one will deal generally and more abstractly with the whole set, and the next two will look more particularly at the artwork itself.
I mentioned 'way back here that what we are frequently doing at Long-Forgotten is explaining jokes, which is usually a bad idea since the jokes are killed in the process. But let's face it, the Mansion jokes are so familiar by now that for most of us they hardly even function as "jokes" in the usual sense. We enjoy them in a different way, and no amount of annotation at this point is going to spoil them.
So let's get out the scalpel and have at it.
Jokes are serious business, ironically. Every joke is based on irony, and every joke can therefore be explained by pointing to that irony. I'm not exaggerating. Even a third grader's fart jokes are explicable in this way. Don't believe me? With bathroom humor, the irony consists in the fact that we humans aspire to something beyond our animal natures, but our bodies constantly betray us, rudely reminding us that while we live here below we are very much animals. We may speak of noble things and have eternity in our hearts (cf. Eccl 3:11), but we still have to take a dump a couple of times a day. In fact, to be even minimally polite and civil, it is virtually required that we pretend that these animal functions don't even exist. But they do, so opportunities for bathroom humor never end.
As for irony, I define it as a perceptible gap between appearance and reality. All jokes, then, are based on the perception of this kind of gap. You doubt it? I dare ya, I double-dog dare ya, I triple-dog dare ya to post a joke in the Comments that cannot be explained convincingly as predicated on a gap between appearance and reality. Remember though, explanations typically ruin jokes.
With that long preamble out of the way, let's take a look at the artwork in the stretching galleries.
Marc Davis's four portraits are supposed to make people chuckle. Very well then, they are jokes. Where is the irony? Or better, what is the irony?
For three of the four, the joke is clearly the same: a normal, confident-looking person is revealed to be in imminent danger of sudden death. (We'll deal with the exception presently.) Why does the trio work so well as a set? I think it's because they represent three classic strategies for denying the reality of death, and even though everyone knows they're false strategies, their popularity remains undiminished. Ironically.
If you could have anything you wanted, what would it be? Yeah, I know, world peace, blah blah blah; now cut the crap and tell me what you really want, as betrayed by your actions. We can discuss and discuss, but sooner or later we're going to come around to these:
Sneer all you want, you know you'd take 'em if you could get 'em. If someone from Mars were to judge what is most important to humans, based on what they strive after most consistently, those might well be the top three answers.
I can imagine two objections. First, are these three really separable? Don't people want to be beautiful so they can get rich, etc.? Admittedly, these goals often bleed into each other, with one of them pursued as a means to the others, but at the same time there are whole throngs of people who lust after one of those three as an end in itself. Each one of them commands the ultimate allegiance of a sizable chunk of the populace. Second, some of you might have other candidates that you think have a better claim to the Top Three. I imagine that many would put "fame" on the short list, but here's the deal: there are a lot of people who would not want to be famous, whereas far fewer people would actually choose not to be good-looking, or wealthy, or in a position to give orders and be obeyed. So I'll stick with beauty, wealth, and power as the top three idols in the public square. [Edit: Check out some interesting discussion about "love" in the Comments.]
And that's what you get here in the stretching gallery, before the stretch. You've got a lovely young lady, representing beauty; a political figure of some kind, representing power; and a well-dressed businessman, representing wealth.
I admit up front that my interpretations of the Dynamite Guy and of the Quicksand Men are not self-evident, but I think they're correct. The Dynamite Guy has got a sash, which hints at official position or official recognition, and he's clutching a Very Important piece of paper. It is true that an early show script by X. Atencio refers to him as "Alexander Nitrokoff...an anarchist who came to us with a bang one night," but with all due respect, I think X misinterpreted Marc's painting. Neither the sash, nor the formal, claw-hammer coat, nor the Very Important piece of paper suggest the identity of an anarchist. To me, those clues point to a high-level diplomat or political figure of some kind. As for the Quicksand Men, I note that they are well-dressed and well-groomed, but not too much so, as if they had no practical dealings with everyday affairs. They come across to me as successful men of the world, as prosperous businessmen.
So anyway, the joke? What people think are the most important things in life are in reality weak and ephemeral. People act as if power, wealth, and the things that go with beauty will protect them from mortal ills, and yes, in most cases it may be conceded that they do help you to avoid the Grim Reaper for a season. But only for a season. Furthermore, there's no guarantee of even that much. For all your money and/or power and/or physical charms, you may still perish in a moment, in a ridiculous moment, in an unheroic and an undignified moment. We know this is true, but we ignore it best we can.
Whistling past the graveyard, it's called.
Marc Davis would probably have balked at this analysis. I hear an irascible voice from beyond the grave, "They're just jokes, dammit. JOKES. I wasn't thinking of any of that...stuff!" But as usual, we're not dealing with conscious thought but inarticulate artistic hunches. Whether it's a symphony or a painting or a limerick, when someone hits the bulls-eye you know it, even though you may have a hard time defining the target in so many words. Imagine if instead of the Quicksand Men you had a young lady with a train bearing down on her. Somehow, the set as a whole would not have been as good. You would have felt that you were seeing the same gag twice (with Alligator Girl), and the repetition would have been unwelcome, despite the fact that you ARE seeing the same basic joke three times as it is, and yet it feels very satisfactory. I submit, then, that the threesome works because Davis's comic sensibilities intuitively settled on three classic vanities that people chase after in their attempts to avoid the reality of death.
What about the fourth portrait, the widow? That one is different. She's now been retconned as Constance, but the original joke remains intact.
Instead of an unsuspecting victim of sudden death, she is herself the agent of sudden death for other unsuspecting victims. And to judge by her portrait, she has evidently succeeded in this role. She represents a more complex strategy for evading death, namely, forming a partnership with it. The prize in this case is not wealth, or power, or beauty, but cunning, a cold-blooded, ruthless intelligence combined with a survivor mentality. It's as old as the Bible: "We have made a covenant with death, and with hell are we at agreement; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come upon us" (Isaiah 28:15). Of course, this too is vanity. In the end you find that the Reaper brooks no rivals, cuts no deals, honors no contracts. You have been a dupe, a tool in the hands of something far colder and more ruthless than you, and all of your cleverness will not prevent you from following your victims into the grave. As we saw in our discussion of the pet cemeteries, there are at least three places in the Mansion that illustrate this dynamic (Constance, the Executioner, and the Cat-and-bird set in the garden).
The widow portrait takes its place in the gallery quartet as a more interesting strategy, but a vain strategy nonetheless. "Your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with hell shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, then ye shall be trodden down by it" (Isaiah 28:18).
I will agree with Mr. Davis's ghost about one thing: the paintings should not be interpreted literally. I mention it because there is a persistent tendency among some Mansionites to try to find a way to wrap a story around the depictions exactly as they are (beginning with X. Atencio's reading of the Dynamite Guy!), but to me any such effort is absurd on its face. I don't know of any diplomats (or even anarchists) who stand around on TNT kegs in their underwear, or businessmen who go out into the swamp and form human totem poles. These are jokes, and that's where they stop. If you absolutely MUST carry the portraits beyond that threshold, then I suppose you can interpret them as allegories. A sheltered young woman who behaved as if she were somehow immune from the dangers of life pays a steep price for her foolishness. A crooked politician is assassinated in the middle of embarrassing circumstances ("caught with his pants down," get it?), robbing him of his dignity as well as his life. A business enterprise goes south, ruining all partners in the venture, even those with little responsibility for the fiasco. That sort of thing. But in my opinion even this degree of literalism is unnecessary. Even in the case of the widow (now Constance), you obviously cannot take things too literally. You don't really suppose she commissioned a bust of George with a hatchet in his head for his gravestone, do you?
Long-Forgotten posts will be approximately one per month for awhile. HBG2 is a busy boy.