A SENSE of humour can work wonders while, in some cases, a lack of it can, arguably, change the course of history.
Take today's date — 200 years exactly since a Parisian crowd of 60,000 congregated at Les Invalides and seized 28,000 muskets and 10 cannon. They then surged toward the notorious Bastille where, after a few shots had been fired, the governor, Launay, opened the gate and let them in.
Having hoped to stage a dramatic liberation of the political "victims" within, the excited Parisians were disappointed to find, in the crumbling fortress, only seven bewildered prisoners. One . of them was a mad Irishman who thought he was God.
What was King Louis XVI doing that day? Nothing, it would seem, judging by the oneword entry for July 14, 1789 in his "hunting diary" journal: "Rien."
When, after lunch, he was given the news of the Bastille raid, he turned, say some, to the Duc de Rochefoucauld and asked casually, "Is it a revolt?" "Sire," came the grave reply. "It is a revolution."
Louis survived for three years or so. But, brave and dignified though he was, had he already cooked his goose through his lack of humour and accompanying insensitivity to the mood of his people?
Certain it is, however, that he will not put in a ghostly appearance tomorrow evening at Versailles when Placido Domingo — as part of the Bastille Bicentenary Celebrations — sings the title role in Umberto Giordano's opera Andre Chenier. For this was one of the operas banned by King Louis as being "subversive."
A more appropriate choice — and a more enjoyable opera — might perhaps have been Mozart's Le Nozza di Figaro, which electrified a glittering audience as the "curtain-raising"
performance — in May, 1934 — for a daring new musical venture, the Glyndcbourne Festival Opera. •
The play on which the opera was based was I3eaumarchais's La Folle Joune vetoed for public performance by Louis XVI as being too "revolutionary." The presumed reason was the play's gentle mockery of the aristocracy as personified by the devil-may-care Count Almaviva, boisterous butt of his Barber's playful pranks. But the veto turned out to be an act of humourless folly on the monarch's part.
The King, having in this and, of course, far weightier matters, failed to keep his head, finally and literally, lost it on January 21, 1793. Such surviving monarchists as could escape had meanwhile tied the country, a large batch crossing the Channel to further popularise the newly fashionable broad "a" among England's upper classes.
NOW, 200 years later, France's royalists, or at least a motley minority thereof, are once more trying to make their presence felt A distressing lack of humour, however, still seems to bedevil the royalist cause as various Pretenders solemnly vie with each other over their rival claims to the French throne.
The Orleanist claimant, or Pretender, is Prince Henry of Orleans, "Comte de Paris". To simplify a delicate situation within his family, he has tried to disinherit his son in favour of his grandson, Prince Jean. But the latter, unfortunately, a modest young man of 25 who works in a chocolate factory, does not push the "cause" with quite as much zeal as hi sh grandfather would probably like.
Bitter rivals of the Orleanists for long years past have been the Bourbon "legitimists" represented until fairly recently by Prince Alphonse, Duke of Anjou, killed in a bizarre skiing accident earlier this year in the American rockies.
The strong support of French Catholic "traditionalists" for the royalist cause — not untinged with crypto-Fascism — was exemplified in January last at an anniversary Requiem Mass for Louis XVI, the "martyr who died for his faith". As Alphonse left the church some bystanders shouted "Vive le Roil" After Alphonse's death, the family's claim to the throne passed to his 35-year old son, Louis. He is a direct descendant of Louis XIV and is solemnly revered by supporters as "Louis XX."
A curious "dark horse" is Prince Sixte of Bourbon-Parma, favoured by miscellaneous nutters including members of such extreme right-wing groups as Nouvelle Action Royaliste and Restauration Nationale.
What the different "houses" have in common, however, apart from mutual loathing, is a somewhat po-faced inability to laugh at themselves or things around them. But there are said to be notable exceptions among the younger and more enlightened members of these grave and serious families.
MEANWHILE, which recent Popes have been noted for their sense of humour? John XXIII certainly, but not, perhaps surprisingly, the man who was Pope for little more than a month, John Paul I. His famous smile tended to be deceptive.
A book about him called A Thief in the Night was spotted recently by a reader in a public library on one of the fiction shelves. Would the author (John Cornwell) have seen the funny side of this inadvertent misplacing? One suspects not judging by what another reader called his "aggressive and intemperate" reaction to my review of his book, which
contained justified criticism thereof with (possibly) overgenerous praise. But, as the once famous Clare Luce said in a similar context, "No good turn goes unpunished."
She too was "endearingly innocent" when dealing with Vatican officials, not realising that the more "open and frank" they appeared, the more actual facts they were subtly and successfully concealing. She became American Ambassador to Rome in the early fifties, and would like to have been accredited to the Vatican as well as to the Quirinal.
There being, however, then as now, no diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the USA, she tried to mainfhin, through unofficial channels, as much contact as possible with the Pope of the day, Pius XII.
And — yes — even that austere Pontiff had a sense of humour of sorts. After Clare Luce, at a private audience, had treated him to a long dissertion on the state of the Church, he replied "I quite agree Your Excellency. I'm a Catholic too."