Black Comedy  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

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 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.


Plot overview

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 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 as "tiresomely Bohemian". 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 cleaner "Mrs 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 the single act of Black Comedy. The entire play circles around his descent into despair, and the essential plotline is of his evening going wrong.He is a morally confused character: he is both villain and victim of the farce. His attempts to maintain order and survive against his difficulties could 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 could make some people belive her to be stupid and simple. She is also the character who can be seen as interfering with Brindsley's love for his ex-girlfriend, Clea.

Colonel Melkett

This British military man is stern and harsh in all his judgments throughout the play. He is a ex-officer of the British army. He is completely devoted to his daughter, Carol Melkett.

Miss Furnival

A character 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 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. 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. She is Brindsley's true love: she has the intellectual and artistic capacity to support him. Clea ruins the evening through her devotion to honest truth.


A character 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.

George Bamberger

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.

Mistaken identity

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.


The Buddha

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 or 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.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Black Comedy" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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