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Alenka Zupančič has observed that Henri Bergson’s definition of comedy—“something mechanical encrusted upon the living”—applies almost perfectly to the uncanny: “For what else is the stuff that the genre of the uncanny is made of—machines, automata that come to life, mortifying doubles, living dead?” (The Odd One In 114). The recent writings of psychoanaytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek engage with and extend Zupančič’s analysis, observing a strange undead dimension correlative to comedy: “[T]he immortality in a comedy is not the noble immortality of a spirit triumphing over biological death, but the weird immortality of, for example, those who survive a suicide attempt, who bungle even their effort to die, or, in a more uncanny mode, the obscene immortality of the undead in gothic and horror fiction. The fact that films featuring the undead are always on the verge of turning into comedy is a clear sign of how undeadness oscillates between comedy and horror, between laughter and nightmare.” (Absolute Recoil 336) Drawing on Žižek’s and Zupančič’s theorizations, my paper examines this short circuit between comedy and the uncanny through the lens of Caryl Churchill, who, throughout her half-century career as a playwright, has frequently been praised for both her comic technique and her dramatic explorations of undeadness. The paper focuses on one of Churchill’s most successful 21st-century works, A Number, an often hilarious examination of the horrors and philosophical quandaries of cloning. I argue that this play gives dramatic form to Žižek’s contention that “comedy at its most radical points towards a dimension beyond tragedy, a dimension too terrifying to appear as tragic—a strange negation of the tragic negation itself, the failure of its failure” (336). At the same time, the play’s complex use of doubling compels us to complicate Žižek and Zupančič, who, for all the versatility of their writing, have rarely engaged with the contingency, transience, and bodily co-presence that characterize theatrical performance.

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Vanessa Guignery
Professor of English and Postcolonial Literature at the ENS de Lyon and member of the Institut Universitaire de France in Paris.
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