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  Irony (Greek, ‘dissimulation’) is a technique used in everyday speech, in literature and most especially in drama. Simple irony involves two people only: the person using irony (or being the subject of it) and the person perceiving it. Complex irony involves more than two people: the person(s) using irony, the subject(s) and the perceiver(s). In all cases, irony consists of a statement being made which, whether or not so intended by the maker, has a hidden layer of meaning to the perceiver. Thus, if someone says to a slugabed, ‘You\'re up early’, this is simple irony; if someone says to a third party, about a slugabed, ‘He\'s up early’, this is complex irony.

Irony can be apparent only to the user, so that outsiders are unaware of it. In that case the user is also the perceiver, and the satisfaction is entirely solipsistic. But most irony involves a kind of collusion between the user and the perceiver: a collusion against the world or other people which is a form of bond. In ‘serious’ literature and drama, collusion is usually between author and audience. The author lets us into a secret not shared by the characters in a given situation, allowing us to take a lateral view, as it were, to see nuances and overtones not superficially present. In Homer\'s Odyssey, when Odysseus\' elderly dog Argos greets his long-lost master—the only creature in Ithaka to recognize—him our appreciation of the scene is deepened by the knowledge, already planted for us by Homer, but not apparent to Odysseus, that the dog is on the point of death. Romeo\'s last speeches over the body of Juliet, in Shakespeare\'s Romeo and Juliet, are suffused with irony for us, the audience, because we know what Romeo does not, that Juliet is not really dead. The whole of Thomas Mann\'s The Magic Mountain is deepened by our ironical knowledge that the people in the TB sanatorium are clutching at false hopes, that they are doomed to die—and not least of them the central character, who, in Mann\'s most ironical stroke of all, recovers from TB and leaves the asylum joyfully, only to enlist for service in World War I.

Comic irony can also be of this kind. The author\'s lateral viewpoint to his or her material is made apparent from the start, and gives apparently deadpan utterances and straightforward situations overtones of ridiculousness. Often this is done by language. In P.G. Wodehouse\'s novels or Oscar Wilde\'s plays, for example, the peacock style constantly intrudes the author into the material, inflecting everything said or done. The same thing is done with situation and character. People take part in sequences of events, or behave or speak in certain ways, which we know are fraught with silliness but they do not. The more doggedly and more innocently they persist, the more we laugh. Satirical comedy often makes use of this form of irony. It is also a feature of bawdy comedy, in which the perceiver is encouraged to see sexual or scatological overtones in utterances or behaviour which the performers appear to think quite innocent.

In comic drama, another kind of irony often exists between comedian and audience. The comedian steps momentarily out of character, so to speak, makes a comment, makes a gesture, raises an eyebrow, sending up the very performance he or she is giving, then returns instantly to the role inside that performance. This is the stock-in-trade of stand-up comedians and it is a recurring feature of a huge range of satirical comedy, from the improvised farces of the commedia dell\'arte or the plays of Aristophanes or Dario Fo to the films of Buster Keaton or Woody Allen and to radio and television ‘sketch’ comedy of almost every kind. KMcL



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