The elaborate prank that may or may not be Manti Te'o's love life has a long and distinguished history in the annals of comedy. The romantic farce of mistaken or invented identity, of intentional deception and harmless misunderstanding goes back at least as far as the plays of Menander in ancient Greece. In the comedies of Plautus and Terence in old Rome -- or in "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum" on old Broadway -- all that's required for true love to flower is a clueless father and a scheming friend, a love-struck naïf and a puzzled lover, a wardrobe trunk filled with wigs and veils, and several not-entirely innocent accomplices. The slamming doors and the stock characters go back centuries.
Social media certainly update the premise of imposture and counterfeit identity, but love has always been a messy, risible business. It is the product of physics and chemistry and an active imagination after all, and is therefore susceptible to poetry and/or explosion.
Shakespeare wrung plenty of laughs from disguise and attraction and mistaken identity in "The Comedy of Errors,"
and "Twelfth Night" and
"As You Like It," as do the later works of Carlo Goldoni and Molière and the screenwriting team from "Tootsie."
From prison romance by correspondence to the rigors of aristocratic marriageability in the age of Jane Austen, we're all suckers for love against the odds. And from Princess Cariboo to Christopher Rocancourt we're also just plain suckers. So maybe love in the digital age makes us doubly gullible. As we erase the lines between the virtual and the real, between identity theft and performance art, it's worth remembering that the heart still wants what it wants. And worth asking, is the heart completely out of its mind?
How many of us receive scores or even hundreds of emails every day that operate on the same spammy assumptions of trust and longing and gullibility? On the premise that it's possible to fall in love with -- or at least be moved by -- words or pictures on a screen? The only update to the "mail-order" bride of the 19th century is that we've put the catalog online. How many Facebook "friends" or Twitter "followers" do you have right now whom you've never met? Antique notions of real-world interactions are obsolete. Conveniently, the current issue of The Atlantic has a fine, long story on the nature of dating and monogamy in the age of social media.
Even in the Bible there's an incipient slamming-door comedy of love manipulated and identities disguised. In Genesis 29, Laban intentionally peddles the wrong daughter to Jacob to settle a work debt. Instead of the beautiful Rachel behind the veil, on his first wedded morning Jacob wakes to find himself married to her sister, Leah. His cry, "Wherefore then hast thou beguiled me?" rings familiar. Like an Old Testament episode of "Friends."
A college football player exaggerated a romantic entanglement. A kid has a not-quite-believable girlfriend and wastes too much time on afterschool activities? I give you Seasons 1 through 6, inclusive, of "The Wonder Years."
From "The Menaechmi" to "Cyrano de Bergerac" to "The Bachelor," there's a long history of romantic misrepresentation as entertainment. Somehow, a college prank only slightly more elaborate than a kidnapped mascot or a stolen trophy became a national referendum on authenticity and the plasticity of self in the digital age. Which isn't meant to diminish in any way the seriousness of what happened whatever it was. But rather to remind us that true love remains irrational, an act of imagination, and that the Manti Te'o hoax on romance -- whoever its perpetrator and whatever its purpose -- might be best thought of as farce, and a story as old as comedy itself.