By Timothy J. Reiss.
From the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.
III. RENAISSANCE AND MODERN EUROPEAN
IV. RELATION TO TRAGEDY
I. DEFINITION. Like tragedy (q.v.), the Western tradition of comic theater is considered to have begun with the ancient Greeks. Such a claim is however less clear than that made on behalf of tragedy, if only because no known culture appears to lack some form of comic performance. This fact has inspired various speculative theses concerning laughter—like reason and speech—as one of the defining characteristics of humanity. As in the case of tragedy, therefore, we need to distinguish with some care between speculative generalizations about the "comic spirit," and that more precious historical description needed to annlyze the function of comedy in society. We must also discriminate between such description and attempts to analyze the "psychology" of laughter, because the event of comedy and the eruption of mirth are by no means the same. (I should add that althought the term "comedy" has been applied to any literary genre that is humorous, joyful, or expresses good fortune, what follwos will concern above all the theater, even if some observations have a broader application.)
The name "comedy" comes from Comus, a Greek fertility god. In ancient Greece "comedy" also named a ritual springtime procession presumed to celebrate cyclical rebirth, resurrection, and perpetual rejuvenation. Modern scholars and critics have thus taken comedy to be a universal celebration of life, a joyous outburst of laughter in the face of either an incomprehensible world or a repressive socio-political order. Carnival, festival, folly, and a general freedom of action then indicate either an indifference to and acceptance of the first, or a resistance to the second. But scholars have taken such notions yet further: if tragedy represents the fall from some kind of "sacred irrationality," comedy on the contrary becomes the triumphant affirmation of that riotous unreason, marking some ready acceptance of human participation in the chaotic forces needed to produce Life. The comic protagonist's defeat is then the counterpart to the tragic protagonist's failure, both versions of some ritual cleansing by means of a scapegoat—in this case one representing life-threatening forces. Such speculations have been advanced in one form or another by classicists (F. M. Cornford, Jane Harrison, Gilbert Murray), philosophers (Mikhail Bakhtin, Susanne Langer), and literary critics (C. L. Barber, Northrop Frye), not to mention anthropologists and even sociologists.
How much these theories help us understand what comedies are is another, and perhaps a different, question. For in the last resort such arguments depend on the assumption that beneath all and any particular comedy is some kinde of profound universal "carnival", a common denominator of the human in all times and places. Recalling Nietzsche's Gay Science, Jean Duvignaud has thus spoken of 'laughter that for a fleeting moment pitches humans before an infinite freedom, eluding constraints and rules, drawing them away from the irremediable nature of their condition to discover unforeseeable connections, and suggesting a common existence where the imaginary and real life will be reconciled" (229-30). But theories of this sort depend upon the idea that one can obtain the deepest comprehension of comedies by removing them from their distinct historical moment and social environment. They forget that such carnival and such laughter aree themselves the creations of a particular rationality, just as Dante's Divine Comedy universalized a particular theology. Even so seemingly fantastic a theater as that of Aristophanes (ca. 485-385 B.C.) is misconstrued by a theory that neglects comedy's essential embedding in the social and political intricacies of its age and place (Athens during the Peloponnesian Wars).
Setting aside these broad metaphysical speculations, then, we must look at accounts of laughter as a human reaction to certain kinds of errors. By and large, these may be divided into two theories. The one asserts that laughter is provoked by a sense of superiority (Hobbes' "sudden glory"), the other that it is produced by a sudden sense of the ludicrous, the incongrous, some abrupt dissociation of event and expectation. The theory of superiority is the more modern one, developed mainly by Hobbes, Bergson, and Meredith. It presumes our joy in seeing ourselves more fortunate than others, or in some way more free. Bergson's notion that one of the causes of laughter is the an abrupt perception of someone as a kind of automaton or puppet, as though some freedom of action had been lost, is one version of this.
The theory of comedy as the ludicrous or as the dissociation of expectation and event has a longer pedigree. It begins with Aristotle and has come down to us via Kant, Schopenhauer, and Freud. In the Poetics, Aristotle mentions another work on comedy, now lost; what remains are a few comments. In Poetics 5 Aristotle remarks that comedy imitates people "worse than average; worse, however, not as regards any and every sort of fault, but only as regards one particular kind, the Ridiculous, which is a species of the Ugly. The Ridiculous may be defined as a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others" (tr. Bywater). Similar remarks exist in his Rhetoric and in a medieval Greek manuscript known as the Tractatus Coislinianus, Aristotelian in argument and possibly even an actual epitome of Aristotle's lost writing on comedy (ed. Janko, 1984). Save for suggesting some detail of dissociative word and action, this text adds little to what may be gleaned from extant texts of Aristotl. It does make a parallel between comedy and tragedy, however, by saying that catharsis (q.v.) also occurs in comedy "through pleasure and laughter achieving the purgation of like emotions." The meaning of such a phrase is not at all clear, although it suggests comedy as an almost Stoic device to clean away extremes of hedonism and to root out any carnivalesque temptations.
Although both theories involve the psychology of laughter, the superiority theory seems less particularly applicable to comedy than that of incongruity, for the latter seeks both to indicate devices specifically provocative of laughter and to explain their effect on a spectator. The "Aristotelian" analyses suggest several matters. First, their kind of laughter requires oddness, distortion, folly, or some such "version of the ugly," but without pain. Such laughter thus depends on sympathy. Second, although this theory is kinder than that of superiority, it too has its part of cruelty, just because of the touch of ugliness. Third, theories of superiority and of incongruity both take laughter as means, as commentary upon or correction of what we may call the real or even "local" world_unlike metaphysical theories, which make mirth an end in itself and an escape into some "universality." Fourth, both these theories (which supplement rather than oppose one another) require the laughter to be aware of some disfiguring of an accepted norm. Comedy and laughter imply a habit of normality, a familiarity of custom, from which the comic is a deviation. It may indeed be the case that comedy, like tragedy, shows the construction of such order, but above all it demonstrates why such order must be conserved.
II. ANCIENT. The fourth theory would at least partly explain why comic competition was instituted at the Athenian Dionysia some 50 years after that for tragedy (in 486 B.C.). Aristtle has told us the first competition was won by Chionides, who with Magnes represented the first generation of writers of comedy. Around 455 a comic victory was won by Cratinus, who with Crates formed a second generation. Many titles have survived and some fragments, but these constitute near the sum total of extant facts about Athenian comedy until Aristophanes' victory with Acharnians in 425. We know that in this competition Cratinus was second with Kheimazomenoi, and Eupolis third with Noumeniai. These names tell us little, but we may perhaps assume that Aristophanic comedy was fairly typical of this so-called Greek "Old Comedy": a mixture of dance, poetry, song, and drama, combining fantastic plots with mockery and sharp satire of contemporary people, events, and customs. Most of his plays are only partly comprehensible if we know nothing of current social, political, and literary conditions.
Aristophanes did not hesitate to attack education, the law, tragedians, the situation of women (though it is clearly an error to take him for a "feminist" of any kind), and the very nature of Athenian "democracy." Above all he attacked the demagogue Cleon, the war party he led, and the war itself. This says much about the nature of Athenian freedoms, for Aristophanes wrote during the struggle with Sparta, when no one doubted at all that the very future of Athens was in question. Aristophanes' last surviving play (of 11, 44 being attributed to him) is Plutus (388), a play criticizing myth, but whose actual themes are avarice and ambition. Quite different in tone and intent from the preceding openly political plays, Plutus is considered the earliest (and only extant) example of Greek "Middle Comedy."
The situation of comedy was, however, quite different from that of tragedy, for anothe powerful tradition existed. This was centered in Sicilian Syracuse, a Corinthian colony, and claimed the earliest comic writer, Epicharmus, one of the authors at the court of Hieron I in the 470s. We know the titles of some 40 of his plays. Othe comic poets writing in this Doric tradition were Phormis and the slightly younger Deinolochus, but the Dorians were supplanted by the Attic writers in the 5th c. and survive only in fragments. The best known composer of literary versions of the otherwise "para-" or "ub-" literary genre of comic mime was another Sicilian, Sophron, who lived during the late 5th c. From the 4th c. we have a series of vase paintings from Sicily and Southern Italy which suggest that comedy still throve there. The initiative had largely passed, however, to the Greek mainland. Plutus is an example of that Middle Comedy whose volume we know to have been huge. Plautus' Latin Amphitruo (ca. 230 B.C.) seems to be a version of another one, and, if so, one characteristic was the attack on myth. (Aristophanes' earlier Frogs , attacking Euripides and Aeschylus, tried in the underworld, may well be thought a forerunner.)
By the mid 4th c., so-called "New Comedy" held the stage. Among its poets the most celebrated and influential was unquestionably Menander (c. 342-290 B.C.). His "teacher" was a certain Alexis of Thurii in southern Italy, so we can readily see how the "colonial" influence continued, even though Alexis was based in Athens. He is supposed to have written 245 plays and to have outlived his pupil. We know of Philemon from either Cilicia or Syracuse, of Diphilos from Sinope on the Black Sea, and of Apollodorus from Carystos in Euboea—worth mentioning as illustrating the great spread of comedy. Until the 1930s, however, only fragments seemed to have survived. Then what can only be considered one of the great literary discoveries turned up a papyrus containing a number of Menander's comedies, complete or almost so. These plays deal not with political matters or criticism of myth, but with broadly social matters (sometimes using mythical themes). The situations are domestic, the comedy is of manners, the characters are stock.
The widespread familiarity of comic forms helps explain why comedy was soon diffused once again over the Greek and roman world. By the mid 3rd c., not only had itinerant troupes spread from Greece throughout the Hellenistic world, but already by 240, Livius Andronicus, from Tarentum in southern Italy, had adapted Greek plays into Latin for public performance. Like Gnaeus Naevius and later Quintus Ennius, this poet composed both tragedy and comedy. From the 3rd c. as well dates Atellan farce (named from Atella in Campania), using stock characters and a small number of set scenes, and featuring clowns (called Bucco or Maccus), foolish old men, and greedy buffoons. These farces were partly improvised, on the basis of skeletal scripts, much like the commedia dell'arte of almost two millennia later. The influence of Etrurian musical performance, southern Italian drama, Greek mime, New Comedy and Atellan farce came together in the comedies of Titus Maccius Plautus, who wrote in the late 3rd c. (he is said by Cicero to have died in 184). By him 21 complete or almost complete comedies have survived. A little later Rome was entertained by the much more highbrow Publius Terentius Afer (Terence), by whom six plays remain extant. These two authors provided themes, characters, and style for comedy as it was to develop in Europe after the Renaissance (though farces, sotties, and comic interludes [q.v.] were widely performed in the Middle Ages).
III. RENAISSANCE AND MODERN EUROPEAN. As in the case of tragedy comedy was rediscovered first in Italy. While humanist scholars published and then imitated both Plautus and Terence (see IMITATION), vernacular art developed alongside wuch efforts. The early 16th c. saw the publication of much school drama in both Latin and Italian, while just a little later there developed the commedia dell'arte, wholse influence was to be enormous.This was a comedy of improvisation, using sketchy scripts and a small number of stock characters—Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, the Doctor and others—placing these last in various situations. These plots were as frequently derived from antiquity as they were from folk art. Later on, these two forms of comedy tented to feed one another; the popular Comédie italienne of the late 17th-c. France was one outcome. The Commedia's influence was equally visible in Marivaux (1688-1763) and Goldoni (1707-93), though in the case of the first, the Italienne was just as important. The Commedia survives vividly in our own time in the theater of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which has put the old characters to work in the service of powerful political satire.
Apain vied with Italy on its development of comedy, starting with the late 15th-c. Celestina of Fernando de Rojas, written in Acts and in dialogue but never really intended for performance. By the late 16th c., Spain's theater was second to none in Europe. Lope de Vega (1562-1635), Calderón (1600-81) and a host of others produced a multitude of romantic and realistic comedy, dealing mainly with love and honor. They provided innumerable plots, themes, and characters for comic writers of France and England. These two countries started rather later than the South, but, like them, benefited from both an indigenous folk tradition and the publication of Latin comedy. The influence of Italian humanist comedy was significant in both nations during the 16th c., and that of Spain particularly in France in the early 17th c.
In France, humanist comedy gave way in the late 1620s to a romantic form of comedy whose threefold source was the prose romance and novella of Spain, Italy, and France, Spanish comedy (especially that of Lope and Cervantes), and Italian dramatic pastoral. The first influential authors in this style were Pierre Corneille (1606-84) and Jean de Rotrou (1609-50). Thew were followed by many, including Cyrano de Bergerac, Thomas Corneille , and the poet whom many consider the greatest writer of comedy of all times, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Molière (1622-73). He wrote an enormous variety, in verse and prose, rangin from slapstick farce to something approaching bourgeois tragic drama. Comédie ballet, comedy of situation, of manners, of intrigue, and of character all flowed from his pern. He did not hesitate to write on matters that provoked the ire of religious dévots or of professional bigots, nor did he shirk the criticism of patriarchy, and many of his plays have political overtones. Having begun his theatrical career as leader of a traveling troupe, Molière made full use of folk tradition, of provincial dialect, of Commedia and of farce, as well as of Classical example. Many of his characters have become familiar types in French tradition (e.g. the "misanthrope," "tartuffe," "don juan"); many of his lines have become proverbial. While his plays do contain the now familiar young lovers, old men both helpful and obstructive, wily servants both female and male, sensible wives and mothers (whereas husbands and fathers are almost always foolish, headstrong, cuclolded, or downright obstructive); they bear chiefly upon such matters as avarice, ambition, pride, hypocrisy, misanthropy, and other such extreme traits. What interests Molière is how such excess conflicts directly with the well-regulated and customary process of ordered society.
Having followed a similar trajectory to that of its southern neigbours in the first half of the 16th c., England created a comic trad. unique in variety and longevity. The extraordinarily diverse comedies of Shakespeare (1564-1616) and the so-called comedy of humors (q.v.) favored by Jonson (1573-1637) seemed about to create two distinct comic traditions. Shakespeare wrote in almost every mode imaginable: aristocratic romance, bitter and problematic farce, comedy of character, slapstick farce, and the almost tragic Troilus and Cressida. If any comedy may be analyzed with some "metaphysical" theory it is no doubt Shakespeare's, with its concern for madness and wisdom, birth and death, the seasons' cycles, alove and animosity. Yet Shakespeare's comedies remained unique, and he had no successor in this style. Jonson's more urbane comedy of types and of character, satirizing manners and morals, social humbug and excess of all kinds, and falling more clearly into the forms already seen, was soon followed by the quite remarkable flowering of Restoration comedy, with a crowd of authors, including Dryden, Wycherley, Congreve, Behn, and Centlivre, among many others. They produced a brittle comedy of manners and cynical wit whose major impression is one of decayand an almost unbalanced self-interest. They were in turn suceeded by a widely varied 18th-c. comedy from the staunch complacency of Steele through the political satire of Gay to the joyous and mocking cynicism of Goldsmith, Inchbald, and Sheridan. This tradition was pursued thorugh the late 19th and early 20th centuries by a series of great Irish dramatists: Shaw, most notably, then Wilde, Yeats, Synge, and O'Casey.
During this period France was equally productive, but with few exceptions failed to attain the quality represented by the names just mentioned. At the turn of the 17th c., Regnard produced serious and significant social satire, as did Lesage (esp. in Turcaret, 1706). Marivaux dominated the first half of the 18th c., as Voltaire did the middle and Beaumarchais the end. If any new form appeared it was doubtless the comédie larmoyante, a sentimental drama whose main (and stated) purpose was to draw the heartstrings; in a way, it did for comedy what the later melodrama did for tragedy. In the 19th c. Musset produced his delicate comedy of manners, while Dumas fils and others strove to produce a comedy dealing with society's ills. This culminated on the one hand in Scribe's "well-made play," on the other in the "realist" drama of Zola and Antoine at the end of the century.
In other European lands, authors tended to be isolated: in late 19th-c. Norway, Ibsen, in early 20th-c. Russia, Chekhov; slightly later in Italy, Pirandello. To mention them so briefly is to be unjust, for they were all major creative figures. In many ways they foreshadowed that breakdown of traditional comedy that marks the mid to late 20th c. Laughter tends to become mingled problematically with that sense of discomfort in the world and uneas in the self which is perhaps a principal sign of our age. Among representative authors one might mention such as Witkiewicz, Mrozek, and Gombrowicz from Poland; Brecht, Dürrenmatt, and Handke from Germany; Switzerland, and Austria; Adamov, Ionesco, Arraabal, and Beckett in France; Capek, Fischerova, Havel, and Kohut in Czechoslovakia; Pinter, Arden, Bond, Stoppard, Benton, Hare, and Churchill in England; and Hellman, Albee, Baraka, and Simon in America. All have been writing plays that sport ironically with the political, social, and metaphysical dimensions of the human condition. Usually such issues are no longer held separate, and all are fair game for an ambiguous, perplexed, and uncertain derision. Such theater is now widely distributed, as strong in Latin America as in Czechoslovakia, in Italy or Spain as in Nigeria. It is almost as though comedy had lost a sense of that social norm to which we referrred at the outset, as if it were increasingly imbued with an inescapable sense of the tragic.
IV. RELATION TO TRAGEDY. Comedy had from the start a rather ambiguous relation to tragedy, and it was never difficult to see in Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusai an inversion of Euripides' Bacchae, for example. A celebrated passage at the end of Plato's Symposium has Socrates obliging Agathon and Aristophanes to agree that comedy and tragedy have the same source. Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard has been played as both comedy and tragedy; so has The Merchant of Venice. Even the elements compounding the confrontation may be identical, as in Macbeth, Jarry's Ubu Roi, or Ionesco's Macbett. When the comic protagonist acquires attributes of typicality or of some absolute, then comedy may take on overtones of tragedy. A critic of Molière's Tartuffe (1667) remarked that whaterver "lacks extremely in reason" is ridiculous: anything contrary to a predictable reaction or an expected and habitual situation is absurd. This is of course straight from the Aristotelian tradition, but the emphasis on excess is significant. It shows just how close comedy always was to tragedy, explaining such comedies as Dom Juan or Le Misanthrope. Both focus on an idealism either misplaced or preposterous. Don Juan's ideal self is misplaced because it serves a violent and injurious sexuality; Alceste's self-righteous scorn becomes comic when he refuses even the most innocent concession, and his responses become inappropriate to his urbane surroundings. Yet if he lowered his tone to suit his milieu he would fall short of his ideal: the dilemma is that of dissonance between the dieal and the situation where it is expressed—incongruity again. The excessive ideal in this case contradicts society's needs and fails its norm.
Tragedy appears to require a world view such that a recognized human quantity may be pitted against a known but inhuman one (variously called Fate, the gods, the idea of some Absolute, etc.), permitting the "limits" of human action and knowledge to be defined. Comedy seems rather to oppose humans to one another, within essentially social boundaries. And if, as both the superiority and the incongruity theories hold, comedy is essentially a social phenomenon, then wherever humans are will be somehow conducive to it; whereas tragedy seems to signify a moment of passage from one sociocultural environment to another. That social nature of comedy may be why its characters sem to us so down-to-earth, pragmatic, and familiar. Even where a theater's real (and external) social context is very different, we can still recognize creatures of a social order. That is also why comedies are in league with their audience, obtaining their spectators' sympathy for what are given as the dominant social interests. Volpone menaces that order, as do Shylock, Tartuffe, and Philokleon (Aristophanes, Wasps). Volpone and Shylock are defeated in the name of the Venetian Republic, as is Tartuffe in that of the King, and Philokleon in that of a city longing for peace. In Palutus' Epidicus, the eponymous slave—archetypal outsider for 3rd c. Rome—is absorbed into and becomes a part of the social system. In Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, the actors remain at loose ends because they are unable to situate either themselves or a social order. Similarly, Beckett's two tramps remain despairingly expectant at the end of Waiting for Godot. Comedy has always emphasized the conservation of an order it may well have helped construct. When we can no more grasp or even envisage that order, then derisive irony may make us laugh, but it also leaves us painfully disturbed. See also BURLESQUE; DRMATIC POETRY; FARCE; GENRE; GREEK POETRY, Classical; PARODY; TRAGICOMEDY.
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