From classical Greek times, comedy has been viewed in contrast to tragedy, but by the late 20th century a considerable corpus of criticism has broken free of tragedy to comment independently on comedy and its several subgenres. Although Aristotle presents rival claims to the etymology of comedy, modern scholars agree that ‘comedy’ means ‘revel - song’, and a correspondingly festive spirit has been associated with many forms of comic drama. Aristotle's definition of comedy as ‘the painlessly ugly’ has proved less resonant than his famous definition of tragedy (which has more to do with his philosophy than with ordinary usage), and the centuries have brought scant agreement about the nature of dramatic comedy, its function, or its components. Critical consideration of comedy has often strayed into theories of laughter.
Played at the Dionysian Festival as well as the Lenaea in the 5th century BC (see Greece, ancient), Greek comedy by the next century was classified as Old, Middle or New. What the three forms shared were avatars of the laughable. Old Comedy, which is extant only in the plays of Aristophanes, was a rich blend of satire and fantasy, physical farce and subtle word play; it featured an ingenious trickster and closed on a lavish choral song and dance. Whatever Middle Comedy may be (scholars disagree), burlesque of heroes and divinities dilutes the comic brew. New Comedy depicted ordinary citizens beset by ordinary problems; the playwright's concern was with the individual. The plot of New Comedy was often structured on the most durable formula of all drama: young lovers separated by an obstacle are united at the grand finale. New Comedy thrived on asides, eavesdropping, quid pro quo and mistaken indentity, and it evolved such comic types as the old grouch, the pedant, the braggart soldier - often the obstacle in the path of the young lovers. Although Menander may not have invented New Comedy, he was admired for his deft creations. Admiration took the form of imitation by Plautus and Terence (see Rome), and, through them, by a host of neoclassical European playwrights in both Latin and the vulgar tongues. The scheming slave of New Comedy was the ancestor of Italian Arlecchino, German Hanswurst and the Spanish gracioso.
Before that harvest, however, dramatic comedy was eclipsed by comic theory, with Cicero offering a widely quoted definition of comedy as ‘an imitation of life, a mirror of customs, and an image of truth’. In the Middle Ages comedy was associated with the vulgar tongue (as opposed to Latin) and with a happy ending; thus Dante called his great epic a comedy. On the late - medieval stage - both amateur and professional - comedy displayed a spectrum of techniques from slapstick to puns, from topical satire to tropical fantasy. Moreover, in religious plays devils and vice figures were simultaneously funny and evil, implicitly contradicting an Aristotle they did not know - for the medieval mind the comic was painfully ugly.
By the Renaissance, neoclassical playwrights imposed decorum on comedy as on tragedy - the proverbial unities and five acts - as well as a realistic and prosaic tone. In contrast, neoclassical playwrights like Shakespeare rejected such constraints when they created what was later called romantic comedy. Both neoclassical and romantic comedies often ended in marriage, but different paths to wedlock might suggest different subgenres of comedy, even while comedy in the Romance languages gradually came to mean any play. Thus, Italian and Spanish drama introduced comedy of intrigue with elaborate plots. Machiavelli's Mandragola may well be the pinnacle of this subgenre, but the anonymous Ingannati (The Deceived) became a fertile model. Ben Jonson in England created comedy of humours (named after the particular humour, or body fluid, which was believed to determine character), but in Jacobean times the broader panoply of citizen comedy replaced obsessive monsters. In France Molière usually observed classical decorum, but ranged from a farce like The Flying Doctor to character comedy like The Misanthrope. French comedy of morals crossed the English Channel as comedy of manners, which ridiculed social foibles. Type characters from commedia dell'arte sprang across national boundaries into the written comedies of several languages.
Despite such gifted practitioners of comedy as Shakespeare, Molière, Lope De Vega and Jonson, critics and even practitioners tended to view comedy as a genre inferior to tragedy. In the 18th century, with the rise of the bourgeoisie, comedy tried to be serious in such subgenres as La Chaussée's comédie larmoyante (tearful comedy) or Steele's sentimental comedy (resurrected belatedly in today's sit - com (see television drama)). At approximately the same time, the stock type of the scheming servant towered above his master in Beaumarchais's Figaro trilogy. Romantic dramatists preferred tragedy to comedy, but Musset's bittersweet armchair comedies set the tone not only for Büchner's Leonce and Lena but also for playwrights as different as Chekhov, García Lorca, Giraudoux and Barrie. At the turn of the 20th century comedy gained staturelargely through Bernard Shaw, with his comedy of ideas. Although stage humour abounds in many times and places, the 20th century commercial stage has been particularly hospitable to frivolous entertainment that goes by the name of comedy. In contrast, the zany humour of the dadaists and surrealists (see surrealism) was only rarely seen in the theatre before the absurd (see theatre of the absurd) exploded in the 1950s.
Is dramatic comedy still with us as a distinct genre? The reply will depend on how the viewer defines comedy: the new comedy formula holds in plays as different as Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy and Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park: wit scintillates in plays as bleak as Samuel Beckett's Endgame and Harold Pinter's Betrayal. Various comic subgenres linger residually as devices - Burlesque, farce, parody, satire, even the grotesquein such a play as Stoppard's Travesties, of undesignated genre. Comedy has been the obstreperously preferred genre of political radicals from Brecht to Fo. What is hard to find today is the festive spirit implied by the etymology of comedy, which has been periodically revived in times less threatening and threatened than our own. RC
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