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comedy, literary work that aims primarily to provoke laughter. Unlike tragedy, which seeks to engage profound emotions and sympathies, comedy strives to entertain chiefly through criticism and ridicule of man's customs and institutions.

Although usually used in reference to the drama (see drama, Western; Asian drama), in the Middle Ages comedy was associated with vernacular language and a happy ending. Thus, the term was also applied to such non-dramatic works as Dante's religious poem, The Divine Comedy.

Evolution of Comedy

Dramatic comedy grew out of the boisterous choruses and dialogue of the fertility rites of the feasts of the Greek god Dionysus. What became known to theater historians as Old Comedy in ancient Greece was a series of loosely connected scenes (using a chorus and individual characters) in which a particular situation was thoroughly exploited through farce, fantasy, satire, and parody, the series ending in a lyrical celebration of unity.

Reaching its height in the brilliantly scathing plays of Aristophanes, Old Comedy gradually declined and was replaced by a less vital and imaginative drama. In New Comedy, generally considered to have begun in the mid-4th cent. B.C., the plays were more consciously literary, often romantic in tone, and decidedly less satirical and critical. Menander was the most famous writer of New Comedy.

During the Middle Ages the Church strove to keep the joyous and critical aspects of the drama to a minimum, but comic drama survived in medieval folk plays and festivals, in the Italian commedia dell'arte, in mock liturgical dramas, and in the farcical elements of miracle and morality plays.

With the advent of the Renaissance, a new and vital drama emerged. In England in the 16th cent. the tradition of the interlude, developed by John Heywood and others, blended with that of Latin classic comedy, eventually producing the great Elizabethan comedy, which reached its highest expression in the plays of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Shakespeare, whose comedies ranged from the farcical to the tragicomic, was the master of the romantic comedy, while Jonson, whose drama was strongly influenced by classical tenets, wrote caustic, rich satire.

In 17th-century France, the classical influence was combined with that of the commedia dell'arte in the drama of Molière, one of the greatest comic and satiric writers in the history of the theater. This combination is also present in the plays of the Italian Carlo Goldoni. After a period of suppression during the Puritan Revolution, the English comic drama reemerged with the witty, frequently licentious, consciously artificial comedy of manners of Etherege, Wycherley, Congreve, and others. At the close of the 17th cent., however, such stern reaction had set in against the bawdiness and frivolity of the Restoration stage that English comedy descended into what has become known as sentimental comedy. This drama, which sought more to evoke tears than laughter, had its counterpart in France in the comédie larmoyante.

In England during the later 18th cent. a resurgence of the satirical and witty character comedies was found in the plays of Sheridan. After an almost complete lapse in the early to mid-19th cent., good comedy was again brought to the stage in the comedies of manners by Oscar Wilde and in the comedies of ideas by George Bernard Shaw. In the late 1880s the great Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov began writing his subtle and delicate comedies of the dying Russian aristocracy.

Twentieth-Century Comedy

The 20th cent. has witnessed a number of distinct trends in comedy. These include the sophisticated and witty comedy of manners, initiated by Oscar Wilde in the late 19th cent. and carried on by Noel Coward, S. N. Behrman, Philip Barry and others; the romantic comic fantasy of such playwrights as James M. Barrie and Jean Giraudoux; and the native Irish comedy of J. M. Synge, Lady Gregory, Sean O'Casey, Brendan Behan, and Brian Friel.

Also important are the musical comedy, which descends from 18th-century ballad operas and the comic operas of W. S. Gilbert and A. S. Sullivan (see musicals) and the slick, satirical, and professional comedy of George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, and Neil Simon. Strongly contrasting with these sunny styles are the nihilistic, highly unconventional comedy, containing both comic and tragic elements, of dramatists of the theater of the absurd such as Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett and the so-called black comedy, often concerning topics like racism, sexual perversion, and murder, of playwrights such as Joe Orton, Harold Pinter, and David Mamet.


See B. N. Schilling, The Comic Spirit (1965); J. W. Krutch, Comedy and Conscience after the Restoration (rev. ed. 1949, repr. 1967); W. Sorell, Facets of Comedy (1972); M. Gurewitz, Comedy (1975); M. Charney, Comedy High and Low (1978); H. Levin, Playboys and Killjoys (1988).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a form of drama imbued with comic spirit.

The term “comedy” in ancient Greece originally denoted revel songs. For a long time “comedy” implied the opposite of “tragedy,” that is, a work with an obligatory happy ending; its heroes, as a rule, were from the lowest stratum. Many theorists right up to the classicist N. Boileau defined comedy as the “lowest” genre and divided all drama into the respective poles of comedy and tragedy. This separation was consciously breached in the literature of the Enlightenment by the recognition of a “middle” genre—the drame bourgeoise. In the 19th century and particularly in the 20th, comedy has been a free multifaceted genre.

Primarily concerned with exposing the ugliness in life (the things that contradict a social ideal or norm), the comedist uses comic forms to do it. His protagonists are weak and inconsistent: they cannot live up to their status and position—to their own pretensions—and therefore fall victim to laughter. Blinded by vice (the vanity of a self-enamored person) or illusions, the protagonist does not fit in with his surroundings and is plunged into what Hegel called a “phantasmal life”; and this fantasy life, the “anti-ideal,” the opposite of true social human values, is shattered by laughter, which thus fulfills its “ideal” mission.

The range of criticism through comedy is extremely broad— from political satire to light vaudeville humor. However, even in sharp social comedy (A. S. Griboedov’s Woe From Wit) the portrayal of human suffering (Chatskii’s “million agonies”) must be limited or compassion will supplant laughter, transforming comedy into drama (The Affair by A. V. Sukhovo-Kobylin).

Laughter is a comedy’s unseen honest “face,” but the play’s positive theme is frequently presented directly and visually—for example, the “noble comic quality” of Beaumarchais’ Figaro, the wealth of human emotions of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, and the freethinking of Griboedov’s Chatskii. People in comedy are usually grotesque: the stress is not on the development but on the static features of the personality and not on the whole personality but on the traits being ridiculed, thus expressing the character’s narrowness and “doll-like” quality.

The centuries-old history of comedy engendered diverse genre variations that were distinguished by plot structure, character structure, and comic spirit—for example, comedy of characters, of manners, of morals, of situation, and of intrigue, as well as buffoon, lyric, heroic, and satirical comedy.

Traditional plot devices for creating comic effect include reversals in fortune, substitutions, and revelations. Comic circumstances are particularly important in comedy of situation, which is based on intrigue, and in vaudeville and farce. Comic personalities predominate in comedy of characters, particularly in the plays of Molière and Griboedov. Most classic comedies—for example, of Shakespeare, Goldoni, and Gogol—combine comic situations and characters. Dialogue is an extremely important device for comic effect; oral comedy is based on alogism, incongruous situations, contrast between words and speaker, parody, irony, and in recent comedy, on biting wit and paradox.

Aristophanes, the creator of sociopolitical comedy, is considered to be the father of comedy. Greek New Attic comedy (Menander) and Roman comedy (Terence and Plautus) dealt primarily with upheavals in the personal lives of its protagonists. Comedy in antiquity included such genres as the Roman atel-lana, mime, and folk comedy. The performance of classical comedy called for hyperbole, caricature, and buffoonery; the actors appeared in masks depicting traditional types.

In the Middle Ages laughter enlivened folk carnivals and crept into religious genres, giving rise to the farce, interlude, sotie, and Fastnachtspiel Definite forms of comedy emerged in Europe: 16th-century Italian commedia erudita and commedia dell’arte, which professionalized folk traditions and strongly influenced the development of European theater; the Spanish comedia de capa y espada (“of cape and sword”), particularly the works of Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, and Calderón; and the “high comedy” of French classicism.

A wealth of moods permeates Shakespeare’s love comedies, which express a favorite Renaissance idea of the universal and invincible power of Nature over the human heart. Shakespeare interwove comic and poignant elements, narrowed the gap between the comic and the tragic, and combined the grotesque with life-affirming gaiety (Twelfth Night) and the beauty of strong and consistent characters (The Taming of the Shrew).

Molière blended folk comedy (farce and commedia dell’arte) with the Renaissance commedia erudita and a classicist analysis of character (the “passionate type”) with the liveliness of a folk spectacle. By elevating the ideological content of comedy to a tragic incandescence, he created the genre of “high comedy.”

Enlightenment comedy combined a sarcastic outlook with merry and sensitive positive heroes (the plays of Beaumarchais and Goldoni).

The 19th-century Russian realists (Griboedov, Gogol, Ostrovskii, Sukhovo-Kobylin, and L. Tolstoy) created models of satirical sociodidactic comedy; their plays made the comedy of characters more profound and frequently approached tragedy. A Russian realistic school of acting developed under the influence of Enlightenment comedy and later, the comedy of critical realism. Its leading exponents were M. S. Shchepkin, P. M. Sadovskii, and S. V. Shumskii.

New possibilities for comedy—for instance, diminished stress on intrigue, heightened psychological content, more complex characters, and intellectual sparring—were explored in the late 19th and early 20th century in Shaw’s “comedy of ideas” and Chekhov’s “comedy of moods.” Twentieth-century comedy has undergone diverse genre modifications, from social exposé (B. Nusic, Brecht, and O’Casey) to tragicomedy (Pirandello and Anouilh) and tragifarce (Ionesco), and has developed a multitude of theatrical forms and expressive means.

Soviet comedy is represented by numerous genre variations. Many writers have turned to the social comedy of manners, which combines satirical and dramatic motifs and uses the stylistic structure of the 19th-century realist classics; they include B. S. Romashov, M. M. Zoshchenko, A. E. Korneichuk, L. M. Leonov, S. V. Mikhailov, A. D. Salynskii, and Iu. Smuul.

“Merry,” or lyric, comedy is popular. It relies on vaudeville devices, and its models are still V. P. Kataev’s Squaring the Circle and V. V. Shkvarkin’s Someone Else’s Child.

Mayakovsky created his “stage caricatures” The Bedbug and The Bathhouse in a substantially different, rather grotesque style, which is characterized by a breach of everyday credibility, absurd comic situations (slapstick) and characters (hyperbole, parody, and buffoonery), the use of symbols and fantasy, and the exposure of conventionality.

A number of these grotesque elements appeared in N. R. Erdman’s satirical farce Mandate and in the plays of M. A. Bulgakov. The fairy-tale comedies of E. L. Shvarts created a theater of comic allegory and satirical symbolism that was laced with bright lyricism even in the most biting satires, such as The Dragon and The Naked King.

N. F. Pogodin intertwines a comedie streak with romanticism and presents pathos humorously in several of his plays, such as Tempo and Aristocrats. A comedie element is present in much of Soviet dramaturgy—for example, the plays of V. S. Rozov (Good Luck!, In Search of Joy, and Before Supper), A. M. Volodin (The Assignment), and L. G. Zorin. A. K. Gladkov’s A Long Time Ago is a heroic comedy. A. V. Sofronov writes social comedies of manners.

Soviet comedy is multinational. Comedies in various genres that have won recognition outside their republics were written by A. E. Korneichuk, I. K. Mikitenko, and V. P. Minko (Ukraine), K. Krapiva and A. E. Makaenok (Byelorussia), Iu. Smuul (Estonia), A. Kakhkhar (Uzbekistan), S. Rakhman (Azerbaijan), M. G. Baratashvili (Georgia), and D. K. Demirchian (Armenia).


Aristotle. Ob iskusstve poezii. Moscow, 1957.
Hegel. Soch., vol. 14. Moscow, 1958. Pages 366–69.
Bulgakov, M. A. Zhizn’gospodina de Mol’era. Moscow, 1962.
Anikst, A. A. Teoriia dramy ot Aristotelia do Lessinga. Moscow, 1967.
Pinskii, L. “Komedii i komicheskoe nachalo u Shekspira.” In Shekspirovskii sbornik. Moscow, 1967.
Vol’kenshtein, V. Dramaturgiia, 5th ed. Moscow, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. a dramatic or other work of light and amusing character
2. the genre of drama represented by works of this type
3. (in classical literature) a play in which the main characters and motive triumph over adversity
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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