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comedy,literary work that aims primarily to provoke laughter. Unlike tragedytragedy,
form of drama that depicts the suffering of a heroic individual who is often overcome by the very obstacles he is struggling to remove. The protagonist may be brought low by a character flaw or, as Hegel stated, caught in a "collision of equally justified ethical aims.
..... Click the link for more information. , 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, Westerndrama, Western,
plays produced in the Western world. This article discusses the development of Western drama in general; for further information see the various national literature articles.
..... Click the link for more information. ; Asian dramaAsian drama,
dramatic works produced in the East. Of the three major Asian dramas—Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese—the oldest is Sanskrit, although the dates of its origin are uncertain.
..... Click the link for more information. ), 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 farcefarce,
light, comic theatrical piece in which the characters and events are greatly exaggerated to produce broad, absurd humor. Early examples of farce can be found in the comedies of Aristophanes, Plautus, and Terence.
..... Click the link for more information. , fantasy, satire, and parody, the series ending in a lyrical celebration of unity.
Reaching its height in the brilliantly scathing plays of AristophanesAristophanes
, c.448 B.C.–c.388 B.C., Greek playwright, Athenian comic poet, greatest of the ancient writers of comedy. His plays, the only full extant samples of the Greek Old Comedy, mix political, social, and literary satire.
..... Click the link for more information. , 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. MenanderMenander
, 342?–291? B.C., Greek poet, the most famous writer of New Comedy. He wrote ingenious plays using the love plot as his theme; his style is elegant and elaborate and his characters are highly developed.
..... Click the link for more information. 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'artecommedia dell'arte
, popular form of comedy employing improvised dialogue and masked characters that flourished in Italy from the 16th to the 18th cent. Characters of the Commedia Dell'Arte
..... Click the link for more information. , 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 interludeinterlude,
development in the late 15th cent. of the English medieval morality play. Played between the acts of a long play, the interlude, treating intellectual rather than moral topics, often contained elements of satire or farce.
..... Click the link for more information. , developed by John HeywoodHeywood, John
, 1497?–1580?, English dramatist. He was employed at the courts of Henry VIII and Mary I as a singer, musician, and playwright. At the accession of Elizabeth I in 1564 Heywood, who was a Roman Catholic, fled to Belgium, where he stayed for the rest of his
..... Click the link for more information. and others, blended with that of Latin classic comedy, eventually producing the great Elizabethan comedy, which reached its highest expression in the plays of ShakespeareShakespeare, William,
1564–1616, English dramatist and poet, b. Stratford-upon-Avon. He is widely considered the greatest playwright who ever lived. Life
..... Click the link for more information. and Ben JonsonJonson, Ben,
1572–1637, English dramatist and poet, b. Westminster, London. The high-spirited buoyancy of Jonson's plays and the brilliance of his language have earned him a reputation as one of the great playwrights in English literature.
..... Click the link for more information. . 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 MolièreMolière, Jean Baptiste Poquelin
, 1622–73, French playwright and actor, b. Paris; son of a merchant who was upholsterer to the king. His name was originally Jean Baptiste Poquelin.
..... Click the link for more information. , 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 GoldoniGoldoni, Carlo
, 1707–93, Italian dramatist. He was enamored of comedy from childhood, having sketched his first comic drama at eight. He took a degree in law at Padua but thereafter devoted himself to the theater.
..... Click the link for more information. . 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 EtheregeEtherege, Sir George
, 1636–1692, English dramatist. His witty, licentious comedies—The Comical Revenge; or, Love in a Tub (1664) and She Wou'd If She Cou'd (1668)—set the tone of the Restoration comedy of manners that Congreve was to continue.
..... Click the link for more information. , WycherleyWycherley, William
, 1640?–1716, English dramatist, b. near Shrewsbury. His first comedy, Love in a Wood (1671), was a huge success and won him the favor of the duchess of Cleveland, mistress of Charles II.
..... Click the link for more information. , CongreveCongreve, William,
1670–1729, English dramatist, b. near Leeds, educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and studied law in the Middle Temple. After publishing a novel of intrigue, Incognita
..... Click the link for more information. , 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 SheridanSheridan, Richard Brinsley,
1751–1816, English dramatist and politician, b. Dublin. His father, Thomas Sheridan, was an actor and teacher of elocution and his mother, Frances Sheridan, published two novels and a successful play.
..... Click the link for more information. . 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 WildeWilde, Oscar
(Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde), 1854–1900, Irish author and wit, b. Dublin. He is most famous for his sophisticated, brilliantly witty plays, which were the first since the comedies of Sheridan and Goldsmith to have both dramatic and literary merit.
..... Click the link for more information. and in the comedies of ideas by George Bernard ShawShaw, George Bernard,
1856–1950, Irish playwright and critic. He revolutionized the Victorian stage, then dominated by artificial melodramas, by presenting vigorous dramas of ideas. The lengthy prefaces to Shaw's plays reveal his mastery of English prose.
..... Click the link for more information. . In the late 1880s the great Russian dramatist Anton ChekhovChekhov, Anton Pavlovich
, 1860–1904, Russian short-story writer, dramatist, and physician, b. Taganrog. The son of a grocer and grandson of a serf, Chekhov earned enduring international acclaim for his stories and plays.
..... Click the link for more information. began writing his subtle and delicate comedies of the dying Russian aristocracy.
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 CowardCoward, Noël
(Sir Noël Pierce Coward) , 1899–1973, English playwright, actor, composer, and director, b. Teddington, England. Coward first gained wide prominence in 1924 acting in his The Vortex.
..... Click the link for more information. , S. N. BehrmanBehrman, S. N.
(Samuel Nathaniel Behrman) , 1893–1973, American dramatist, b. Worcester, Mass., grad. Harvard 1916. His sophisticated comedies often attempt to probe the consciences of the wealthy and privileged.
..... Click the link for more information. , Philip BarryBarry, Philip,
1896–1949, American dramatist, b. Rochester, N.Y., grad. Yale, 1919, and studied under George Pierce Baker at Harvard. He is primarily known for his satirical, somewhat unconventional comedies of manners, such as Holiday (1928),
..... Click the link for more information. and others; the romantic comic fantasy of such playwrights as James M. BarrieBarrie, J. M.
(Sir James Matthew Barrie) , 1860–1937, Scottish playwright and novelist. He is best remembered for his play Peter Pan (1904), a supernatural fantasy about a boy who refuses to grow up. The son of a weaver, Barrie studied at the Univ. of Edinburgh.
..... Click the link for more information. and Jean GiraudouxGiraudoux, Jean
, 1882–1944, French novelist and dramatist. He was a prolific writer and combined his literary work with a long and successful diplomatic career. His early novels, which display his impressionistic, fanciful style, include Les Provinciales
..... Click the link for more information. ; and the native Irish comedy of J. M. SyngeSynge, John Millington
, 1871–1909, Irish poet and dramatist, b. near Dublin, of Protestant parents. He was an important figure in the Irish literary renaissance. As a young man he studied music in Germany and later lived in Paris, where he wrote literary criticism.
..... Click the link for more information. , Lady GregoryGregory, Lady Augusta
(Isabella Augusta Persse), 1859–1932, Irish dramatist. Though she did not begin her writing career until middle-age, Lady Gregory soon became a vital force in the Irish drama.
..... Click the link for more information. , Sean O'CaseyO'Casey, Sean
, 1884–1964, Irish dramatist, one of the great figures of the Irish literary renaissance. A Protestant, he grew up in the slum district of Dublin and was active in various socialist movements and in the rebellions for Irish independence.
..... Click the link for more information. , Brendan BehanBehan, Brendan
, 1923–64, Irish dramatist. A notoriously outspoken and uninhibited man, he joined the Irish Republican Army in 1937 and was twice imprisoned for political offenses.
..... Click the link for more information. , and Brian Friel.
Also important are the musical comedy, which descends from 18th-century ballad operas and the comic operas of W. S. GilbertGilbert, Sir William Schwenck,
1836–1911, English playwright and poet. He won fame as the librettist of numerous popular operettas, written in collaboration with the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan.
..... Click the link for more information. and A. S. SullivanSullivan, Sir Arthur Seymour,
1842–1900, English composer, famous for a series of brilliant comic operas written in collaboration with the librettist W. S. Gilbert. As a boy he sang in the choir of the Chapel Royal.
..... Click the link for more information. (see musicalsmusicals,
earlier known as musical comedies, plays that incorporate music, song, and dance. These elements move with the plot, heightening and commenting on the action.
..... Click the link for more information. ) and the slick, satirical, and professional comedy of George S. KaufmanKaufman, George S.
, 1889–1961, American dramatist and journalist, b. Pittsburgh as George Kaufman. As a drama critic for various New York newspapers he was influential in raising the standards of criticism in the theater.
..... Click the link for more information. , Moss HartHart, Moss,
1904–61, American dramatist, b. New York City, studied at Columbia. His first important play, Once in a Lifetime (1930), marked the beginning of a long collaboration with George S. Kaufman.
..... Click the link for more information. , and Neil SimonSimon, Neil
(Marvin Neil Simon), 1927–2018, American playwright, b. the Bronx, New York City. His plays, nearly all of them popular with audiences, if not always with critics, are comedies treating recognizable aspects of modern middle-class life.
..... Click the link for more information. . 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 IonescoIonesco, Eugène
, 1912–94, French playwright, b. Romania. Settling in France in 1938, he contributed to Cahiers du Sud and began writing avant-garde plays. His works stress the absurdity both of bourgeois values and of the way of life that they dictate.
..... Click the link for more information. and Samuel BeckettBeckett, Samuel
, 1906–89, Anglo-French playwright and novelist, b. Dublin. Beckett studied and taught in Paris before settling there permanently in 1937. He wrote primarily in French, frequently translating his works into English himself.
..... Click the link for more information. and the so-called black comedy, often concerning topics like racism, sexual perversion, and murder, of playwrights such as Joe OrtonOrton, Joe,
1933–67, English playwright, b. John Kingsley. After studying acting, he wrote farcical comedies noted for their cynical humor. His plays include The Ruffian on the Stair (1963), Entertaining Mr.
..... Click the link for more information. , Harold PinterPinter, Harold,
1930–2008, English dramatist. Born in Hackney in London's East End, the son of an English tailor of Eastern European Jewish ancestry, he studied at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and Central School of Speech and Drama.
..... Click the link for more information. , and David MametMamet, David
, 1947–, American playwright and film director, b. Chicago. He taught drama (and produced some of his early plays) at Goddard College. His work, often dealing with the success and failure of the American dream, is noted for its sharp, spare, compressed, often
..... Click the link for more information. .
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).
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).
REFERENCESAristotle. 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.
L. V. CHERTOV