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Overview

In a grand tour of comic theater over the centuries, Erich Segal traces the evolution of the classical form from its early origins in a misogynistic quip by the sixth-century B.C. Susarion, through countless weddings and happy endings, to the exasperated monosyllables of Samuel Beckett. With fitting wit, profound erudition lightly worn, and instructive examples from the mildly amusing to the uproarious, his book fully illustrates comedy's glorious life cycle from its first breath to its death in the Theater of the Absurd.

An exploration of various landmarks in the history of a genre that flourished almost unchanged for two millennia, The Death of Comedy revisits the obscenities and raucous twists of Aristophanes, the neighborly pleasantries of Menander, the tomfoolery and farce of Plautus. Segal shows how the ribaldry of foiled adultery, a staple of Roman comedy, reappears in force on the stages of Restoration England. And he gives us a closer look at the schadenfreude--delight in someone else's misfortune--that marks Machiavelli's and Marlowe's works.

At every turn in Segal's analysis--from Shakespeare to Molière to Shaw--another facet of the comic art emerges, until finally, he argues, "the head conquers and the heart dies": Letting the intellect take the lead, Cocteau, Ionesco, and Beckett smother comedy as we know it. The book is a tour de force, a sweeping panorama of the art and history of comedy, as insightful as it is delightful to read.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist

[Erich Segal's] new study of comedy in the Western theater displays the strengths he has built in both the arenas in which he competes. His scholarship is impressive: he manages to discuss in detail works by every major comic writer from Aristophanes and Plautus to Ionesco and Beckett. He is especially good on the Greek and Roman comic playwrights, and he spends at least half the book on those influential but, to the modern reader, lesser-known writers. Flexing his pop novelist's muscles, Segal conveys his ideas in clean, graceful, witty, and above all, highly accessible prose. You don't need a Ph.D. from Harvard to understand him, and you don't need to fully accept his thesis that traditional comedy 'died' or perhaps was killed by the modernist writers to enjoy and be enlightened by this lively book.
— Jack Helbig

New York Times Book Review

[Segal's] hearty, sprawling book...puts all his skills as a popular novelist, screenwriter and professor of classics to work on surveying the evolution of comic drama in the West. From the ancient Greek countryside to the theater of the absurd, it's a story of general decline punctuated by brilliance, and it ends with a startling obituary. Comedy is dead, Segal says, weakened as early as Aristophanes and finally murdered in modernity by the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett...He's generous with information about theaters and stagecraft, and his original translations capture the human appetite for carnival so dynamically they practically pop off the stage.
— Joy Connolly

Washington Post

The Death of Comedy is not...a dry treatise on things you should read, whether you think they are funny or not. Throughout, it is punctuated with astute comparisons to contemporary situations and with wonderfully earthy translations, in particular of Aristophanes. Segal renders the Greek so frankly that, perhaps for the first time, readers will see why they should have laughed at Aristophanes when they were forced to read him in that archly fussy translation dated 1901.
— Jonathan S. Perry

Jewish Chronicle

Erich Segal's survey of comedies from A to B (that is, from Aristophanes to Samuel Beckett) is a comic parallel to George Steiner's The Death of Tragedy, an equally virtuosic and wide-ranging study...Like Steiner, Segal writes with such enthusiastic brilliance that I am left rushing off to read plays I have never quite got round to reading and to reread dozens of others I thought I knew, to discover, in the light of what he says. I hardly knew them.
— Peter Holland

Choice

The book is engagingly written and spiced with clever translations and observations; Segal enjoys the theater and has read widely...[T]he book offers detailed plot summaries that will serve the general reader as an entertaining guide to the treasures and pleasures of a great tradition. Unusual in surveying the genre of comedy on so broad a canvas, the book is recommended for readers at all levels.
— D. Konstan

Times Literary Supplement

Simply as history of the genre, [The Death of Comedy's] unique importance is its centering of the story in antiquity rather than after, and its convincing demonstration that the longer history of comedy is a series of responses to a poetics of comic drama, the lines of which were determined in the ancient world...[T]he writing fizzes, the translations are uniformly wonderful and the deep foundations of learning on which the whole project is built are discreetly cupboarded away in a hundred or so pages of endnotes. It is, in more than one sense, a personal history, the record of a lifelong project of investigation into how the popular can be serious, the classicist an entertainer—and in both cases and more importantly still, vice versa.
— Nick Lowe

Scholia Reviews

Segal's fluent and appealing style is again evident in The Death of Comedy...Segal's style of writing is lively and entertaining. He wears his erudition lightly but the solid substratum of the wealth of references to sources ancient and modern is contained in the endnotes...[The Death of Comedy] provides a valuable and sprightly introduction to and overview of the subject.
— Betine van Zyl Smit

Times Higher Education Supplement

This is a very grand survey of theatrical comedy from genesis to alleged nemesis, that is, from Aristophanes to Samuel Beckett. It is a huge, witty, learned and frequently engaging global tour of the genre, with numerous wise, or wise-ish, stopovers at most of the major comic sites between origin and suggested meltdown.
— Valentine Cunningham

Journal of Hellenic Studies

Segal tells a cracking good story, a wondrous tale of comedy's life from its birth in the night of chaos B.A. (Before Aristophanes) to its recent death...Enjoyable and thought-provoking.
— Alison Sharrock

Haaretz

Erich Segal's book The Death of Comedy is without a doubt the most comprehensive treatise to have been published for many a year about this marvelous genre.
— Yitzhak Laor

Eric Handley
Its sweep of knowledge, learning unostentatiously presented, and its atmosphere of unsentimental engagement make The Death of Comedy broad and enlightening. Eminently readable, with flashes of wit and spice, it is the work of a distinguished scholar and creative writer.
Hugh Lloyd-Jones
Erich Segal's introduction to ancient comedy in this book will both interest and delight many readers.
Harold Bloom
Erich Segal's discussion of Shakespeare's comic genius is richly informed by his deep knowledge of the classical comedy which influenced Shakespeare. Segal's brio is all but Shakespearean in its laughing intensity.
Booklist - Jack Helbig
[Erich Segal's] new study of comedy in the Western theater displays the strengths he has built in both the arenas in which he competes. His scholarship is impressive: he manages to discuss in detail works by every major comic writer from Aristophanes and
Plautus to Ionesco and Beckett. He is especially good on the Greek and Roman comic playwrights, and he spends at least half the book on those influential but, to the modern reader, lesser-known writers. Flexing his pop novelist's muscles, Segal conveys his ideas in clean, graceful, witty, and above all, highly accessible prose. You don't need a Ph.D. from Harvard to understand him, and you don't need to fully accept his thesis that traditional comedy 'died' or perhaps was killed by the modernist writers to enjoy and be enlightened by this lively book.
New York Times Book Review - Joy Connolly
[Segal's] hearty, sprawling book...puts all his skills as a popular novelist, screenwriter and professor of classics to work on surveying the evolution of comic drama in the West. From the ancient Greek countryside to the theater of the absurd, it's a story of general decline punctuated by brilliance, and it ends with a startling obituary. Comedy is dead, Segal says, weakened as early as Aristophanes and finally murdered in modernity by the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett...He's generous with information about theaters and stagecraft, and his original translations capture the human appetite for carnival so dynamically they practically pop off the stage.
Washington Post - Jonathan S. Perry
The Death of Comedy is not...a dry treatise on things you should read, whether you think they are funny or not. Throughout, it is punctuated with astute comparisons to contemporary situations and with wonderfully earthy translations, in particular of Aristophanes. Segal renders the Greek so frankly that, perhaps for the first time, readers will see why they should have laughed at Aristophanes when they were forced to read him in that archly fussy translation dated 1901.
Jewish Chronicle - Peter Holland
Erich Segal's survey of comedies from A to B (that is, from Aristophanes to Samuel Beckett) is a comic parallel to George Steiner's The Death of Tragedy, an equally virtuosic and wide-ranging study...Like Steiner, Segal writes with such enthusiastic brilliance that I am left rushing off to read plays I have never quite got round to reading and to reread dozens of others I thought I knew, to discover, in the light of what he says. I hardly knew them.
Choice - D. Konstan
The book is engagingly written and spiced with clever translations and observations; Segal enjoys the theater and has read widely...[T]he book offers detailed plot summaries that will serve the general reader as an entertaining guide to the treasures and pleasures of a great tradition. Unusual in surveying the genre of comedy on so broad a canvas, the book is recommended for readers at all levels.
Times Literary Supplement - Nick Lowe
Simply as history of the genre, [The Death of Comedy's] unique importance is its centering of the story in antiquity rather than after, and its convincing demonstration that the longer history of comedy is a series of responses to a poetics of comic drama, the lines of which were determined in the ancient world...[T]he writing fizzes, the translations are uniformly wonderful and the deep foundations of learning on which the whole project is built are discreetly cupboarded away in a hundred or so pages of endnotes. It is, in more than one sense, a personal history, the record of a lifelong project of investigation into how the popular can be serious, the classicist an entertainer--and in both cases and more importantly still, vice versa.
Scholia Reviews - Betine Van Zyl Smit
Segal's fluent and appealing style is again evident in The Death of Comedy...Segal's style of writing is lively and entertaining. He wears his erudition lightly but the solid substratum of the wealth of references to sources ancient and modern is contained in the endnotes...[The Death of Comedy] provides a valuable and sprightly introduction to and overview of the subject.
Times Higher Education Supplement - Valentine Cunningham
This is a very grand survey of theatrical comedy from genesis to alleged nemesis, that is, from Aristophanes to Samuel Beckett. It is a huge, witty, learned and frequently engaging global tour of the genre, with numerous wise, or wise-ish, stopovers at most of the major comic sites between origin and suggested meltdown.
Journal of Hellenic Studies - Alison Sharrock
Segal tells a cracking good story, a wondrous tale of comedy's life from its birth in the night of chaos B.A. (Before Aristophanes) to its recent death...Enjoyable and thought-provoking.
Haaretz - Yitzhak Laor
Erich Segal's book The Death of Comedy is without a doubt the most comprehensive treatise to have been published for many a year about this marvelous genre.
Washington Post
The Death of Comedy is not...a dry treatise on things you should read, whether you think they are funny or not. Throughout, it is punctuated with astute comparisons to contemporary situations and with wonderfully earthy translations, in particular of Aristophanes. Segal renders the Greek so frankly that, perhaps for the first time, readers will see why they should have laughed at Aristophanes when they were forced to read him in that archly fussy translation dated 1901.
— Jonathan S. Perry
Choice
The book is engagingly written and spiced with clever translations and observations; Segal enjoys the theater and has read widely...[T]he book offers detailed plot summaries that will serve the general reader as an entertaining guide to the treasures and pleasures of a great tradition. Unusual in surveying the genre of comedy on so broad a canvas, the book is recommended for readers at all levels.
— D. Konstan
Booklist
[Erich Segal's] new study of comedy in the Western theater displays the strengths he has built in both the arenas in which he competes. His scholarship is impressive: he manages to discuss in detail works by every major comic writer from Aristophanes and Plautus to Ionesco and Beckett. He is especially good on the Greek and Roman comic playwrights, and he spends at least half the book on those influential but, to the modern reader, lesser-known writers. Flexing his pop novelist's muscles, Segal conveys his ideas in clean, graceful, witty, and above all, highly accessible prose. You don't need a Ph.D. from Harvard to understand him, and you don't need to fully accept his thesis that traditional comedy 'died' or perhaps was killed by the modernist writers to enjoy and be enlightened by this lively book.
— Jack Helbig
New York Times Book Review
[Segal's] hearty, sprawling book...puts all his skills as a popular novelist, screenwriter and professor of classics to work on surveying the evolution of comic drama in the West. From the ancient Greek countryside to the theater of the absurd, it's a story of general decline punctuated by brilliance, and it ends with a startling obituary. Comedy is dead, Segal says, weakened as early as Aristophanes and finally murdered in modernity by the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett...He's generous with information about theaters and stagecraft, and his original translations capture the human appetite for carnival so dynamically they practically pop off the stage.
— Joy Connolly
Times Literary Supplement
Simply as history of the genre, [The Death of Comedy's] unique importance is its centering of the story in antiquity rather than after, and its convincing demonstration that the longer history of comedy is a series of responses to a poetics of comic drama, the lines of which were determined in the ancient world...[T]he writing fizzes, the translations are uniformly wonderful and the deep foundations of learning on which the whole project is built are discreetly cupboarded away in a hundred or so pages of endnotes. It is, in more than one sense, a personal history, the record of a lifelong project of investigation into how the popular can be serious, the classicist an entertainer--and in both cases and more importantly still, vice versa.
— Nick Lowe
Jewish Chronicle
Erich Segal's survey of comedies from A to B (that is, from Aristophanes to Samuel Beckett) is a comic parallel to George Steiner's The Death of Tragedy, an equally virtuosic and wide-ranging study...Like Steiner, Segal writes with such enthusiastic brilliance that I am left rushing off to read plays I have never quite got round to reading and to reread dozens of others I thought I knew, to discover, in the light of what he says. I hardly knew them.
— Peter Holland
Times Higher Education Supplement
This is a very grand survey of theatrical comedy from genesis to alleged nemesis, that is, from Aristophanes to Samuel Beckett. It is a huge, witty, learned and frequently engaging global tour of the genre, with numerous wise, or wise-ish, stopovers at most of the major comic sites between origin and suggested meltdown.
— Valentine Cunningham
Journal of Hellenic Studies
Segal tells a cracking good story, a wondrous tale of comedy's life from its birth in the night of chaos B.A. (Before Aristophanes) to its recent death...Enjoyable and thought-provoking.
— Alison Sharrock
Haaretz
Erich Segal's book The Death of Comedy is without a doubt the most comprehensive treatise to have been published for many a year about this marvelous genre.
— Yitzhak Laor
Scholia Reviews
Segal's fluent and appealing style is again evident in The Death of Comedy...Segal's style of writing is lively and entertaining. He wears his erudition lightly but the solid substratum of the wealth of references to sources ancient and modern is contained in the endnotes...[The Death of Comedy] provides a valuable and sprightly introduction to and overview of the subject.
— Betine van Zyl Smit
Library Journal
Respected classics scholar and popular novelist Segal (Love Story, etc.) here presents the culmination of work begun in 1968 with Roman Laughter, a discussion of Plautus as a writer of festive comedy. Segal surveys the history of classical drama from its origin to its "death" at the hands of Samuel Beckett. Over half the book is a study of Aristophanes, Menander, Plautus, and Terence, with a lengthy aside on Euripides. Segal then examines a selection of plays that followed classical models of structure and theme through Machiavelli, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Moli re, Jonson, and Wycherley. He argues that the thread of classical comedy reached its climax with Beaumarchais's The Marriage of Figaro and then declined as language failed and theme and structure disintegrated, ending with the silence of Beckett. This academic monograph is readable, erudite, and witty. Segal is a wonderful companion with whom to read these plays. Enthusiastically recommended. Thomas E. Luddy, Salem State Coll., MA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Segal-yes, he of Love Story and, if you didn't know, a fellow at Oxford-turns his attentions to literary criticism in this survey of comic theater from the ancient Greeks to a humorless Irishman. Explaining and analyzing comedy is a thankless task; humor either flies or it falls, and most theatergoers do not require a more experienced hand to guide them in their responses. Given these exigencies, Segal's interpretive achievements soar in a work both accessible and informative. Offering a sweeping tour of comic theater from the Greeks to Beckett, he argues wistfully that the dour Irishman killed off the swell old stuff of life and laughter, in which plots ended right where they should in the joys of marriage and home. Segal weights the argument strongly in his favor, with 19 chapters detailing the good stuff (as he sees it) and 2 describing the bad (especially Theater of the Absurd). With a work of this scope, quibbles inevitably arise, and certainly Segal could pay more attention to the comedies of the medieval period and the 18th century. The Greeks (especially Aristophanes), the Romans (that wacky pair Plautus and Terence), and a certain Renaissance man known as William Shakespeare receive the lion's share of the author's critical attention, but one cannot hardly fault Segal for packing the tome with his favorites when he makes no claims to be offering an exhaustive study. Even with more than 500 pages of text, including 118 of endnotes, much remains to be debated on this crucial topic in the humanities, and the snobbish scholar will certainly look elsewhere for more detailed analysis. The lay reader, on the other hand, will find much to enjoy in a genial perusal of westerncivilization's funniest theatrical moments. The ample quotations provide a gut-busting overview of theater at its hilarious best. If only every writer so smart were so engaging.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674012479
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/30/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 608
  • Product dimensions: 1.35 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Erich Segal taught at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton and was a Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford. He is the author of nine bestselling novels.
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Table of Contents

Preface

1. Etymologies: Getting to the Root of It

2. The Song of the Komos

3. The Lyre and the Phallus

4. Aristophanes: The One and Only?

5. Failure and Success

6. The Birds: The Uncensored Fantasy

7. Requiem for a Genre?

8. The Comic Catastrophe

9. O Menander! O Life!

10. Plautus Makes an Entrance

11. A Plautine Problem Play

12. Terence: The African Connection

13. The Mother-in-Law of Modern Comedy

14. Machiavelli: The Comedy of Evil

15. Marlowe: Schade and Freude

16. Shakespeare: Errors and Eros

17. Twelfth Night: Dark Clouds over Illyria

18. Molière: The Class of '68

19. The Fox, the Fops, and the Factotum

20. Comedy Explodes

21. Beckett: The Death of Comedy

Coda

Notes

Index

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