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The Death of Comedy / Edition 1

The Death of Comedy / Edition 1

by Erich SegalErich Segal


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674012479
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 10/30/2003
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 608
Sales rank: 847,974
Product dimensions: 5.94(w) x 8.88(h) x (d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Comedy was born at night. At least this is the fanciful conclusion of some long-ago scholars who derived "comedy" from koma ("sleep") and oide ("song"). The ancients believed that essential truths were evident in their very speech, that words could both denote and describe. Nomen omen, as the Romans rhymed it. Hence certain Byzantine word-wizards distilled koma from comedy and pronounced the genre a creature of night.

    with a kind of song which figuratively and often literally ends harmoniously on the tonic chord. But although koma is linguistically impossible, there are still some whimsical minds that allow a filigree of fancy to outweigh a philology of fact and give some credence to this derivation) Since comic spirit traditionally disregards reality, we too can be grateful for this etymology of koma. As the proverb says, it may not be true, but it's a great idea.

    Freud equated the psychodynamics of the comic and the oneiric, once alluding to his essays on jokes and dreams as "twin brothers." These mental actions have many important features in common, among which are punning word-play, the relaxation of inhibition, and the liberation of "primary process thinking." Nightsong thus represents a temporary return to childhood, which Wordsworth called "the glory and the freshness of a dream." Freud presents the same picture with "the mood of our childhood, when we were ignorant of the comic, when we were incapable of jokes and when we had no need of humour to make us feel happy in our life."

    case the aim is pleasure, and the joy comes with no loss of energy or pang of conscience—the normal expense of spirit borne free. Plato describes the dream process as one in which, as reason slumbers, "unlawful pleasures are awakened." In dreams, says Plato, the animalistic (to theriodes) and "uncivilized" (agrion) aspect of man "breaks loose, kicks up its heels" (skirtai). This is the dance of comedy—the precise activities of the antic world envisaged by Wrong Logic in the Great Debate of Aristophanes' Clouds:

Plato censures what Aristophanes celebrates, but both recognize the characteristic action of both comedy and dream.

    appears instead of the more common hypnos. It can have an erotic sense of letting go, not merely nodding off. In the Iliad, for example, Hypnos, the god of sleep, declares that he has covered Zeus with an especially soft slumber (malakon koma)—just after Zeus and Hera have made love. The sense of indulgence and release adds a metalinguistic validity to the alleged etymology of comedy.

    scholars seem to have made up in psychological intuition. Several of them argued that koma begot comedy because of the uninhibiting nature of the nocturnal mentality, and that this special time is extremely conducive to the actions of a comic play. Other critics of late antiquity preferred the derivation from koma on the grounds that "sleep [plays] a considerable role, because only at bedtime did the country people dare to bring their mocking songs into the cities."

    in the plays themselves. In Plautus' single comedy of mistaken identity, the long-lost twin who has just arrived in Epidamnus is astounded by the fact that people greet him familiarly in the street. "All this business seems to me like nothing other than a dream," he exclaims. And similarly in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the dim-witted Bottom, on his return from the fairy kingdom, reports:

    In Shelley's Ode it can actually seduce the daylight: "kiss her until she be wearied out." Moreover, only at night would Cupid visit Psyche, and according to the nocturnal vision recounted by Apuleius, the child of their union was the pleasure principle: Voluptas. So much for the truth in the false etymology.

    among the many ancients who gave some credence to a Doric tradition which derived "comedy" from kome "country village." The validity of this etymology has been argued in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and, to a lesser extent, even in our own day. Why "country song"? The conjecture reported by Aristotle is provocative: the "comedians" (komoidoi) were originally a group of roisterers who had to take to the hamlets with their singing after being kicked out of the city proper. Either their subject matter or their behavior—or both—offended the urbanites.

    but once or on every festive occasion. But we need not hunt after historical truth here. Kome is related to comedy because the country has always stood vividly in the human imagination as a place of greater freedom? In Plato's fretful description cited earlier, dreams bring out "uncivilized" (agrion) fantasies, a term which may be rendered more literally as "rustic." The agroikos or "country bumpkin" is an archetypal comic figure, the hero of the first extant comedy (Aristophanes' Acharnians) and attested still earlier for Epicharmus, the traditional founder of the genre.

    Thucydides suggests that the significant distinction was that the polis was walled, the kome wide open. The myth survives in latter-day fables of farmers' daughters, and is certainly ingrained in the mind of one noted Danish prince:

    does in fact have some historical validity. In the ancient world, freer behavior could be sanctioned when it was geographically beyond the jurisdiction of the city fathers. Logically, the country is where fertility rites would take place. Sir James Frazer, whose Golden Bough was one of the seminal works of twentieth-century thought, amply demonstrated that these occasions have always involved uninhibited speech and sexuality. Many cultures have had reinvigoration festivals characterized by such "stepping out of bounds." There was orgiastic indulgence beyond the city limits not only during Akitu, the Babylonian New Year, but also following the expiatory solemnity of the Jewish Yom Kippur. That many comedies take place in the country is no accident either. One thinks of the country inn for Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, Shakespeare's Forest of Arden (As You Like It), or better still, the enchanted wood outside Athens in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

    country that—as in so many Menandrian plays—the mother could not recognize the father. But the linguistic doctors illumined all with their postpartum perceptivity. To the modern philologist, the true father of "comedy" can only be komos, the wild, wine-soaked, no-holds-barred revel which characterized most Aristophanic finales—and which, not incidentally, typically took place at night.

    is fatuous to think that one specific ritual may have engendered a precise theatrical form. This was attempted in the early twentieth century by acolytes of Frazer, the so-called Cambridge anthropologists. Jane Ellen Harrison argued that a "tragic rhythm"—the vestiges of seasonal rites—was still discernible in Greek drama. Gilbert Murray saw the outline of a "ritual pattern" in these same works, consisting principally of an archetypal contest—the Old Year against the New, Light against Darkness, Summer against Winter. F. M. Cornford detailed what he perceived as relics of the seasonal ritual in the comedies of Aristophanes. According to his view, the agon or "conflict" of Old Comedy—most usually a debate of principles—reflected an ancient ritual struggle between the Old and New Kings, and ultimately led to the hero's sacred marriage (hieros gamos).

    perspective, noting that "Cornford's enthusiasm led him not infrequently to overshoot the mark." Other critics were not so tolerant. A. W. Pickard-Cambridge, perhaps their leading foe, demonstrated that the ritualists had merely singled out in Greek drama elements that were common to humanity everywhere.

    some broad validity and should not be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, Pickard-Cambridge did not put the issue to rest forever. In 1966 Walter Burkert rehabilitated the ritualist approach by tracing the origins of Greek sacrificial rites, not to some Frazerian vegetative or seasonal worship, but to a real prehistoric event—the communal killing of an animal. The original participants of tragedy (tragoidoi) were not dressed in goatish satyr costume, as the etymology of tragos ("goat") had suggested to earlier scholars, but were instead the actual witnesses of a victim's sacrifice at the Dionysian festivals. The primal horror of the onlooker at the original sacrifice confirms mankind's innate and basic respect for life. The essence of drama was thus to be found in psychology and biology rather than the natural world: "the main problem for man is not winter, but man." Though the thesis is not accepted in its entirety by many, Burkert's approach, subsequently elaborated in several important books, revitalized the study of ancient myth, ritual, and religion in the light of modern anthropological and biological theory.

    moment in the development of theater," focusing instead on the social and political contexts in which these universal patterns are presented. According to one view, for example, participation in the tragic chorus was a rite of passage in the presence of the polis for the young men of Athens (the ephebos), the term "goat-singers" referring to the goatesque physical changes of their adolescence. Others have demonstrated beyond doubt that the Athenian comic festival had not only religious importance, but a social and political dimension as well which had been neglected by earlier scholars:

This valuable approach has deepened our insight into the genre. Clearly, neither comedy nor tragedy nor any other work of art can be appreciated outside of its cultural context.

    "comic forces" at work which are as much psychological processes as social, and lend themselves to a broader perspective. The phenomenon of "holiday humour" is not confined to fifth-century Attica. It exists in every society, whether it be called Saturnalia, Feast of Fools, or Homecoming Week. Inasmuch as drama arose from such festivals, "the holiday occasion and the comedy are merely parallel manifestations of the same pattern of culture."

    the next, there remains a truly universal aspect to the comic process itself. Take Ovid's classic description of the festum geniale of Anna Perenna, the Roman holiday by the banks of the Tiber which celebrated the eternal rebirth of the year:

Common folks come and drink their fill while scattered everywhere in the

The festivities conclude with the girls singing lewd songs (obscaena) and dirty ditties (probra)—a phenomenon we will return to in the next chapter. On these occasions, as Frazer commented, "many a girl may have gone in a maid who came out a maid no more." This crucial event inspired many a New Comedy plot. Terence describes the key forces at work here:

    need to enjoin the Romans to observe these rites, for the very essence of komos is its irresistibility. Ovid does not dwell on the political aspects of this festival; he chronicles the fun. As Horace describes it, "after the rites have been performed, the spectator feels both drunk and beyond the law" (potus et exlex). The entire description bespeaks an atmosphere of surrender to the senses, best exemplified in the words of Shakespeare's Rosalind:

    Mikhail Bakhtin called carnivalesque. One psychologist has defined comedy as a "holiday from the superego," a view anticipated by Freud when he wrote:

    hand with an intensifying pall of repression which harnesses the natural anarchic instincts of man to ensure a civilized society. The linguistic association between "civilized" and the Latin civitas ("town") once again suggests a contrast between the couth behavior of the city dweller and the boorish antics of the country bumpkin. Thus we again find reinforcement for the "erroneous" derivation of comedy from kome, a country village. We will inevitably find ourselves returning to this "rural" derivation and the truth it conveys.

    have never lost our zeal for komos. As Plato understood, the unconscious desire to break society's rules is one of the prime appeals of comedy. Johan Huizinga might explain that ritual had not died, but merely metamorphosed into its twin—"play." As the church father Tertullian railed, "a theater is also a temple—of Venus and Bacchus."

    that there is a valid psychic dimension to all three of the words proposed. And though komos is the "authentic" parent of Comedy, the enormous poetic validity of the other hypotheses gives pause. Indeed, there is tantalizing if tenuous evidence that komos and kome may have a single remote source in the lexical Shangri-La of Indo-European. Both carry the notion of "shared activity." In fact, traces of this ancestral connection may still be seen in the Greek adjective enkomios, which can mean either "of a revel" or "in the village."

    languages which connote communal activity—including English "home"—arguing persuasively that all derive from an ancient Indo-European social institution, the communal settlement? Thus "home" was originally less a place or building than a social concept, the focus of community spirit. The development of this word reflects the gradual narrowing of "the common" from community to family, accompanied by progressive alienation—one of civilization's Discontents—which comedy seeks to overcome.

    fairly close historical relationship between komos and kome, the first perhaps developing from the second as the village population marshaled for festival. Indeed, each hamlet seems to have made its own contributions to the larger Greek festivals, sponsoring choruses, dramatic skits, and so on. A striking parallel is still to be found in the Italian Palio at Siena. Each neighborhood, spearheaded by its men, leads the chosen horse to the piazza, competing with other groups in song, invective, and finally the race itself. The event has the unmistakable flavor of sacrificial ritual.

    the conflict between the ancient etymologies of comedy becomes more intelligible, and each could rightly claim a degree of historical validity. The old Doric derivation of comedy as "song of the village," recorded by Aristotle, may have been as correct in its way as the philologically-approved "song of the komos."

    the word tend to have erotic overtones, and the idea of "sharing" would be very appropriate for a post-coital slumberous trance. This free-floating notion would imply that sleep, village, and komos all offer opportunities for untrammeled freedom. Which they do, in life if not in lexicons.

    Dreams, "country matters," and revels are all licensed indulgences of fantasy, releases from Civilization and its Discontents, with all's well that ends well. This alleged triple linkage offers its own valid dimension to the idea of Comedy. For it matters less who Comedy's true father was than what its true nature is. Komos is a rule-breaking revel in the flesh, Comedy an orgy in the mind. Perhaps with "holiday humour" we can entertain all three proposals and argue that Comedy, the mask that launched a thousand quips, is named with as provocative an etymology as Helen of Troy: a dreamsong of a revel in the country.

Excerpted from The Death of Comedy by Erich Segal. Copyright © 2001 by President and Fellows of Harvard College. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents


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




What People are Saying About This

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.
Eric Handley, Trinity College Cambridge University

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.

Hugh Lloyd-Jones

Erich Segal's introduction to ancient comedy in this book will both interest and delight many readers.

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