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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance

Albert Bermel


One of the two most common forms of mockery, the other being parody. Satire is literary, parody an enactment. But the line of separation wavers and at times disappears. Both boast a range of weapons: irony or saying more or less the opposite of what is meant (‘He's a real genius!’), sarcasm or saying something in an uncomplimentary or hurtful way (‘What idiot told you that?’), understatement, hyperbole, and assorted other figures of speech. All may be aimed at individuals, groups, institutions, or abstractions like trendiness (fashionable practices, rumour-mongering, slang of the day). Neither is quite a genre; rather, they send cross-currents of morality, acerbity, and topical additions through three of the formal genres—comedy, tragicomedy, farce—complicating those genres and sometimes enriching them.

Ever since Aristophanes applied himself to satire in the drama, and subsequently Horace and Juvenal gave their names to satirical prose and verse, satire has defended its occasional savagery as a cleansing function. Persons of sensitive taste will recognize the social desirability of giving trash its rightful name. A doctoral student once wrote in a class paper: ‘Satire as corrective when couched in invective is seldom effective.’ Writing satire, though, may confer satisfaction on a critic, especially when it is brutal and he or she is blessed enough not to call forth a brutal retort. Strict Freudians—if any are left—might think of callous satire as an incomplete, sublimated death wish.

Aristophanes assailed his targets with what might be called smiling distaste. He expressed disappointment with the bluster of Athenian statesmen, compared with a principled (but fictitious) community founded above Earth by the Birds; contempt for the self-righteous teaching and philosophy attributed by him to Socrates in Clouds; men addicted to legal cases and law courts in Wasps (adapted 2000 years later in Racine's Les Plandeurs (The Litigants, 1668). He disparaged other poets' plays (Frogs) and advised women to defeat war by denying sex to their partners (Lysistrata). He dared to imagine women snatching legal and parliamentary power from men in Thesmophoriazusae (411 bc) and subsequently in Ecclesiazusae.

The scope of his mockery and the gallery of his laughing stocks are nearly matched by those of another monumental exponent of satire, Molière, more than two-thirds of whose 33 plays rely on some of the most instructive, pointed, entertaining dramatic satire written. Over and over in his comedies and tragicomedies Molière depicted extreme examples of what Ben Jonson called humours, roles dominated by one characteristic (see comedy of humours). Molière's list takes in Harpagon in The Miser (1668); his opposite, Monsieur Jourdain, the extravagant spender in The Would-Be Gentleman (1670); the hypocritical priest-cum-cadger, and his mark, Orgon, in Tartuffe (1668–9); Argan in The Imaginary Invalid (1673), a patient starved for medicines who gobbles prescription drugs like fast food; Zeus the triumphant seducer in Amphitryon (1668), now considered a dig at Molière's patron Louis XIV; the less-than-effective seducer who is the protagonist of Don Juan (1665); the snobbish girls in The Affected Damsels (1659); and the ageing pretender in The Seductive Countess (1671). Alceste, the verbally violent social critic of The Misanthrope (1666), and no fewer than six leading male parts, bring misery into their lives by marrying or coveting much younger women, as the author himself did—Le Barbouillé in The Jealous Husband (n.d.), Sganarelle in The Imaginary Cuckold (1660), a second Sganarelle in The School for Husbands (1661), a third Sganarelle in The Forced Marriage (1664), Arnolphe in The School for Wives (1662), and George Dandin in the play with the same name (1668). These portraits have become types for all time. In Philaminte, a middle-aged lady, and her daughter Henriette, Molière created a mother and daughter who announce their intention to set up a women's academy, which shall rule over French language and manners; this is often taken to be a skit on women, but it is rather a veiled, comic assault on the French Academy and, indeed, the futility of founding an academy in the first place. (In Love's Labour's Lost Shakespeare earlier had the King of Navarre and three of his male courtiers talk about giving up the pursuit of women in favour of pursuing learning in a new academy.) Molière's most direct impersonation takes place in The Versailles Impromptu (1663), in which, playing himself, he mimicked five actors from his rivals at the Hôtel de Bourgogne company. In his performance, then, the author, as actor, turned his satire into parody.

Encouraged by Molière's examples, scores of playwrights all over Europe tried their hands at satirical theatre. Restoration authors in London, from Dryden and Wycherley to Congreve and Farquhar, purloined Molière's plots; they also attempted something like his ferocity in plays that aimed at marquesses and other high-society panhandlers. (Congreve could sporadically equal Molière's controlled rage.) In Denmark the Norwegian-born Ludvig Holberg wrote more than twenty comedies streaked with satire; in Italy (and later Paris) Carlo Goldoni sustained Molière's satirizing of petits commerçants; and in Russia the outstanding theatre satirist of the nineteenth century, Nikolai Gogol, wrote Revisor (The Government Inspector, 1836), a sceptical look at tax chicanery in a remote Russian community. In the production Vsevolod Meyerhold directed nearly a century later (1926) in Moscow, that venturesome artist reasserted his stage skills with satire in a portrait of communist apparatchiks. The twentieth century was crammed with satirical scenes and plays by Bertolt Brecht (Mahagonny, 1930; Arturo Ui, 1941), Friedrich Dürrenmatt (The Visit, 1956), Jean Genet (The Balcony, 1956), Boris Vian (The Knacker's ABC, 1950), and many worthy others. Among them is the most striking American drama since O'Neill's death in 1953, Tony Kushner's two-part Angels in America (1993), with its devastating picture of Roy Cohn's anti-Semitism, homophobia, anti-communism, and influence in Washington, as well as the loathing of everyone who passed through his tawdry life.

Albert Bermel


Charney, Maurice, Comedy High and Low (Oxford, 1978)Find this resource:

    Kernan, Alvin B., Modern Satire (New York, 1962)Find this resource: