Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD REFERENCE (www.oxfordreference.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single entry from a reference work in OR for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 26 May 2022


The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance
Albert BermelAlbert Bermel, Albert BermelAlbert Bermel, Albert BermelAlbert Bermel


A genre in which the ending of a play or film script proclaims happiness through a love match, a wedding, a triumph over adversity, or a reconciliation. When humour erupts occasionally in a tragedy or melodrama, it is more likely to startle theatregoers than to amuse them. Ben Jonson, Thomas Shadwell, and other commentators of the 1500–1600s wanted comedy to chastise the folly and villainies of their times, while moralizers before and since have considered such obligations didactic, inimical to art (see neoclassicism). But in comedy a tone of optimism sounds during the play's altering relationships. Comedy toys with such plot devices as coincidences, misunderstandings, and confusions of identity. Its laughter arises predominantly from clashes of wit and exchanges of ‘one-liners’. As opposed to the broader, slow-paced appeal of humour, wit features one or more roles who mean to be funny, preferably at the expense of others. Beatrice strops her wit on Benedick in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing (1599), Mrs Millamant on Edward Mirabell in Congreve's The Way of the World (1700), and Célimène on Alceste (and he on her) in Molière's The Misanthrope (1666), while they swap affronts and cannot confess that they love each other. In Lubitsch's film Trouble in Paradise (1932), the leading woman and man, Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall, avoid revealing that they are rival swindlers, mutually attracted. These deceivers spin out delicious wit not to demonstrate what they say but to hide who they innately are—pretenders, charmers, liars: figures audiences laugh at, rather than with.

1. Origins, Greek and Roman; 2. What is comedy?; 3. Formations

Origins, Greek and Roman

Comedy's birth begins, depending on one's sources of information and appraisal, in Attic and Doric Greece and southern Sicily during the 500s–400s bc (see Greek theatre, ancient). Early comedies evidently arose from rituals in honour of Olympia's pantheon of gods; they mutually strengthened the syntheses of verse speaking, clowning, exhibitions of dance, music (sung and played), and virtuoso movement. They coalesced over time into troupes that resembled modern circuses and revues, like and unlike arts convincingly pulled together, and not from dramatic texts alone. The pristine forms of comedy, in no definite chronological order, were threefold: first the itinerant phlyakes of Sicily and Greece during the late pre-Christian era, who put on partly improvised solo turns; these evolved into the fabulae Atellanae (Atellan farce) when they reached mainland Italy—the foot, Calabria, and the heel, Apuglia—where some individual acrobats, musicians, singers, jugglers, conjurors, and mimes might combine their acts in collective travelling shows displayed out of doors or in halls belonging to wealthy sponsors. Such partly improvised regional productions grew in popularity and geographical breadth all through the medieval period. By the 1500s acting companies all over Italy in the commedia dell'arte (professional comics) had stylized their costumes, masks, and prose sketches, and had buffed their acting styles during their circuits within the Italian peninsula to such polished levels that they and their descendants confidently took up invitations, starting with Henry VIII of Britain, to give royal command performances abroad, in the countries to which they would permanently migrate. They eventually grafted their partly improvised scenarios, staging, and performing skills to national theatre conventions across Europe. Commedia elements remain conspicuous in the dramatic literatures of Russia, the UK, France, Spain, Germany, Sweden, and Italy itself, most strikingly in the plays of Shakespeare, Molière, Goldoni, Gozzi, and Pirandello.

In the growth of a second comic convention, Greek playwrights wrote and directed satyr-plays. Strung onto tragic trilogies, these strange comedies were played by coarse hairy creatures who liked to burlesque the gods and the revered heroes of myth. The satyr-play may well be a remnant of the dithyramb, a choral hymn sung to flute accompaniment. Its exalted text and, probably, its performance style ran counter to its salacious lyrics in praise of Dionysus, god of wine, drama, lust, and other diversions. The Cyclops by Euripides looks like an example of a satyr-play, a rare survivor of that breed, which had once clung (c.425 bc) to the tail of three linked (but lost) tragedies, among them his grisly Hecuba, in which the heroine takes revenge on a relative by having him blinded. In the satyr-play some actors wore wreaths, masks, loincloths, and other scanty covering (see phallus). Part-men, part-animals, they talked and acted bawdily, drank plentiful wine in honour of Dionysus, their deity, and followed Silenus, their chorus leader and, as some say, their common father, if anything resembling these characters ever existed.

The third source of comedy, the distant forerunner of the modern French and British well-made play, the comic staple of Broadway and episodic prime-time television, was less turbulent than either the improvised comedy or the satyr-play. So were comedies written in the early 400s bc, for which Epicharmus of Sicily has been held responsible on small evidence. Some scholars have ventured that there were playwrights who preceded Epicharmus—although the word playwright dates back only as far as Ben Jonson in the late 1600s. Theatre can be interpreted as an outgrowth of earlier models but hardly any identifiable supporting documents exist; if they did, this comedy might have run concurrently with the first known tragedies, or even with the epochal production in 534 bc which officially instated tragedy as an Athenian art form at the annual Dionysia festival. Of the comedies that have come down to us Euripides' Ion (c.408) is probably the first full-length specimen, so long as his Helen (412) is counted a tragicomedy, not a true comedy, and so long as previous plays, by Aristophanes, for instance, are taken to exemplify the characteristics of farce, not comedy (see Old Comedy). In the twentieth century directors and actors delighted in nudging the pliant boundaries between these three sub-genres into unfamiliar shapes.

Authors during the later 400s bc offered their comedies to festivals beyond the spring Dionysia, such as the Lenaea each winter in Athens. Greek dramatists before Euripides and Aristophanes had already thinned out comic or farcical elements from their tragedies, perhaps to avoid ‘tainting’ them, despite the Athenian weakness for satyr-plays as relief from tragedies' grim enactments. As Greek comedy exerted a growing influence abroad, it intensified and purified itself. By the succeeding century, satyr-plays had faded out, their possibilities having perhaps been worked dry. Aristophanes' final two plays, Ecclesiazusae (Women in Assembly, late 390s bc) and Plutus (Wealth, 388), are usually termed Middle Comedy, marking the passage from his politicized farces of Old Comedy to the more domestic bent exhibited in New Comedy. Only one complete example of Greek New Comedy has come to light, and that recently, during the mid-1900s: Menander's Dyskolus (The Grumbler or The Bad-Tempered Man), though many fragments of his other works have survived. Menander's drama forms a likely bridge from Greek to Latin New Comic writings which set Roman fathers against their sons and slaves (see Roman theatre).

Two Roman dramatists of the third and second centuries bc left large samples of comedy. The older artist, Plautus, made theatrical contributions that would be widely imitated. The Pot of Gold and Pseudolus, for example, incorporated flute-and-percussion music and dancing; they appeared to be close to decorous farce in their own time but turned into out-and-out farcical romp when converted into an American musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), which featured two of the favourite comic complications in Rome: money, which its possessors hate to part with, and the determination of slaves to secure freedom. The younger Roman, Terence, in such comic plays as The Self-Tormentor and The Twin Brothers (both 160s bc), composed trim and at times haranguing disputes. Mothers are seldom encountered in Latin comedy or farce, women being mostly seen and hardly heard from as young enchantresses stolen in infancy from noble couples, then raised as slaves or sold by pirates or other flesh pedlars. New Comedy's later offshoots passed to innumerable successors after Shakespeare and Molière, down to the creators of television sitcoms.

Much Italian theatre in the early modern period was breathed out in exclamatory sighs through the lips of soft-hearted shepherdesses. As an alternative to the productions of commedia troupes, poets who shunned displays of their work in public created the commedia erudita, ‘scholarly’ verse for selected audiences, the closet drama. One exception was the mightily energetic squabbles between duchies in spectacles like the Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto; another exception, Machiavelli's The Mandrake, is a work that toyed with mischievous farce. But indigenous comedy, regional theatre, and folk dance, especially from India, China, Japan, Indonesia, Turkey, and the heartlands of Africa, have usually arisen, like those of ancient Greece, out of mythology and religious ritual. Most of these comedies remain unknown in Europe except through infrequent visits of troupes from Asia, Africa, and Latin America; but film comedies like those of Japan's late Juzo Itami (1933–97), which include The Funeral and Tampopo (1986), demand comparison, in artistry and impact, with the finest products of the West.

Albert Bermel

What is comedy?

Representatives from all branches of theatre have had ample say. Spokespersons for sects have consulted their gods, or the God, and laid down unchallengeable dogma, sometimes joining the procession of zealots who proclaim how (and how not) to write comedies, why (and why not) to purge offensive material; while artistic pragmatists have concerned themselves with extracting noisy laughs in the right places.

In the fifth chapter of Poetics Aristotle observed that comedy dealt with figures of a lower caste than the gods, demigods, and monarchs of tragedy. Bernard Knox has pointed out that as far back as Plautus' plays, two slaves served in each household, one slow, the other smart; vestiges of these opposites survived, he believed, in Caliban and Ariel in Shakespeare's The Tempest, in Speed and Launce (The Two Gentlemen of Verona), and in Tranio and Curtis (The Taming of the Shrew). Most comedies by Molière and his French imitators take place in bourgeois households with servants doubling as valets. A Molière gentleman feels sinewless without his valet. Monsieur Jourdain's daughter seeks counsel from the family maid on how to capture a youth who proves his infatuation by quarrelling with her at every encounter. A male heir looks to his servants to gain him access to a damsel while not damaging access to his inheritance while his father is still alive. In The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro by Beaumarchais the hero, a Molièresque man of the people, outwits his master's rivals in the first play and the master himself in the second. Some historians believe the blatant reversal of master-and-servant power may have helped to incite the French Revolution, which broke out in 1789, five years after the play's first performance. Mozart and Da Ponte in their operatic version, Le Nozze di Figaro (produced 1786), not only enhanced the comedy with ravishing music and an adroit libretto but also added emotional soundings to Beaumarchais's reformist beliefs. Today almost all television comedy wells up out of suburbs and similar haunts of the self-spoiled middle class, where fractious domesticity reigns, and good-natured bantering gives way—with as short a time as possible wasted between commercials—to family spats that fly between sofas, armchairs, tables, and back fences.

Albert Bermel


(a) Texts:

One can deduce from Aristophanes' comedies and his peerless farces the main elements of a non-tragic sequence: a prologue, or introduction, often in Aristophanes as a parabasis or direct address by the playwright to his public; then a succession of choral odes divided by episodes spoken mostly by the actors, not sung by the chorus members; and a final epode or epilogue as the chorus departed. Over time the chorus grew altogether obsolete; in New Comedy and Roman comedy episodes were transmuted scenes; a god (a principal actor) or an unnamed figure delivered the epilogue or the protagonist summed up. Later still, clusters of scenes became acts, whether in the five-act arrangements by Terence, the sprawling five-act but solidly anchored carpentry of the Elizabethans and Jacobeans seventeen centuries later, or the practically motionless five-act masterpieces of French neoclassicism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, declaimed from flights of steps or in front of the wondrous settings and furnishings exported by Italian designers.

(b) Structure:

Modern comedies are as a rule designated short or ‘full length’ in the theatre world. Epic plays by Brecht and his followers are usually broken down, especially for rehearsals, into scenes. Scenes frequently serve for subdividing costume fittings, sets, swordfights, dances, and singing. Popular musicals favour a two-act format. Act II has roughly half the length of Act I, thereby tightening the suspense and speeding up the ending for the benefit of restless spectators. A solo comic performance or one-person show, recently welcomed to popular theatre because cheap to rehearse and mount, will often be derived from a memoir. The actor recites it in one non-stop lump so that spectators who wish to walk out inconspicuously before the end are embarrassed into staying.

(c) Roles:

Comic theory has now and then endeavoured to sort roles into sketches of human types and freeze them in place (see stock character). One of the earliest expositions along these lines, the Tractatus Coislinianus, is thought by some commentators to have been drawn up by Aristotle. It was introduced to modern readers by Francis Cornford in The Origin of Attic Comedy (1914) and again by Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism (1957). The author of the Tractatus identifies three types (male only) in the plays of Aristophanes. The alazon or impostor crashes parties or other celebrations, pretending friendship with the hero; or he retails specialized knowledge such as, say, a medical or scholarly doctor's. Examples of the type include the parasitic priest in Molière's Tartuffe; or, The Impostor (1669), Parolles, the show-off in Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well (c.1602–6), and Sergius in Shaw's Arms and the Man (1898), the latter two being variations of the miles gloriosus or cowardly braggart. The second figure from the Tractatus, the eiron, or ironic role, may be a self-deprecating type, an intellectual who exposes an impostor or is the prey of an impostor, sometimes the one sensible or unimaginative part in a play, like Horatio in Hamlet or most confidants in the dramatic versifications of Corneille and Racine (see raisonneur). The third derivation from the Tractatus is a poseur, the pharmakos, who can tackle a range of parts. Cornford identifies him as an ‘antagonist’, a leading figure in the Thargelia ceremony, associated with wealth and fruitfulness but also with the casting out of hunger, death, and sin. Crow, a mysterious singer (or hoodlum?) who supplants the protagonist in Sam Shepard's Tooth of Crime (1972), is like a professional invader. (See also origins of theatre.)

But there are many parts that are a compound of eiron and alazon: John Tanner in Shaw's Man and Superman (1903), Béralde, the hypochondriac's brother in Molière's The Hypochondriac (1673), Rostand's romantic warrior-hero in Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), and Azdak, the scribe suddenly promoted to judge in Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944–5). The pharmakos may equally play an innocent finally killed or suffering undeservedly, like Chaplin's clown in The Circus (1928) and his tramp seeking work in City Lights (1931), or the protagonist of Ghelderode's Pantagleize (1929), a tribute to Chaplin, which speeds along as comedy until almost the last line, when it turns into a most poignant moment. Frye remarks that the archetype of an ‘incongruously ironic’ figure is ‘Christ, the perfectly innocent victim excluded from human society’; but it is difficult to see how even a dim-witted treatment of Christ, like that in Lloyd Webber's musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), could be convincing as comedy or much else. The disadvantage of overloading these three abstract cubby-holes for comic parts taken from antiquity is that they diminish by comparison comic roles of undoubted consequence like Falstaff, Petruchio, or Helena (All's Well That Ends Well), Mrs Millamant, Professor Higgins, Lina Sczcepanowska (in Misalliance, 1910), and a lavish sprinkling of others, from Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days to his Krapp playing back his last tape.

In his Comic Theory of the Sixteenth Century (1950) Marvin T. Herrick discusses five roles mentioned by Terence (in the prologue to his Self-Tormentor) and adds another ten listed by Calphurnius, a critic of the 1400s ad. They typify a selection of figures with recognizable quirks taken from varied segments of an average population: the young and aged, male and female, rapacious and indulgent, debauched and delicate. Many, as Herrick points out, are persons one can imagine meeting in a community. But the actors in a play or film or especially a television series often become so intent on mimicking a cast of ‘types taken from life’ that they speak and behave like lightly animated chess pieces. The bulk of the comedies that visit multiplex cinemas, local playhouses, and huge home television screens offer a range of stars apparently doing their utmost but most of them working at a level well below capacity. At the start of the twenty-first century, comedies that make heavy demands on actors are not abundant, comedies that producers will put their money behind are even less abundant, and comedies that attach themselves to a spectator's memory will probably stay active there for no more than ten days. Signs of improved comic writing in films, however, have appeared in the development of animated human figures and animals, whose creators have found new devices for mimicking and satirizing live persons in their cartoons.

Albert Bermel


Bermel, Albert, Shakespeare at the Moment: playing the comedies (Portsmouth, NH, 2000)Find this resource:

Charney, Maurice, (ed.), Comedy: new perspectives (New York: 1978)Find this resource:

Jenkins, Ron, Subversive Laughter: the liberating power of comedy (New York, 1994)Find this resource:

Kern, Edith, The Absolute Comic (New York, 1980)Find this resource:

Sypher, Wylie (ed.), Comedy (New York, 1956, essays by Bergson, Meredith, Sypher)Find this resource: