Many people like to laugh. Many consider laughing to be a way of living a better life, of preserving their life, and of feeling happy. However, the difficult thing about laughing is that in the serious world where many people live, there is little chance to hear of, see or meet funny events and people. For this reason, people often choose to go to the theater where they can watch comedies or plays that have comic events and characters in them. For some people, a comedy is a way through which they can laugh and forget their sorrows. For others, it is a way through which they can laugh at things that happen to them but which they do not laugh at in real life. Some comedies are silly and meaningless, and some have serious themes and meanings. Whether a comedy is serious or farcical, its basic purpose is to make people laugh.
Most forms of theater have developed over the centuries, witnessing many changes that make them look different from what they were when they started. This is especially true of the dramatic theater where numerous schools and philosophies were applied. Comedy, on the other hand, no matter how it has changed, remains focused on one major aspect, namely making the audience laugh (Wimsatt 3).
In fact, comedy is based on the theory of laughter. According to this theory, success of comedy relies on sudden triumph. Sudden triumph relates to the ability of the comic situation to relieve the tension which is felt by the audience, and hence, it makes the spectators suddenly realize the point of a joke, or the meaning of a line and break into laughter. Therefore, a comedy depends on wit and on the ability to hide a reality until the right moment when the audience are not expecting this reality to show. When the reality appears, the audience are shocked and break into laughing as they realize how silly the reality is (Wimsatt 7).
For many people today, comedy is the favorite theater to attend. However, throughout its long history, comedy did not always enjoy the prestige that it enjoys today. During the days of the ancient Greeks, Aristotle considered that comedy was inferior to drama. This inferiority was caused by the nature of the Greek society. The Greeks preferred drama because it contained mythic heroes which they adored and loved. Comedy, on the other hand, did not contain this glory and it did not relate to symbol. Rather, it dealt with low characters who could not be glorious or heroes (Wimsatt 11).
Another problem of comedy and its historical development is that it means different things for different people. Different cultures have different traditions and values. What is funny in one culture may be seen as horrible and rude in another. The more civilized a society is, the less laughing it allows. Primitive societies, on the other hand, laugh more because they are not restricted by social rules. Comedy is therefore a way through which laughing is stimulated, away from the realities of social rules and seriousness (Wimsatt 8).
Comedy developed most during the middle ages. Its theatrical form became known during the sixteenth century when it was related to as commedia dell arte. The early comedies in this period were based on the characters and situations which the performers created. These performances were improvised, that is, invented by the performer on the spot without a clear dialogue in mind. The comedies of these times did not depend much on a meaning as much as they depended on silly and trivial gestures and words to make the audience laugh at any expense. It is for this reason that the early comedy did not earn a lot of respect among the educated and upper classes that were more concerned about the serious drama (“Drama and dramatic arts,” CD-ROM).
In the early comedies, actors often memorized small bits and pieces which they used in different comedies. These bits were known as the lazzi. Most characters appeared in many comedies and became famous, such as Harlequin and Pantalone, and they were performed by many different actors all over England (“Drama and dramatic arts,” CD-ROM).
Comedy reached its golden age between 1550 and 1650 when it was introduced in noble courts and it influenced great artists such as Shakespeare in England and Moliere in France. Before that, comedy was in general seen as an entertainment for the poor and the lower classes (“Drama and dramatic arts,” CD-ROM).
In France, comedy flourished more than in any other country in Europe, especially during the sixteenth century. It was so popular that it even prevented drama and other forms of theater from developing for several decades. Comedies were performed in covered tennis courts because there were no theater buildings in France (“Drama and dramatic arts,” CD-ROM).
The development of comedy came from Moliere, France’s greatest playwright. In his comic writings, he did not refer to specific funny targets as most comedy writers often did, but rather, to the general and universal aspects and problems of mankind. Moliere wrote roles for his actors and developed the conversational style in theater such that comedies became more organized and well prepared. This made comedies appeal more to the upper social classes that often saw comedy as a cheap style of theater (“Drama and dramatic arts,” CD-ROM).
Even in modern times, comedy was the center of a lot of criticism. The fact that it stimulated laughing made many critics consider humor and comedy as cheap and inadequate for the theater. Such critics considered the use of comedy in theater as a weakness in the theatrical work. Even some of the greatest playwrights were criticized for their use of humor, such as Ben Jonson, whose great play, The Silent Woman was the center of criticism because of the comic features it included. Nevertheless, today, many critics are coming to acknowledge the importance of comedy in theater, especially in Jonson’s works, because without the use of satire and humor, plays such as The Silent Woman “would lack not only the unity but also the universality of great art” (Heffner 97).
In three hundred years of modern comedy, especially in England, sex remained a taboo, even though today it is a central theme in most comedies. It was not until the nineteenth century, a period known as the Victorian Age, that sex was finally introduced in comedy. However, even as this happened, the strict social rules forced playwrights to hide sex and to show its themes indirectly through symbols. Oscar Wilde, one of England’s most important playwrights highly contributed to this development. He was considered to be “bold enough to make a virtue of triviality” (Mudrick 123). Today, most comedies depend a lot on sexual symbols to the extent that they become meaningless without sexual themes.
Today, comedy is no longer restricted to the theater. People can watch comedies in the cinema as well as on TV. Yet, comedies have not changed much, even when technology has. The reason is that comedy remains dependent on the simple idea of breaking into laughter. Even many of those who go to the theater to watch a comedy are not sure that comedies are great forms of art. However, they still go in large numbers, and very frequently. The reason is very clear. These people live under a lot of pressure and tension. They want to run away from the real world into that world where things are exaggerated, time is not important, important things become silly, and silly things become important. People go to watch comedies because they want to relax or because they want to forget. But more importantly, they watch comedies because they want to laugh. It is not important what people laugh at. The important thing is to break into laughter and feel better after it. After the comedy, however, it is not certain that one is going to feel better for long. The best comedies are those which make us laugh at sad and bitter things and which make us feel more serious as we leave the theater building.
“Drama and dramatic arts.” Encyclopedia Encarta97, CD-ROM. April 20, 1999.
Heffner, Ray L. “Unifying symbols in the comedy of Ben Jonson.” In W. K.
Wimsatt, ed. English Stage Comedy. New York: Columbia University
Press, 1955: 74-97.
Mudrick, Marvin. “Restoration comedy and later.” In W. K. Wimsatt, ed.
English Stage Comedy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1955: 98-125.
Wimsatt, W. K. English Stage Comedy. New York: Columbia University Press,