COMEDY LITERARY TYPES
There are two general notions about comedy: that it should endhappily and that it should produce laughter. These notions are rather crude and incomplete. They are, in fact, no satisfactory explanations of the nature of comedies, particularly of modern comedies.
Aristotle, of course, talks of comedy. His definition takes comedy as an imitation of personalities worse than the average, of what is ridiculous or deformed in men. It also implies that this imitation is made in a way which is not attended with harm or pain. This imitation produces laughter out of what is ugly and distorted, without causing any harm or pain. Comedy, thus, even according to Aristotle, serves to produce a sensation of laughter. This may well be taken as a comic sensation.
Meredith, in his celelebrated essay on Comedy, points out that the business of comedy is to awaken thoughtful laughter. The term “thoughtful laughter’ may turn up a paradoxical to some people . There is empty, silly laughter, as there is also thoughtful laughter. The latter is, indeed, fundamentally based on the thoughtful appreciation of certain elements in man and his society. It is the combination of thought and fun that makes a good comedy. Bernard Shaw claims his Arms and the Man as a classic comedy and his play is characterised as both thoughtprovoking and entertaining.’
Comedy, in its essence, is a quite serious play which is, as stated, both thought-provoking and entertaining. Shaw’s Arms and the Man has farcical elements. But its ultimate effect is to awaken thoughtful laughter. The play is essentially entertaining and thought-provoking. It is a satisfactory comedy, and no farce. The true test of a good comedy lies in the pleasurable sensation, generated spontaneously, and the thoughtful impression of the funny irony of life around. Comedy is not serious, but meaningful and pleasant always. It pleases definitely, but it teaches, too. This is basically delightful, yet instructive.
The Comedy of Humour
To Ben Jonson owes the origin of the realistic Comedy of Humour. Against the improbable plot, the idealistic characterisation, the pastoral setting and the poetic diction of the romantic comedy, he is found to present a comic world, more realistic and common place in plot, characterisation, and dialogue, based more or less on contemporary social life.
The medieval physico-pathological theory of humour, as propagated by Galen, enunciates the existence of four kinds of humour-sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholy. It postulates that the human body is an amalgam of these four humours, which correspond, in fact, to the four basic elements of earth, air, fire and water in external nature. A man’s temperament—his state of body and mind—is deterinined by their proportion in his body.
The excess of a particular humour destroys the balance of mind and makes a man inclined to this or that disposition orleads him to be haunted with this or that passion. The ultimate effect is to drive him to a state of eccentricity and frenzy, to cause some sort of abnormalcy in his nature and behaviour.
The comedy of humour has certain typical features to differentiate it from other comedies. In the first place, it contains a good deal of farce, impressively presented. The farcical element of the comedy of humour depends on the subtle co-ordination of different episodes and the happy presentation of entertaining comic scenes, with some funny, humorous men and women, participating in the same.
In the second place, the comedy of humour presents some well drawn characters, although they are distinctly different from the romantic characters of the comedies of Shakespeare and of other romantic comedies. These characters are taken from society–from real life. But the most important element of the comedy of humour lies in its intense social realism. This type of comedy is founded on a close scrutiny of the life of men and women in society.
The Comedy of Manners
The title of the comedy of manners, of course, is derived from the manners, rather the “social manners’, the social follies and foibles of the age, represented in the comedy. The very word ‘manners’ strikes a deeper note and implies ‘some distinguighing quality’. It means simply the mode or way of living of certain men and women in society. It also includes the convention, the artificiality and the mannerism of a particular age or of a specific society.
The comedy of manners certainly owes its inspiration to Ben Jonson and Moliere. Ben Jonson’s Comedy of Humour has a social content. It deals with man in society and depicts the intense reality of contemporary social life, with all its vices and follies and oddities. Moliere’s achievement, as the inventor of the comedy of manners, is unquestionable.
He may be regarded as the first successful dramatist to make comedy a source of delight and a commentary on the prevalent distemper of society at the same time. Moliere’s comedies are truly the powerful, satiric, yet entertaining representaion of the degeneration of the contemporary French society. Moreover, his dramatic invention and fine comic characterisation are found to be the rich inspiration for the Restoration comedy of manners in England, led by Congreve.
The anti-sentimental comedy, as the name signifies, is a protest against sentimentalism. Its basic object is to put to ridicule or caricature the excess of sentimentalism, which was the prevalent distemper of the age. The incidents as well as characters are so chosen as to satirise the ‘sentimenal muse’. The endeavour here seems quite plain—to revive and restore the comic Muse, long sick, in sentimentals’.
Goldsmith, in his well-celebrated treatise, The Present State of Polite Learning, and in his first comedy The Good Natur ‘d Man, hammers hard the genteel (or more properly sentimental) comedy. With his She Stoops to Conquer and Sheridan’s masterpieces, the anti-sentimental comedy has a recognised place as a particular type of comedy.
The anti-sentimental comedy, introduced by Goldsmith and Sheridan, is nothing more than the artificial comedy of manners. It is founded on wit and intellect, and deals with an artificial social life, where no cares abound. It is packed with diverting situations, frivolous intrigues and pleasant surprises. In fact, it is rather a continuation of the tradition of the great comedy of manners of the Restoration theatre.
In its play of wit, in its caricature of social manners and in its satiric outlook, the anti-sentimental comedy is really found to bear much of the spirit of the school of Congreve and his colleagues. Of course, it is free, except is the case of The School for Scandal, both from the licence and from the vulgarity of the comedy of manners of the Restoration. The antisentimenal comedy is an attempt to return to nature from artificiality and sentimentality.
The Sentimental Comedy
Sentimentalism implies the preponderance of sentiments. The effect of sentimentalism on the comedy of the eighteenth century was to adorn the stage with a string of sentiments. The theatre was sentimentalised and a misty emotionalism shrouded and hid the clarity of thought in the new type of drama.
The new drama, described already as the sentimental comedy, appears somewhat queer, quite apart from both the usual tragedy and the usual comedy. In its happy ending and in the absence of the representation of the matters of awe and thrill, it is distinguished from the tragedy proper. Again, in the lack of entertaining situations and pleasurable sensations and the predominance of grave and moral tones, this is far removed from a popular comedy. Some germ of tragi-comedy is rather perceived here.
The sentimental comedy, however, is found to have certain characteristics to distinguish it. It is concerned primarily, and unlike other types of comedies, with some sort of problems, relating to family life, marriage, love, individual conduct and outlook and so on. In fact, there is the obsession of some domestic or ethical problems, and this sets this comedy quite apart from other species of comedy.
The next noteworthy element of the sentimental comedy is emotional, rather sentimental, appeal. It has not that string of intellect which stamps great comedies, classical, romantic, or modern. Its effort is to evoke pity and sympathy by depicting the distress of the innocent and the virtuous.
The emotional impact is one of pathos and tears, in which the true comic spirit is found sadly missed.
The spirit of true comedy is found here gone, and free and genuine laughter seems to have been crushed out. Sentimentalism has made the drama of the time anaemic and lifeless. The virtues of private life are exhibited in this kind of drama, but social vices are not treated in the manner of satiric comedy. Individual distress, rather than social faults, is actually emphasised here.
Though itself an intellectual exercise, satire differs from wit and humour. It is a sort of caricature through the sparkle of intellect. This is critical in effect, although a clinical purpose is not absent in a good satire. It is not sparing, but rather striking hard to expose and ridicule whatever may be the follies or vices of some person or persons.
Of course, satire is the least amusing species of the comic spirit. The very Aristotelian definition of comedy, as an imitation of ridiculous characters, without involving any pain or destruction, hardly leaves much scope for its inclusion in the comic spirit. Yet, it is found pre-dominant in a number of comedies, including the early comedies of Athens.
The Old Comedies of Athens are basically humorous and satiric and found to caricature high personalities. In the Middle Comedy, the satiric spirit is extended to expose and ridicule the then society and social manners. In fact, early Athenian comedies have an undertone of satire.
Again, the Jonsonian Comedies of Humour and the Comedies of Manner, both of France and England, are satiric in effect, though presented in a diverting manner. The anti-sentimental comedies of Goldsmith and Sheridan flash with the lively caricature of the prevalent sentimentalism of the age. Finally, the Shavian Purpose Comedy, with all its wit and fun, is trenchantly satiric.
The Comedy of Wit
Wit, a purely intellectual exercise, causes spontaneous laughter and seems akin to the comic spirit. The comedy of wit, as such, is quite natural, although it often found mingled with both the comedy of hamour and the satiric comedy.
The element of wit in the comedy is on the surface, and does not penetrate into the core of the play. In fact, in a comedy, the plot is of little significance and the flash of wit has no bearing on this and sparkles as an aid to comic entertainment. Congreve’s The Way of the World, universally acknowledged as one of the most brilliantly executed comedies of wit, has no noteworthy plot.
The same opinion may be held about another worth-mentioning comedy of wit—The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. But Shakespearean romantic comedies, like As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing, have distinctly impressive plots and the play of wit simply serves there to enhance the comic effectiveness. As a matter of fact, the comedy of wit has no plot of a high seriousness, but bears an intellectual appeal to enrich comic diversions.
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