Carry on spoiling

The Death of Comedy
November 15, 2002

This is a very grand survey of theatrical comedy from genesis to alleged nemesis, that is, from Aristophanes to Samuel Beckett. It is a huge, witty, learned and frequently engaging global tour of the genre, with numerous wise, or wise-ish, stopovers at most of the major comic sites between origin and suggested meltdown. Here are lengthy encounters with the texts of Plautus, Menander, Terence, Machiavelli, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Moli re, Beaumarchais and Alfred Jarry, as well as with those of Aristophanes and Beckett. Inevitably, even in a work of this size, many key texts do not get in. Nevertheless, there is still plenty here to sustain Erich Segal's attempt at an elegant model of the genre: a mode all at once in a constant state of metamorphosing - Old Comedy giving way to New, irony arriving with Menander and Plautus, Terence introducing suspense and weeping and the plot of doubles, Machiavelli developing the use of prose, Shakespeare doubling up the Terentian pairs, and so on. Yet a genre at the same time being forever mindful of its long tradition, constantly replaying the old types and tropes and plot formations.

So what is presented is a phoenix genre, one forever going down culs-de-sac and falling into ruin; one constantly the occasion for requiems for old ways, but persistently rising from the merely temporary ashes and carrying on with all the old themes and conventions - until, that is, unhappy Beckett and his "absurdist" ilk come along and trash the mode for ever. This is Segal's vision of where and how comedy meets its final demise - and one I find an apocalypticism too far.

Segal is at his best in putting the case for comedic continuity. Spotting recurrences is for him, it would seem, the very centre of comedy's pleasure. Etymology - even what is granted as false etymology - here speaks volumes: komodia from koma , sleep - night song, the writing of the night, a dream and fantasy world, a Freudian playground; komodia from kome , village, rural place - country matters. Both of these shady etymologies suggest, of course, **** matters (the pun is Shakespeare's). So comedy, the mode programmed for sexual doings at the close of its plots, and all along the way to those erotic endings as well, a writing inevitably about marriage ( gamos ) finales, phallic joys of the young, erectile flights, even about sexual resurrections of oldsters. Here then is a carnivalesque world of hard-on delights, but also of Schadenfreude - the delight in sexual dismay, in cuckolded husbands, in sexually deficient bodies, in misogyny, and all the dark downside of carnival, with its plots repeatedly peopled by similar sexual agents and patients. Comedy's dramatis personae keep on being identifiable as mere returners from the old cast-lists, to be known by their ancient labels - the glumly critical agelastos , the mother-loving matrophiliac , the senex amator , the uxor dotata , the medicus or miles gloriosus , the servus currens or callidus .

On this pattern, the reader can keep recognising the absoluteness of sameness, spotting the inheritance - what Twelfth Night owes to Terence, how Malvolio is a traditional agelastos , the degree to which Volpone replays Terence's Eunuch and Machiavelli's Mandragola , the repetitions of Plautus's Mercator in Molière's The Miser , the fact that when Jarry's Père Ubu ****s out of fear he is simply imitating Strepsiades in the Clouds and Dionysos in the Frogs . And so forth. On this view, comedy's just a textual repeating machine, less intertextual than inbred-textual. But while it is nice to learn that, say, Manuel in Fawlty Towers is a late revival of the ancient servus currens , and nice to gain an old name for a still-continuing fictional thing (such as the label, from Pherecrates , for an illicit affair: paropsis , side-dish, a bit on the side), merely seeing the old poking through the new is never going to be the whole nor even the main story.

Segal's own side-dishes are constantly tasty. He is especially good on comestibles, on the many occasions of comedy's bodies stuffed and stuffing, on the fruity connections of Restoration actresses, on the liquids of comedy (small beer in Shakespeare, sack in Jonson, gall in the Restoration), and so on. But still the main course keeps disconcerting.

Thirty years of teaching comedy seminars have left an awful scar: the terrible results of the need to keep the attention of the churls at the back of the class by egregious attempts at "relevance" - all the slangily updated translations ("How creamed you're going to be in just a minute," says War in Aristophanes's Peace ), the creaky analogies with Dustin Hoffman's The Graduate and Doctor Strangelove , the endlessly "pun-ful" (if painful) quipping ("revel without a cause", "Oedipus interruptus", Aristophanes's "addenda to pudenda" and the like), the sub-Restoration-style translations of names (Menander's Blepsidemus as John Q. Clearsight, Aristophanes's Theoria as Ms Showbiz, Titus Maccius Plautus as Dick O'Fool MacSlapstick - well, plaudere , no relation of Plautus, does mean to slap). This is junior-year work.

But such tonal horrors aside, it is the larger worries that loom largest. Biggest is Segal's reluctance to admit the real incoherences within his chosen genre. A few asides aside ("Is this ( Volpone ) really a comedy?") he does not allow the genre-cracking evidence he keeps accumulating to punch its weight. A distinct part of this reluctance to challenge "comedy" is his odd softness towards certain horrible items in the long lists of comic Schadenfreude , the mode's relish for fun over rape and cuckoldry and anti-Semitism and Bottom's being made an ass of. The pleasure principles of comedy are very curious indeed, and do need reckoning into any account of the mode. The very early contamination of "comedy" by "tragedy" (Plautus even coined the term tragi-comedy); the collapse of main comedies into what came to be termed in Shakespearian criticism "problem comedies", with the likes of Malvolio and Jacques spoiling the festive dancing/marriage finales; the repeated infection of comedy by vicious writing more usual in "satire" (Ben Jonson is a high case here) are not rare exceptions. "Comedy" is everywhere across the tradition a highly mixed mode. Contaminatio , the technical, and always pejorative, term for what Terence did - making new Roman comedies by cobbling together bits of old Greek ones, or "spoiling" as Segal translates it - could be the label for this whole pack of generic works.

Contamination is, of course, what characterises all the great genres: tragedy, satire, elegy, comedy. It is almost a law of genre. And that means not just the dissolution of generic boundaries, but the dissolving of tragedy and the rest into merely the tragic, the satiric, the comic, which can crop up anywhere. And the normal generic contamination that results in so many challenged comedies, and the wide dispersal of comic effects across all kinds of writing make Segal's brave narrative of comedy's consistent progress altogether too coherent, and his apocalyptic vision of comedy's hitting the buffers in Beckett altogether unnecessary and premature. Comedy was never the organised creature Segal so elegantly pictures, and it is by no means over yet.

Valentine Cunningham is professor of English, University of Oxford.

The Death of Comedy

Author - Erich Segal
ISBN - 0 674 00643 7
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £23.50
Pages - 589

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