Erich Segal is a remarkable man. Sometime professor of classics at Yale and other universities, and an expert on the Roman comic poets, he is perhaps better known as the author of Love Story. He now has written an erudite and entertaining history of comedy, from the beginnings to what he sees as its end. His aim is polemical: “To illustrate comedy’s glorious life cycle and ultimate destruction by the ‘intellectuals’ of the so-called Theater of the Absurd.” For comedy was an extraordinarily enduring form, “a genre which flourished almost unchanged in the more than two millennia that followed Terence’s death” (about 160 BCE).
What is, or was, comedy? It began in classical Athens. Tragedy as we know it came into existence sometime before 500 BCE and was flourishing by 472 BCE, the date of the earliest surviving play, Aeschylus’ Persians. Comedy, tragedy’s disreputable and disrespectful younger sister, becomes clearly visible forty-seven years later, with Aristophanes’ Acharnians. The etymology of “comedy” was elusive to the Greeks. The last element, both in “comedy” and in “tragedy,” comes from a word for song. But for the first half suggestions include kome, a village, and koma, sleep, coma. Modern scholarship derives it from komos, a reveling. Reveling in honor of the god Dionysus took on literary form, while retaining some preliterary features. Segal adroitly ducks the problem: comedy, he writes, is “a dreamsong of a revel in the country.” There speaks an artist, rather than a scholar. Tant mieux, perhaps.
Aristophanes has always presented a problem. At many times the biggest difficulty was obscenity: the dirty jokes, the personal slanders, the crude allusions to lavatorial functions, belching and farting and shitting. Above all, there was the omnipresence of sex, in its crudest forms—and ambidextrous sex, at that, with homosexual cracks, no less than heterosexual ones, embarrassing the learned commentator and the ingenuous student. The embarrassment of the Victorians is a standing source of inexpensive mirth for modern writers, proud of their own broad-mindedness—on topics, at least, which are nowadays not really dangerous.
But Aristophanic comedy is more than a boisterous round of crudities. It attacks politicians and policies. It revels in parody and burlesque of rival poets and of contemporary thinkers, gurus, poets, and pseuds, from Socrates (Clouds) and Euripides (Frogs) downward. Well, we can handle that, too; modern satire often combines polities with crudity. More difficult are the lyrical passages, some at a high stylistic level: prayers to gods, praises of nature, evocations of rural delights.
Contemporary translator and modern audience find the change of gear, from bawdy slapstick to elevated song, harder to cope with than the indecencies—nobody can shock us! Segal expresses it elegantly: “The poetry of Old Comedy is…a unique confection of the lyre and the phallus, a counterpoint of melodic delicacy and discordant grossness.” The Old Comedy was created for a unique audience, which accepted both sides of the plays as forming an organic whole. That historic moment did not last long. Athenian taste was already changing before Aristophanes’ death. His last play, Plutus (Money), is very different. There is less ebullience, less politics, less singing, and less obscenity. Indecency and music evidently went together. This refined form was the shape of the future; the literary comedy of Europe would be much less rumbustious and indecorous.
Scholarship risks making comedy into something more serious, more edifying, than it is. Sometimes we almost lose sight of the fact that comedy is connected with laughter: is meant, in fact, to be funny. It is hard, too, to be equally at home with all of Aristophanes’ varied elements. Segal professes to be happy with the phallic element, though he does not quote much of it. The essence of comedy, in his view, is rebirth: “In a fundamental sense every comedy is a thinly disguised re-enactment of the rebirth of the world.” The komos encouraged sexual activity and formed part of the fertility festivities: festivities in which the celebration of sex assisted the fecundity of universal nature itself.
This was often accompanied by dancing, revelry, and dramatic or quasi-dramatic performances. The participants were regularly disguised: masked, in drag, garbed as animals; escaping from their own identities, as the comic world escapes the burdensome rules of civic order, decency, and the possible. The weight of repression and routine was thrown off, and, as comedy mocked all restraints, accumulated aggression dissolved into laughter. Rules and decencies were mocked, instinct triumphed over intellect, there were scenes of sexual liberation, and life was reborn. Indeed, Segal tells us, “recent research has shown that laughter is restorative and health-inducing,” and “we can thus recognize in comedy psychic vestiges of two original elements of the ancient komos: Chaos and Eros.” This is the strand which is dear to Segal’s heart.
In comedy men mask themselves as women, and men dressed as women mask again as men (Women in Congress); the chorus are birds, or frogs, or clouds; the hero can opt out of a war, stop fighting the enemy, and enjoy all the comforts of peacetime (Acharnians); he can fly up to heaven on a giant beetle (Peace); he can raise a favorite poet from the dead (Frogs); he can defeat Zeus, marry the queen of heaven, and become king of the world (Birds). That is the supreme fantasy, and Birds is consequently “the fullest expression of the comic dream. In a word, it is Aristophanes’ masterpiece…. The Birds is thus the ultimate destination towards which ta phallika [‘the phallic element’] had been leading for centuries.” That is the view of many moderns; not of the ancients. Birds won only second prize and seems never to have been especially esteemed. But we know better.
As usual, some bits of the story fit better than others. Aristophanes’ Clouds, his attack on Socrates and the new style of education, is short of women and sex; but money, that unerotic subject, is central, as the hero cheats his creditors with the tricks he has learned from clever Socrates. Segal disapproves: “The primary defect which made the play a non-starter is that it lacks the essence of the festival spirit”; the emphasis on money is a “bourgeois element” (ha!), and “comedy is asphyxiated by morality.” Aristophanes, indeed, tells us that Clouds was his best play—it was so very clever. But we know better. For Segal, comedy should be a riotous progression through gags and horseplay, the pace quickening as more wine was drunk and the restraints of normal life were discarded, leading up to a komos, sexual union, and a return to a “golden age” of innocence, license, feasting, and fun.
As an account of comedy, that is one-sided. It disregards the importance for Aristophanes of tragedy. In the earliest comedy we have, Acharnians (425 BCE), the subject is the hero’s plan to make a separate peace and monopolize its carnal delights; his first action is to visit the tragic poet Euripides, whose work he will travesty in the play. The biggest joke for the comic theater of Aristophanes was sex; the second biggest was tragedy. Performed in the same theater, and also by actors and a chorus, all masked, in an alternation of spoken passages and sung lyrics, tragedy possessed an extraordinary resemblance to comedy while being its polar opposite.
In tragedy the dignity and decency of ordinary life are greatly exaggerated. Nobody ever needs to go to the bathroom; nobody eats or drinks, except for some horrific act of cannibalism; sexual relations may be criminal or deadly, but never merely indecent and never simply fun. For comedy all that solemnity was god-given. Its louche and vulgar world, in which people shamelessly blurt out their secrets of masturbation, excretion, cowardice, and perversion, could be played off not only against the comparative decency of our world, but also against the super-decent world of tragedy. And yet the comic stage resembled the stage of tragedy so closely! The combination was irresistible, and tragedy is ubiquitous.
Interest in tragedy entailed interest in its serious purposes. Some intellectual content, however burlesque in expression, was thus a natural element of comedy. We cannot reach a stage in which it had no intellectual interests. The lampooning of Socrates is thus not so inappropriate. Segal deplores that side of comedy. Other plays of Aristophanes are criticized, besides Clouds. Frogs, with the dead poets Aeschylus and Euripides competing for the throne of tragedy, is also unsatisfactory: “Something is missing from the Frogs. For lack of a better word, we might call it the hormonal element.” Again, for Segal the Athenians missed the point. Frogs not only won first prize but also received the exceptional honor of being staged again the next year.
In Aristophanes’ later plays we witness the beginnings of New Comedy:
Plutus [god of money] began to replace Phales [divine embodiment of sexual energy] as the central divinity of comedy as financial matters came more and more to the fore.
The central character now aims not to overturn the world or recapture an infantile fantasy of omnipotence and polymorphous pleasure but to acquire a wife, a fortune, and security—the aim, essentially, of the comic hero all the way from Menander, in the fourth century BCE, to the young men on the make in Molière and Sheridan, Dickens and Balzac. But all this—the concern with money, the absence of phallic fun and games—is already true of Clouds, produced only two years after the earliest comedy we have. The worm was in the apple of comedy almost from its beginnings. Comedy enjoyed abstract argument: comedy welcomed bourgeois success.
In fact, as Segal points out, comedy is in debt here, too, to tragedy. For instance, the plot pattern of a long-lost baby returning as an adult, with consequences calamitous (Oedipus the King), or romantic (A Winter’s Tale), or picaresque (Tom Jones). A cliché for Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey (“There was not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door—nor one young man whose origin was unknown”), it took its last, magnificent bow in The Importance of Being Earnest (“A hand-bag??“). That theme was a favorite of the tragedian Euripides, who sometimes created tragicomedy, with a missing baby turning up, a recognition delayed by complications, and a happy ending.
The comic poet Menander is crucial here. For centuries his plays were lost. He was called the inventor of the classic form of comedy, far more influential with posterity than the rowdy and indecent work of Aristophanes: the world of lovers, fathers who won’t pay for their sons’ pleasures, clever servants who intrigue, good girls (whom one could marry), and bad girls (who might menace the bourgeois home, to be in the end either paid off or discovered to be long-lost daughters and married off). It is the world of Plautus and Terence, of The Marriage of Figaro and The Rivals, of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.