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 …