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.

Menander’s plays were lost. Then they started to turn up, preserved in the dry sands of Egypt. We now have one complete and several nearly so. Not all our high expectations were fulfilled. Segal is feline about them: “At first the problem with Menander was that his plays were lost. Then the problem was that they were found.” They are skillfully contrived and elegantly written. Delicate strokes of characterization distinguish his people. Humane morals are drawn; civilized values are upheld, in the face of coarseness, insensitivity, stinginess, suspicion. Intrigues go like clockwork, or they encounter unexpected obstacles before coming out right. But: Is that all? asked romantically minded readers. The scale was so small! The values were so bourgeois! Comedy here had lost its music, with its rumbustious sexuality, its wild inventiveness, and even its fantastic verbal fireworks. The craftsmanship, admittedly, was excellent; but it resembled a very superior soap opera more than the life-enhancing liberations of Aristophanic fantasy. “In some ways,” writes Segal, “Menander’s New Comedy is little more than suburban Euripides.” The dreaded word is out. Not just bourgeois: suburban! The very word is like a knell….

But something remains. The goal is still sexual union. The hero gets the girl in the end. There will be children:

Thus, like Aristophanes and the pre-dramatic rituals, New Comedy remained focused on the continuity of the species. Whether it be a sacred marriage to the shouts of phallic abuse, or the prim and proper atmosphere of “nice” bourgeois Athens, comedy remains at its epicenter a fertility rite.

Segal aptly compares a classic modern comedy, The Graduate; in the end the young hero overcomes the obstacles, gets the young heroine, and assures the next generation.

Still present, too, is the Oedipal struggle of generations. Focus on sexuality had often involved it. In principle, surely, the son must defeat the father; but Aristophanes sometimes reverses the pattern. In his Wasps the priggish son seems to have defeated his crude old Dad, weaned him from his vulgar habits, and introduced him into smart society; but the old reprobate turns the tables, reducing the classy dinner party to chaos and carrying off the flute girl in lecherous triumph, promising, in a marvelous reversal of the expected, to marry her when his son dies: “I’m his heir—I’m the only father he’s got!” In Clouds, on the other hand, Zeus himself is ousted by the comic hero: a supreme Oedipal contest, with God the Father replaced by the upstart son.

Segal discusses a couple of Menander’s comedies. Young love meets obstacles and overcomes them. They, too, may include conflicts of an Oedipal character. One father suspects his mistress of carrying on with his son (a mistake, to be sure); some old men withhold the money the lovers need. As with the Wasps, some nasty old men try to get the girl for themselves. Endings, however, are happy. Grumpy fathers, examples of the grouch who won’t join in the fun, in Greek the agelast (non-laughter), or the dyscolus (sourpuss): these obnoxious persons are defeated, or they suffer a change of heart. We recognize the type in Malvolio, or in Doctor Bartolo in The Barber of Seville.


Segal deals illuminatingly with Menander, but his heart is not in it. There is the absence of the hormonal, the presence of respectability; the young men want to get married! High time, then, for the welcome change to Italy, where, in the third and second centuries BCE, the comic poet Plautus “seasoned the bland fodder of the Greek models with the piquant sauce of native Italian farce.” Plautus brought back into comedy the musical element. Elaborate arias are created, innovative in language, calling for virtuoso performers.

More, he made the form subversive again. His young men don’t want marriage; they need money for loose women, professionals of magnetic sex- ual attraction. We do meet some Roman matrons, conscious of their dowry, vinegary and unbiddable to their intimidated husbands. Slaves, too, are uppity, sometimes rescuing masters from scrapes, but sometimes betraying them, and often emphasizing their own superior intelligence. Old men attempt adultery and fail humiliatingly. In Plautus’ Asinaria (Comedy of Asses) the father, having financed his son’s purchase of a slave girl on condition of enjoying her himself (Oedipus again!), is set up by his own slave and overheard by his well-dowried wife as he sweet-talks the girl and denounces his wife’s unattractiveness. Wife, son, and servants burst in chanting “Get up, lover-boy, come on home!” as the old wretch stammers his desperate excuses and slinks away to his punishment, leaving the girl to his son. Quite right, too: love is for the young.

Such scenes must have delighted an audience subject to the heavy pressure of Roman morality. Women, young men, slaves: all can make a fool of the heavy paterfamilias, who in real life was so dominant. For a moment they can defy the code which repressed the passions of even privileged youth.

The one successful adulterer in Plautus’ twenty extant plays is the king of the gods, Jupiter himself. Amphitryo is the only surviving comedy set in the world of the myths: the myth of Jupiter coming to the beautiful Alcumena, wife of Amphitryo, in the form of her husband, to engender in her embrace the mighty hero Hercules. It was the theme of Greek plays, now lost. Plautus’ comedy has knockabout elements, but it is also moving. Husband and wife, both deceived, struggle to make sense of events. Amphitryo is driven crazy by the unintelligible things his wife says: that he slept with her at a time when he knows he was not there. He is planning to kill her, when suddenly Jupiter explains, predicts the birth of Hercules, and peremptorily puts things roughly right.

The story has appealed to many playwrights, including Molière and Kleist; Jean Giraudoux in 1929 called his play Amphitryon 38, guessing that there had been thirty-seven earlier ones. Plautus’ Alcumena is dignified and serious, almost the only matron in comedy to be both respectable and likable; her undeserved sufferings are disconcertingly real. Segal calls it “a bittersweet comedy—in fact more bitter than sweet.” At the end of Aristophanes’ Birds, the hero ousted the supreme god; here the god has a kind of revenge, cuckolding and replacing the hero. Again, there is something subversive. The cuckolding of Amphitryo was grist to the mill of the Christian Fathers: “This is what your gods are like!”

Plautus’ successor, the second-century-BCE writer Terence, was traditionally the favorite of the educated. He cut out the violence and indecency from Plautine comedy, toned down the music, introduced refinement. Dramatic technique became more sophisticated. Suspense came in; plots were doubled, so that two pairs of lovers could have contrasting but interwoven stories. The way was opened to the complexities of Shakespeare’s comedies. Sentimentality entered comedy; and Terence became a set author in schools.

His constant theme is the conflict between the humane and the inhumane. In his Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law) he dares to introduce a sympathetic and misunderstood mother-in- law. The play failed. The reversal of cherished stereotypes was too much for the Roman audience. Such comedy could not compete with gladiators, acrobats, and mimes—low spectacles in which girls appeared nude. Comedy lost its audience. The theater was in any case denounced by the Christian writers—it was in the theaters that many martyrs had died. The enemy of laughter, the agelast, became the ideal; Jesus Christ, it was emphasized, was never shown in the Gospels laughing.

There followed the triumph of “Christianity and barbarism” (Gibbon). Segal does not discuss the medieval farce, with its levity and grossness. The high tradition of comedy began to revive in the Renaissance. Humor seemed to have regressed from the humanity of Menander and the refinement of Terence. Boccaccio’s jokes usually involve cruelty; Machiavelli’s comedy La Mandragola (The Mandrake) is the heartless tale of the calculated seduction of a virtuous wife; the humor of Marlowe’s Jew of Malta is of the fiercest kind. The Jew is prone to such boasts as

As for my selfe, I walke abroad a nights

And kill sicke people gloaning under walls:

Sometimes I goe about and poyson wells….

His successful murders and horrid end are meant to be relished with gusto (Fee fi fo fum!). But does the play really belong with comedy? Marlowe enjoyed cruelty; his tragic hero Tamburlaine is not so different. That kind of laughter comes from something primitive, the Schadenfreude that is akin to aggression.

We reach civilization with Shakespeare, the inventor of the human. His comedies, Segal writes, are about “lost selves, absence, recognition, and reunion.” He discusses at length both The Comedy of Errors, where we can see Shakespeare enriching his Plautine original, and Twelfth Night, in which the theme of errors, of gender and of person, is transformed. The old motifs—the shipwreck which disrupts identity, the twins parted and reunited, the cross-dressing, the defeat of the agelast Malvolio—are ennobled with new insight and emotional weight. Both plays end, as true comedies must, with multiple marriage, “for comedy at its heart is a fertility ritual and a celebration of the phallus.”

Ben Jonson, by contrast, is so stingy that at the end of Volpone, when the villains have been punished, and no obstacles remain to the lovers’ union, he cannot bring himself to permit it. The hero of his Epicoene, or The Silent Woman, who hates noise and wants a quiet wife, is induced to “marry” a silent woman, who then deafens him with uproarious nonstop din, before revealing that she is a young man in drag. The cruel joke, prolonged to great length, is a striking contrast with the transvestite comedy of Shakespeare. In Twelfth Night Viola, revealed to be a girl, is happily married to the Duke; Jonson’s boy-bride involves poor Morose in horrible humiliations and must be expensively bought off. Money replaces sex as the supreme motive.

Then the Puritans triumphed. Malvolio the agelast had his revenge, and for a generation the theaters were closed. When the King was restored, they reopened, promptly proving themselves to be the sinks of depravity that the Puritans had thought them. The men of Restoration comedy are either cuckolds or cuckold-makers, motivated by aggression and lust, and the women are their worthy partners. We see them depicted in Lely’s paintings of the loose and languishing beauties of the court of Charles II. Wycherley’s shocking Country Wife pushes that vision to its limit. The seducer, pretending to be impotent, gets to enjoy the naive wife; her jealous husband is reduced from tormentor to acquiescent mari philosophe. But seduction now is a coldhearted business. The ending of Plautus’ Amphitryo was brutal, in human terms; but it was in touch with the springs of comedy. There would be a child, and a splendid one. Now only lechery remains.

The Stuart court, triumphing over the Puritans, delighted in such a world. A century later, the aristocrats of France enjoyed a more dangerous version of that pleasure, as they applauded Beaumarchais’s Marriage of Figaro. The Count has wealth, position, power. He even has a clever servant, who can surely arrange so small a matter as a seduction. But it all goes wrong. He is outwitted by Figaro and denounced as a representative of a class which has done nothing to earn its privileges but “take the trouble to be born.” It is a perfect comedy, in many ways traditional in material and technique. The aristocratic audience roared at its wit: but some detected the first rumblings of the tumbrils.

For Segal, that is the turning point. “After reaching its apogee with Figaro, comedy had nowhere to go but down.” He makes a great leap, from Beaumarchais right over the nineteenth century, to identify the “assassins of comedy,” the bad men, intellectuals, who wrecked the ancient form. Where, he asks, did it go terribly wrong? Was it with Bernard Shaw, who ended Pygmalion by denying hero and heroine the marriage which the plot naturally suggested, and which the audience naturally wanted? The dry Shavian paradox was put right in My Fair Lady. Back came the music, and back came a triumphant ending with sexual union. “That’s more like it!” responded the audience—showing a keen sense for the true form of comedy.

Or was Alfred Jarry to blame, with his anarchic Ubu Roi? Logic and coherence were alike overthrown, as they are in Cocteau’s Wedding on the Eiffel Tower:

I want someone to buy me some bread to feed the Eiffel Tower.

And in Les Mamelles de Tirésias, the surrealist comedy of Guillaume Apollinaire:

Since my wife is a man, It is proper for me to be a woman….

O what a thrill it is to be a father

40,019 children in one day alone

My happiness is complete.

At the end both spouses have become sexless. The reversal from the komos is complete. Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano is in the same vein of surreal inconsequentiality.

Then comes Beckett: after nonsense, after infantilism, finally silence. First, the comic heroes of the silent screen: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton. They, says Segal, are ineffective, sexually defeated, or inactive. (But, we want to protest, they are funny!) Then the spectacle of speech tottering to its collapse, with any mention of love a mere fleeting memory of some distant moment which led to nothing (Krapp’s Last Tape, Endgame). Waiting for Godot is an anti-comedy. “Aristophanic devices and themes are all inverted, subverted, and perverted”; sexuality is invisible; and the happy ending we want is scrupulously withheld:

Beckett celebrates the triumph of failure. His post-modern aesthetic is a belief that the aim of literature is to disappoint. There is no need to say that this philosophy is quintessentially anti-comic.

Segal is so impressed by this parade of incoherence and despair that he ends his fascinating book with the sad announcement that “the traditional happy ending is no longer possible—because comedy is dead.”

The last possible turn of the screw was the film of Dr. Strangelove, a comedy on the destruction of mankind. It ends, after a lot of talk of “bodily fluids,” with a grim parody of sexual consummation. A few technocrats will survive, deep in a bunker, each male with ten females, procreating to keep the human race alive. So much for comic sexual union and happy ending.

Is it true? Is comedy dead, killed by the wicked intellectuals? First, its classic flowering is surely much less remote than Beaumarchais. A name conspicuously absent is that of Wilde. The Importance of Being Earnest is a magnificent specimen, exhibiting every traditional feature, even the return of the long-lost baby, and closing with weddings for all, even Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble. Menander would have taken his hat off.

And the present? Waiting for Godot is more than fifty years old. The Surrealists are long dead. Very few people indeed have sat through Ubu Roi or Les Mamelles de Tirésias. Godot, like Pinter’s Caretaker, has been enjoyed by middlebrow audiences who savor the brilliant surface and leave the deeper meaning, if any, alone.

These works killed comedy only in the sense that the Cubists killed representational art and the Twelve-tone School ended melody. The period around the First World War was so startlingly innovative that an intimidated public still thinks of it, a century later, as “modern art.” Terms like “postmodern” let us evade the recognition that the period was not, after all, decisive. The arts have gone on, and in directions very different from those envisaged by Jarry and Schoenberg and Braque.

And, finally, the audience. For whom was comedy created? Segal blames the intellectuals for their wish to make comedy impossible; but in the last hundred years many of them have wished to make all popular art impossible. The classic comedies were not produced for intellectual audiences. Comedy in Aristophanes’ time was popular, not highbrow—though it did contain, among other things, elements to give highbrows pleasure. Plautus did not write for the exquisite; Shakespeare catered to the groundlings; nobody thought watching The Country Wife was an intellectual activity.

These forms still have their descendants, which show no sign of going away. The popular entertainments of today, even lowbrow entertainment, may be the stuff of school syllabuses tomorrow. Dissertations are being written on The Goon Show and Monty Python. And meanwhile, the comedy of Tom Stoppard and Alan Ayckbourne, of Gene Wilder and Woody Allen, the cheerful ending where boy gets girl—all that is more durable than Segal suggests. The Muse of Comedy has survived other bad men and grim times. Reports of her death, on this occasion too, have been much exaggerated.

This Issue

July 18, 2002