David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.
Comedy and Drama
The term comic drama might sound like a contradiction. The category drama, especially in reference to movies and TV, typically refers to something serious and possibly sad. Comedy, on the other hand, is the opposite. But drama also refers to the genre of literature written to be performed on stage, and as long as there has been drama, comedy has been a part of it.
While tragedy has long been the most prestigious and 'serious' genre of drama, comic drama has always existed alongside it. The form of comic drama has changed over time, from the satires of classical times to the romantic comedies of Shakespeare to the comedies of manners of Moliere and Oscar Wilde to the absurdism of Samuel Beckett, but these forms share some characteristics.
Comic drama typically uses exaggeration to poke fun at society. In many comedies, the normal social rules have been abandoned or turned upside down and the comedy points out just how silly they are.
The theatre of Greece and Rome gave us great comic playwrights like Aristophanes, Terence, and Plautus. Though quite different, all three of these classical writers pioneered the form of comic drama known as satire. In satire, absurdity and comic exaggeration are used to point out some flaw in society.
Perhaps the most well-known classical comedy is Aristophanes' Lysistrata. The play depicts a group of Greek women who refuse to have sex with their men until the men stop a destructive war. The play is full of outrageous sexual humor, but it also has a serious point. It was written during a real conflict, the Peloponnesian War, and carries a strong anti-war message.
Renaissance Romantic Comedy
The English Renaissance gave us great playwrights like Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Thomas Middleton. While some comedies of this period followed classical comedy in satirizing contemporary life, others set their stories in far-off exotic lands and used the setting to question norms about class and gender.
Shakespeare was the master of this form and Twelfth Night is an emblematic example. Set in the fictional land of Illyria, it features a complicated dance of cross-dressing, misunderstandings, and mistaken identity that throws the normally ordered social world into chaos. Through its comic chaos, the play makes us ask questions about appearance vs reality and the fixed nature of gender and class.
Comedy of Manners
The comedy of manners developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, combining the social observation of classical satire and chaotic social disruptions of Renaissance comedy. The comedy of manners is typically set among upper-class characters and pokes fun at their elaborate social rules and restrictions. It is one of the most enduring of comic forms, persisting for centuries and giving us hilarious plays by the likes of Moliere, William Congreve, and Oscar Wilde.
Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is perhaps the greatest comedy of manners. The story of young gentlemen who create fictional persona to get out of their social obligations, the play lampoons the strict social order of the Victorian England in which it was written. It uses the mistaken identity of Shakespeare's plays, but is set in the real world instead of a fictional kingdom. And it satirizes society like Aristophanes, but without the explicit moral lesson of plays like Lysistrata.
Theatre of the Absurd
In the twentieth century, playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco stretched the definition of what 'comic' drama could be. Their plays, categorized as Theatre of the Absurd, kept the absurd situations and misunderstandings of earlier forms of comedy. But the plays were not particularly funny. Instead, the responded to the horrific events of the times, like two world wars and the threat of nuclear annihilation, with a dark form of comedy that highlighted the absurd nature of everyday life.
Beckett's Waiting for Godot is the most famous example of the Theatre of the Absurd. It follows two fools, Vladimir and Estragon, as they wait for a mysterious person named Godot, who never appears. Vladimir and Estragon are in many ways classic comic characters, who misunderstand each other and get into ridiculous situations. But their actions seem to lack any meaning and their lives never move forward, giving a tragic layer to their comic bumblings.
Comic drama has been a part of drama from the very beginning, though tragedy has often been the most prestigious category of drama. There are many forms of comic drama but they all use exaggeration and absurdity to point out the silliness of life.
Forms of comic drama include Classical satire like Aristophanes' Lysistrata, which uses sexual humor to criticize war. It also includes Renaissance romantic comedy like Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, which uses exotic locations and mistaken identity to question normal social roles.
The comedy of manners, which pokes fun at the social rules of the upper classes, is one of the most popular forms of comic drama. Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, for example, poked fun at Victorian England. In the twentieth century, plays in the Theatre of the Absurd like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot used comic absurdity and exaggeration to create dark plays about the pointlessness of existence.
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