Die englische Komödie

Niederhoff, Burkhard. Die englische Komödie: Eine Einführung. Berlin: Schmidt, 2014. 234 pp., EUR 19.95.

English Summary

This introduction to English comedy is primarily addressed to students of English, but students of related subjects, e.g. theatre studies and comparative literature, or school teachers and university lecturers should also be able to profit from it. Many recent studies of the subject define the term comedy rather broadly, including jokes, novels and sitcoms as well as plays. In historical terms, these studies are very selective, focusing on a few highlights such as Shakespeare’s Falstaff plays, the novels of Laurence Sterne and movies directed by Billy Wilder or Woody Allan. This book takes a different approach. It is narrow in its definition of the genre, focusing primarily on plays, and comprehensive in its historical coverage, tracing the development of the genre from its beginnings in the late Middle Ages to the end of the twentieth century.

The book begins with a chapter that reviews theories of comedy and of the comic. Earlier reviews of this kind tend to rely on binary oppositions, sorting the theories (and the plays) into two opposite camps: the romantic vs. the satiric, the conservative vs. the carnivalesque, etc. These binary schemes are here rejected as too simple. Instead, the chapter presents the theories within a more complex framework that combines historical with systematic considerations. Thus it analyses the theories as contributions to a continuous debate in which a particular theory responds to earlier ones and is itself responded to by later ones. For instance, the view that comedy amounts to dramatic satire draws on Aristotle’s Poetics and defends the genre against its Christian enemies by emphasising its corrective effect. Later views that are centred around the concepts of wit or carnival can be seen in turn as critical responses to the satiric theory and its shortcomings. The review of the theories concludes with a model of the genre. This model distinguishes between three different modes: the comic-satiric, the ludic and the romantic; it also discerns five plot types: courtship leading to marriage; marriage crisis; courtship leading to extramarital relationship; extramarital relationship crisis; exploitation and/or exposure of a character. There are affinities between the three modes and the five plot types; thus the exposure plot is linked with the comic-satiric mode and the courtship plot with the romantic mode.

Drawing on the terms and ideas of the theoretical chapter, the following five chapters cover the historical development of the genre. Each of these chapters starts with an overview that identifies the key tendencies and innovations of a particular period. This overview is followed by two or three detailed readings of representative plays. The chapter on the Renaissance identifies the origins of comedy in such late-medieval genres as the mystery play, the morality play and the Tudor interlude. It also points out important influences, e.g. the plays of Plautus, the Italian erudita commedia or the medieval romance. Moreover, the major types of the genre in the Renaissance are distinguished (romantic comedy, city comedy, the wit comedy of Beaumont and Fletcher, etc.). The detailed readings analyse three plays as illustrations of the major modes discussed in the theoretical chapter: Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (romantic) and As You Like It (ludic) as well as Ben Jonson’s Epicoene (satiric).

The next chapter deals with the Restoration period. The overview discusses the increasing emphasis on elegance, refinement and wit, an emphasis that is also reflected in the term genteel comedy that was coined at this time. The overview also traces the influence of libertinism, which manifests itself in the risqué rhetoric of wit combats and in marriage crisis plots that often end in adultery. Aphra Behn’s The Rover, the subject of one reading, explores libertinism from a female point of view; the setting of the play is a libertine carnival which is both empowering and dangerous for women. Another reading focuses on William Congreve’s The Way of the World, which, like The Rover, expresses a sceptical, anti-romantic view of love; echoing Hobbes’ and Locke’s ideas on social contracts, it focuses on the contractual dimension of marriage. Thomas Otway’s The Soldiers’ Fortune, which is analysed in a third reading, illustrates the tendency of some comedies to hold the mirror up to contemporary society. In this play, an adultery plot serves as a vehicle for political satire and for the Tory view of the Exclusion Crisis that occurred around 1680.

The overview introducing the next chapter, which deals with the eighteenth century, identifies new developments like the farcical afterpiece, the pantomime, the ballad opera and the burlesque experiments of Henry Fielding. Moreover, it acknowledges the advent of sensibility, which had a considerable impact on comedy, creating a new type of the genre variously labelled as weeping, sentimental or humane. In one of the readings, Richard Steele’s The Conscious Lovers is analysed as an extreme example of this new type of comedy; relationships that are typical of comedy (between lovers, generations, rivals, etc.) undergo considerable changes under the influence of sensibility. The second reading, which focuses on Richard B. Sheridan’s The Rivals, argues that this play is a critique but to a certain extent also an expression of sensibility.

The nineteenth-century overview points out some tendencies that continued from the eighteenth century, e.g. sensibility, farce, burlesque and the dissolution of the genre boundaries between tragedy and comedy. This dissolution resulted in the new genre of the melodrama, which in turn influenced the comedies of the period. Only one play, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, is given a detailed reading in this chapter. It is interpreted as the supreme expression of the burlesque tendency in nineteenth-century comedy. In Wilde’s play, the ludic mode of the genre turns on the genre itself, producing an exhilarating self-parody of comedy.

The final chapter, which deals with the twentieth century, argues that the news of the “death of comedy” in this century (E. Segal) has been much exaggerated. The overview provides evidence for the unbroken popularity of time-honoured conventions such as the courtship plot or the concluding dance. New tendencies pointed out include the open ending, the circular plot structure (instead of the teleological one) and the attribution of philosophical depth to the mechanisms of farce. One reading discusses Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion as a play of ideas that makes a case for social mobility. Another reading analyses Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia as a comedy of wit in a double sense. Wit is the mode of dialogue in this play, but it is also – in its old and broader meaning of a creative mental faculty – the subject of the play. Arcadia provides both an exploration and a celebration of intellectual discovery.