Who Killed Comedy?

`Laughter is liberating.' So says Segal - and mourns its death.

"The Death of Comedy," by Erich Segal, Harvard University Press, 2001, paperback, 589 pages, $24.95

Erich Segal's book "The Death of Comedy" is without a doubt the most comprehensive treatise to have been published for many a year about this marvelous genre, which has held its own for 26 centuries by now, and eulogizing it would be premature even though Segal is raring to do so, in the spirit of the title of George Steiner's "The Death of Tragedy."

Altogether, the book excels at constant movement between learned academic research and picturesque, almost journalistic language: "A broad-shouldered man clubs a scrawny cripple. The victim staggers in pain, bleeds, begins to weep. Far from being a police report of felonious assault, this is an objective account of the first recorded stimulus to human laughter in the history of Western literature." Segal hastens to offer an example from "The Iliad."

At the theoretical level, the book is based on what in Anglo-Saxon culture still holds an honorable place: common sense. This is a problematic foundation, of course. Segal writes: "Paradoxically, there is no such thing as a `new' joke. Laughter depends upon familiarity, and all of them have been told. The emphasis may have varied in particular societies, and as time goes by the jokes may get better. Comedy attacks restraints - it dares to say the unsayable. Laughter is liberating." Why is common sense problematic? Because it shuts the door to difficult questions, in the name of what "everyone knows anyway."

Segal's historical discussion is fascinating and knowledgeable, at least insofar as it deals with the Greek and Roman classics. Yet nevertheless it points to the difficulty with common sense: The relinquishing of critical discussion of "what is there," that is - the relinquishing of the questions of "What isn't there?", "What could have been?" and "What can we look for in a place where no one looks?"

This is usually the critical line that annoys some readers, perhaps because it undermines the validity of "what there is" and says to us: What looks to you like what there is - is nothing but the dominant discourse, sometimes as ancient as comedy, and you must remember that there is, or there could be, a different discourse, in the dark, in a place where no one looks, because it was convenient for you to learn from the existing books. What does common sense say here? "That's what there is."

And indeed, Segal celebrates "what there is" and mourns its death in an amusing way. The discussion of Aristophanes and what is called the Old Comedy is the most symptomatic, fascinating, profound and lengthy: "It is important to remember that in Old Comedy the phallus was on-stage at all times. Every actor wore an outsize replica which dangled between his legs. Even the gods, and Zeus himself, were so equipped. This indispensable feature of their get-up could be manipulated by a string to indicate sexual excitement." And further on: "But the outsize organ is more than just a piece of large business. It harks back to time immemorial when it was a religious icon, and maintains a potent effect of the theme of all Old Comedy."

From here, Segal touches upon the uniqueness of Aristophanes: The old man's renewed potency as the center of the comic amusement includes his dirty talk. Segal analyzes at fascinating length some of Aristophanes' more brilliant comic moments. Indeed, the old man's prowess is an aggressive, scary, funny and wild thing.

And thus, what begins in a learned etymological clarification, as is customary in the community of classical scholars, about the sources of the noun "comedy" (Does it originate in the phrase "night song," or in "sleep," or "rural play," or "liberty?"), continues with extraordinary richness into an analysis of Aristophanes' comedies.

The next stage is Menander. Menander wrote the plays known as New Comedies - that is the genre that prevails to this day on the comic stage. In this respect, Menander can be considered as a success story. It is important to note this, because usually, in discussions of the development of the drama, Menander is given a disagreeable place and is usually accused of having narrowed the fantastical, rich, poetic and bawdy world of Aristophanes. From time to time they remind us that only Shakespeare restored to comedy its former Aristophanic glory (for example, Northrop Frye in his treatise on the four archetypes of fiction in "The Anatomy of Criticism").

The Russian Mikhail Bakhtin (whose critical thought is mentioned at times by Segal, only in order to support some of his assumptions), did the opposite of Segal. He saw a great loss in the transition from Aristophanes to the New Comedy. This is what Bakhtin wrote in his essay on "Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel": "In the comedy of Aristophanes, all the phenomena of everyday life of private life are completely transformed on this basis: They lose their private-everyday character, they become significant in human terms in all their comic aspect."

And what does Segal have to say about the transition from Aristophanes to domestic comedy (to husbands, prostitutes, forbidden love)? Nearly the opposite: "New Comic playwrights' sudden concern with the private lives of mundane, if well-heeled, individuals was thus less the result of external agents than an ever-evolving awareness of what the average spectators really wanted to see."

Here, then, for anyone who wants to discern the flimsy basis of common sense (as a leitmotif of this article), lies the failure. The sharp historical transition between Aristophanes and Menander could be discussed in all kinds of ways. Memander, after all, "won." Western culture has preserved his model for very many centuries. His comedy, that is - that model in which the "father" contends with "the son" over some girl and loses, became the dominant model; from Menander to our own times, this comedy has dealt with the potency of the young and the death of the old.

But on what does Segal base himself in his description of this break between Aristophanes and Menander? On the psychology of the Athenian audience. And so, how could Segal know that "the average spectators really wanted to see" private life and not wicked attacks on the rulers of Athens along with fantasies about meetings in Hades between dead dramatists, or a colossal ribbing of Socrates? Common sense always rests on just such metaphysical assumptions, of a "psychology in common" between the author and the subjects of his research, as well as the readers. After all, we know that we prefer the living room to politics, and this was no doubt also the case in Athens. This is just one example, of course.

Segal deals extensively with Aristophanes. The lost golden age of comedy attracts him as well. From there he goes on to the analysis of comedies. He does not insist upon looking for comedy in places with which we are not familiar, which we have never known, which we have not remembered. The presence of comedy in his survey is like its presence in Introduction to Drama courses: In the beginning there was Aristophanes, and then there was Menander, and then Plautus, and then Terence, and then slam-bang we leap over to the Renaissance, to Ariosto and mainly Machievelli, from there to Marlowe. And from there of course to Shakespeare, and from Shakespeare we move on to Ben Jonson, and straight to the bawdy English Restoration. For some reason, Segal forgets Moliere, and he stomps to the 20th century, which killed comedy in all its seriousness. Segal, it is perhaps important to note, wrote the huge bestseller "Love Story."

Mikhail Bakhtin, to return to another possibility, looked for the places that the official culture forgot, or neglected, or didn't manage to read, didn't remember, erased from the discourse and rendered "not there" because of the power of "what there is" in the humanist education of the European bourgeoisie. Segal is not interested in such excavation. He feels just fine. And indeed, the book radiates a comfortable atmosphere.

It looks strange to me that he does not devote discussion to the Commedia dell'arte, which ruled the stages of Europe for more than 200 years, or to the culture of the farce that has always accompanied the Western theater and reached its peak in England and France under the name burletta, and burlesque. And of course the great Georges Feydeau is absent. Feydeau can always be a symptom of the Anglo-Saxon misunderstanding of the concept of comedy.

How, in any case, did comedy die, according to Segal? Well, he ponders a lot about whether to blame for this, before anything else, George Bernard Shaw (his "Pygmalion" and his "Don Juan"). Then he prefers to cast the blame on Alfred Jarry, the father of the French avant-garde, and in nearly the same breath also Jean Cocteau, Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. In short: Paris and its modern sophistication killed comedy. Ephraim Kishon would have enjoyed this.

This a good ending for this review, but nevertheless it is worth adding something about "the death of comedy," something to which Segal attributes no importance.

From the 18th century, with the rise of the bourgeois drama, on the German stage (Lessing), on the French stage (Diderot) and on the English stage (Addison and Steele), laughter, in the context of bourgeois moralism, on the eve of the French Revolution and despite Beaumarchais (who is given due respect in the book), became a problematic matter.

In England, things were even formulated theoretically. Laughter is not moral. Comedy must be written out of consideration not of laughter but rather an elegant plot in which courtship, engagement and marriage are the high points. Before he wrote "Tom Jones," Fielding was expelled from the theater (very luckily for us). However, the more splendid embodiment of this comic outlook was in the novels of Jane Austen. Yet this sentimental comedy has not left us to this day. Its degeneration is expressed in the sitcom ("Friends," "Frasier," "Everybody Loves Raymond" and all those unfunny comedies in which the laughter is already inside the box and spares us the necessity to laugh), but more than anything this genre prevails in the comic project of Neil Simon, the hero of Broadway and the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv. All of these are of no interest to Segal at all. This of course does not detract from his impressive achievements in this learned book, which is heartily recommended with its intellectual and scholarly richness.