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The death of comedy
Segal, Erich, 1937-2010.
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Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2001.
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xi, 589 pages ; 24 cm
Etymologies: getting to the root of it -- The song of the Kōmos -- The lyre and the phallus -- Aristophanes: the one and only? -- Failure and success -- The Birds: the uncensored fantasy -- Requiem for a genre? -- The comic catastrophe -- O Menander! O life! -- Plautus makes an entrance -- A Plautine problem play -- Terence: the African connection -- The mother-in-law of modern comedy -- Machiavelli: the comedy of evil -- Marlowe: Schade and Freude -- Shakespeare: errors and Erōs -- Twelfth night: dark clouds over Illyria -- Molière: the class of '68 -- The fox, the fops, and the factorum -- Comedy explodes -- Beckett: the death of comedy.
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PN1922 .S44 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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In a grand tour of comic theatre over the centuries, Erich Segal traces the evolution of the classical form from its early origins in a misogynistic quip by the sixth-century BC Susarion, through countless weddings and happy endings, to the exasperated monosyllables of Samuel Beckett. The book illustrates comedy's glorious life cycle from its first breath to its death in the Theater of the Absurd.

Author Notes

Erich Segal was a writer, educator, and screenwriter. He was born in Brooklyn, New York on June 16, 1937. He graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. in 1958, a M.A. in 1959, and a Ph.D. in 1964.

Segal began a teaching career at Harvard University before moving to Yale University in 1964. He was also a visiting professor in classics at Princeton University and the University of Munich. He achieved international acclaim for his verse translations of Roman playwright Plautus and delivered papers before the American Philological Association and the American Comparative Literature Association.

Segal collaborated on the 1958 Harvard Hasty Pudding Club production and wrote several Hollywood screenplays, including the 1968 animated Beatles film, Yellow Submarine and A Change of Seasons. His most famous novel was Love Story, written in 1970. The book was made into a film in 1970. He received a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. His other novels include Oliver's Story, The Class, and Doctors. He died of a heart attack on January 17, 2010 at the age of 72.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Segal lives a double life. He is the author of the weepy best-seller Love Story (1970) and similar popular novels, and he is a professor of classics who has taught at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and, most recently, Wolfson College. His new study of comedy in the Western theater displays the strengths he has built in both the arenas in which he competes. His scholarship is impressive: he manages to discuss in detail works by every major comic writer from Aristophanes and Plautus to Ionesco and Beckett. He is especially good on the Greek and Roman comic playwrights, and he spends at least half the book on those influential but, to the modern reader, lesser-known writers. Flexing his pop novelist's muscles, Segal conveys his ideas in clean, graceful, witty, and, above all, highly accessible prose. You don't need a Ph.D. from Harvard to understand him, and you don't need to fully accept his thesis that traditional comedy "died" or perhaps was killed by the modernist writers to enjoy and be enlightened by this lively book. --Jack Helbig

Library Journal Review

Respected classics scholar and popular novelist Segal (Love Story, etc.) here presents the culmination of work begun in 1968 with Roman Laughter, a discussion of Plautus as a writer of festive comedy. Segal surveys the history of classical drama from its origin to its "death" at the hands of Samuel Beckett. Over half the book is a study of Aristophanes, Menander, Plautus, and Terence, with a lengthy aside on Euripides. Segal then examines a selection of plays that followed classical models of structure and theme through Machiavelli, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Molire, Jonson, and Wycherley. He argues that the thread of classical comedy reached its climax with Beaumarchais's The Marriage of Figaro and then declined as language failed and theme and structure disintegrated, ending with the silence of Beckett. This academic monograph is readable, erudite, and witty. Segal is a wonderful companion with whom to read these plays. Enthusiastically recommended. Thomas E. Luddy, Salem State Coll., MA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Segal (Wolfson College, Oxford), author of Love Story (1970), is an eminent classicist, translator, and student of literary history. He devotes more than half this book on the rise and demise of comedy to detailed discussions of ancient Greek and Roman dramas. He follows through with chapters on Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Moliere, and beyond until he arrives at the modernists like Beckett and Ionesco, who, in his view, murdered what Aristophanes and Menander brought into being. Sadly, Segal offers no serious discussion of movies and television comedy, which might have led to a less pessimistic view. Segal is partial to psychoanalytic interpretation and sees genuine comedy as a celebration of sex, marriage, rejuvenation, and rebirth (politics is definitely marginal). The book is engagingly written and spiced with clever translations and observations; Segal enjoys the theater and has read widely. Though not innovative on the level of theory, the book offers detailed plot summaries that will serve the general reader as an entertaining guide to the treasures and pleasures of a great tradition. Unusual in surveying the genre of comedy on so broad a canvas, the book is recommended for readers at all levels, from general readers and lower-division undergraduates to faculty and professionals. D. Konstan Brown University



Chapter One Etymologies: Getting to the Root of It * * * Comedy was born at night. At least this is the fanciful conclusion of some long-ago scholars who derived "comedy" from koma ("sleep") and oide ("song"). The ancients believed that essential truths were evident in their very speech, that words could both denote and describe. Nomen omen , as the Romans rhymed it. Hence certain Byzantine word-wizards distilled koma from comedy and pronounced the genre a creature of night.     No one disputes the second verbal element. We are indeed dealing with a kind of song which figuratively and often literally ends harmoniously on the tonic chord. But although koma is linguistically impossible, there are still some whimsical minds that allow a filigree of fancy to outweigh a philology of fact and give some credence to this derivation) Since comic spirit traditionally disregards reality, we too can be grateful for this etymology of koma . As the proverb says, it may not be true, but it's a great idea.     What then would a Nightsong be? Perchance a dream. On several occasions Freud equated the psychodynamics of the comic and the oneiric, once alluding to his essays on jokes and dreams as "twin brothers." These mental actions have many important features in common, among which are punning word-play, the relaxation of inhibition, and the liberation of "primary process thinking." Nightsong thus represents a temporary return to childhood, which Wordsworth called "the glory and the freshness of a dream." Freud presents the same picture with "the mood of our childhood, when we were ignorant of the comic, when we were incapable of jokes and when we had no need of humour to make us feel happy in our life."     In both dream and comedy, the impossible wish comes true. In each case the aim is pleasure, and the joy comes with no loss of energy or pang of conscience--the normal expense of spirit borne free. Plato describes the dream process as one in which, as reason slumbers, "unlawful pleasures are awakened." In dreams, says Plato, the animalistic ( to theriodes ) and "uncivilized" ( agrion ) aspect of man "breaks loose, kicks up its heels" ( skirtai ). This is the dance of comedy--the precise activities of the antic world envisaged by Wrong Logic in the Great Debate of Aristophanes' Clouds: Indulge your lusting ( physei ), kick up your heels ( skirta ), laugh up. Remember--nothing's shameful! Plato censures what Aristophanes celebrates, but both recognize the characteristic action of both comedy and dream.     Moreover, koma is a rare word with rare connotations, whenever it appears instead of the more common hypnos . It can have an erotic sense of letting go, not merely nodding off. In the Iliad , for example, Hypnos, the god of sleep, declares that he has covered Zeus with an especially soft slumber ( malakon koma )--just after Zeus and Hera have made love. The sense of indulgence and release adds a metalinguistic validity to the alleged etymology of comedy.     Indeed, what they lacked in philological acumen, the Byzantine scholars seem to have made up in psychological intuition. Several of them argued that koma begot comedy because of the uninhibiting nature of the nocturnal mentality, and that this special time is extremely conducive to the actions of a comic play. Other critics of late antiquity preferred the derivation from koma on the grounds that "sleep [plays] a considerable role, because only at bedtime did the country people dare to bring their mocking songs into the cities."     Furthermore, dreams are often likened to comedy by the characters in the plays themselves. In Plautus' single comedy of mistaken identity, the long-lost twin who has just arrived in Epidamnus is astounded by the fact that people greet him familiarly in the street. "All this business seems to me like nothing other than a dream," he exclaims. And similarly in A Midsummer Night's Dream , the dim-witted Bottom, on his return from the fairy kingdom, reports: I have had a dream ... The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be call'd "Bottom's Dream," because it hath no bottom.     Last but not least there is eros . Like comedy, night is instinctively sensual. In Shelley's Ode it can actually seduce the daylight: "kiss her until she be wearied out." Moreover, only at night would Cupid visit Psyche, and according to the nocturnal vision recounted by Apuleius, the child of their union was the pleasure principle: Voluptas . So much for the truth in the false etymology.     The first genealogy proposes a time, the second a place. Aristotle is among the many ancients who gave some credence to a Doric tradition which derived "comedy" from kome "country village." The validity of this etymology has been argued in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and, to a lesser extent, even in our own day. Why "country song"? The conjecture reported by Aristotle is provocative: the "comedians" ( komoidoi ) were originally a group of roisterers who had to take to the hamlets with their singing after being kicked out of the city proper. Either their subject matter or their behavior--or both--offended the urbanites.     Aristotle does not indicate whether this was thought to have happened but once or on every festive occasion. But we need not hunt after historical truth here. Kome is related to comedy because the country has always stood vividly in the human imagination as a place of greater freedom? In Plato's fretful description cited earlier, dreams bring out "uncivilized" ( agrion ) fantasies, a term which may be rendered more literally as "rustic." The agroikos or "country bumpkin" is an archetypal comic figure, the hero of the first extant comedy (Aristophanes' Acharnians ) and attested still earlier for Epicharmus, the traditional founder of the genre.     Elsewhere, Plato contrasts the kome and the city, and a passage in Thucydides suggests that the significant distinction was that the polis was walled, the kome wide open. The myth survives in latter-day fables of farmers' daughters, and is certainly ingrained in the mind of one noted Danish prince: HAMLET: Lady, shall I lie in your lap? OPHELIA: No, my lord. HAMLET: I mean, my head on your lap? OPHELIA: Ay, my lord. HAMLET: Do you think I meant country matters?     The persistent association between license and "country matters" does in fact have some historical validity. In the ancient world, freer behavior could be sanctioned when it was geographically beyond the jurisdiction of the city fathers. Logically, the country is where fertility rites would take place. Sir James Frazer, whose Golden Bough was one of the seminal works of twentieth-century thought, amply demonstrated that these occasions have always involved uninhibited speech and sexuality. Many cultures have had reinvigoration festivals characterized by such "stepping out of bounds." There was orgiastic indulgence beyond the city limits not only during Akitu, the Babylonian New Year, but also following the expiatory solemnity of the Jewish Yom Kippur. That many comedies take place in the country is no accident either. One thinks of the country inn for Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer , Shakespeare's Forest of Arden ( As You Like It ), or better still, the enchanted wood outside Athens in A Midsummer Night's Dream .     It may have been so dark on the night Comedy was conceived in the country that--as in so many Menandrian plays--the mother could not recognize the father. But the linguistic doctors illumined all with their postpartum perceptivity. To the modern philologist, the true father of "comedy" can only be komos , the wild, wine-soaked, no-holds-barred revel which characterized most Aristophanic finales--and which, not incidentally, typically took place at night.     And yet this is not a call for a serious ethnographic investigation. It is fatuous to think that one specific ritual may have engendered a precise theatrical form. This was attempted in the early twentieth century by acolytes of Frazer, the so-called Cambridge anthropologists. Jane Ellen Harrison argued that a "tragic rhythm"--the vestiges of seasonal rites--was still discernible in Greek drama. Gilbert Murray saw the outline of a "ritual pattern" in these same works, consisting principally of an archetypal contest--the Old Year against the New, Light against Darkness, Summer against Winter. F. M. Cornford detailed what he perceived as relics of the seasonal ritual in the comedies of Aristophanes. According to his view, the agon or "conflict" of Old Comedy--most usually a debate of principles--reflected an ancient ritual struggle between the Old and New Kings, and ultimately led to the hero's sacred marriage ( hieros gamos ).     These were stimulating notions, but a later editor put things into perspective, noting that "Cornford's enthusiasm led him not infrequently to overshoot the mark." Other critics were not so tolerant. A. W. Pickard-Cambridge, perhaps their leading foe, demonstrated that the ritualists had merely singled out in Greek drama elements that were common to humanity everywhere.     Nevertheless, while deficient in detail, these contributions maintain some broad validity and should not be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, Pickard-Cambridge did not put the issue to rest forever. In 1966 Walter Burkert rehabilitated the ritualist approach by tracing the origins of Greek sacrificial rites, not to some Frazerian vegetative or seasonal worship, but to a real prehistoric event--the communal killing of an animal. The original participants of tragedy ( tragoidoi ) were not dressed in goatish satyr costume, as the etymology of tragos ("goat") had suggested to earlier scholars, but were instead the actual witnesses of a victim's sacrifice at the Dionysian festivals. The primal horror of the onlooker at the original sacrifice confirms mankind's innate and basic respect for life. The essence of drama was thus to be found in psychology and biology rather than the natural world: "the main problem for man is not winter, but man." Though the thesis is not accepted in its entirety by many, Burkert's approach, subsequently elaborated in several important books, revitalized the study of ancient myth, ritual, and religion in the light of modern anthropological and biological theory.     More recent criticism has steered away from the "anterior, even utopian moment in the development of theater," focusing instead on the social and political contexts in which these universal patterns are presented. According to one view, for example, participation in the tragic chorus was a rite of passage in the presence of the polis for the young men of Athens (the ephebos ), the term "goat-singers" referring to the goatesque physical changes of their adolescence. Others have demonstrated beyond doubt that the Athenian comic festival had not only religious importance, but a social and political dimension as well which had been neglected by earlier scholars: The city and its citizens were the festivals' theme and focus. Comic festivals were not "carnival" but civic business--and big business. This valuable approach has deepened our insight into the genre. Clearly, neither comedy nor tragedy nor any other work of art can be appreciated outside of its cultural context.     But even this does not tell the whole story, for there are always "comic forces" at work which are as much psychological processes as social, and lend themselves to a broader perspective. The phenomenon of "holiday humour" is not confined to fifth-century Attica. It exists in every society, whether it be called Saturnalia, Feast of Fools, or Homecoming Week. Inasmuch as drama arose from such festivals, "the holiday occasion and the comedy are merely parallel manifestations of the same pattern of culture."     Thus, though comedy changes form from one culture and period to the next, there remains a truly universal aspect to the comic process itself. Take Ovid's classic description of the festum geniale of Anna Perenna, the Roman holiday by the banks of the Tiber which celebrated the eternal rebirth of the year: Common folks come and drink their fill while scattered everywhere in the Green grass, and each fellow lies next to his girl. The festivities conclude with the girls singing lewd songs ( obscaena ) and dirty ditties ( probra )--a phenomenon we will return to in the next chapter. On these occasions, as Frazer commented, "many a girl may have gone in a maid who came out a maid no more." This crucial event inspired many a New Comedy plot. Terence describes the key forces at work here: He was overcome by night, love, wine and youth- it's only human?     This is komos pure and simple, a revel without a cause. There was no need to enjoin the Romans to observe these rites, for the very essence of komos is its irresistibility. Ovid does not dwell on the political aspects of this festival; he chronicles the fun. As Horace describes it, "after the rites have been performed, the spectator feels both drunk and beyond the law" (potus et exlex) . The entire description bespeaks an atmosphere of surrender to the senses, best exemplified in the words of Shakespeare's Rosalind: Come, come woo me, for now I am in a holiday humour and like enough to consent?     Komos then is less a state ceremony than it is a state of mind--what Mikhail Bakhtin called carnivalesque. One psychologist has defined comedy as a "holiday from the superego," a view anticipated by Freud when he wrote: A festival is a permitted, or rather an obligatory, excess, a solemn breach of a prohibition. It is not that men commit the excesses because they are feeling happy as a result of some injunction they have received. It is rather that excess is of the essence of a festival; the festive feeling is produced by the liberty to do what is as a rule prohibited.     From a Freudian perspective, the progress of comedy goes hand in hand with an intensifying pall of repression which harnesses the natural anarchic instincts of man to ensure a civilized society. The linguistic association between "civilized" and the Latin civitas ("town") once again suggests a contrast between the couth behavior of the city dweller and the boorish antics of the country bumpkin. Thus we again find reinforcement for the "erroneous" derivation of comedy from kome , a country village. We will inevitably find ourselves returning to this "rural" derivation and the truth it conveys.     Thus, despite the advance of civilization--perhaps because of it--we have never lost our zeal for komos . As Plato understood, the unconscious desire to break society's rules is one of the prime appeals of comedy. Johan Huizinga might explain that ritual had not died, but merely metamorphosed into its twin--"play." As the church father Tertullian railed, "a theater is also a temple--of Venus and Bacchus."     What then is the truest etymology of comedy? We have already argued that there is a valid psychic dimension to all three of the words proposed. And though komos is the "authentic" parent of Comedy, the enormous poetic validity of the other hypotheses gives pause. Indeed, there is tantalizing if tenuous evidence that komos and kome may have a single remote source in the lexical Shangri-La of Indo-European. Both carry the notion of "shared activity." In fact, traces of this ancestral connection may still be seen in the Greek adjective enkomios , which can mean either "of a revel" or "in the village."     One philologist links kome with various words in the other Indo-European languages which connote communal activity--including English "home"--arguing persuasively that all derive from an ancient Indo-European social institution, the communal settlement? Thus "home" was originally less a place or building than a social concept, the focus of community spirit. The development of this word reflects the gradual narrowing of "the common" from community to family, accompanied by progressive alienation--one of civilization's Discontents--which comedy seeks to overcome.     Given these etymological interconnections, we might suppose a fairly close historical relationship between komos and kome , the first perhaps developing from the second as the village population marshaled for festival. Indeed, each hamlet seems to have made its own contributions to the larger Greek festivals, sponsoring choruses, dramatic skits, and so on. A striking parallel is still to be found in the Italian Palio at Siena. Each neighborhood, spearheaded by its men, leads the chosen horse to the piazza, competing with other groups in song, invective, and finally the race itself. The event has the unmistakable flavor of sacrificial ritual.     If such a connection between komos and kome is supportable, then the conflict between the ancient etymologies of comedy becomes more intelligible, and each could rightly claim a degree of historical validity. The old Doric derivation of comedy as "song of the village," recorded by Aristotle, may have been as correct in its way as the philologically-approved "song of the komos ."     More mist surrounds the origins of koma . But the earliest uses of the word tend to have erotic overtones, and the idea of "sharing" would be very appropriate for a post-coital slumberous trance. This free-floating notion would imply that sleep, village, and komos all offer opportunities for untrammeled freedom. Which they do, in life if not in lexicons.     Thus, psychically, all three etymologies are related and legitimate. Dreams, "country matters," and revels are all licensed indulgences of fantasy, releases from Civilization and its Discontents, with all's well that ends well. This alleged triple linkage offers its own valid dimension to the idea of Comedy. For it matters less who Comedy's true father was than what its true nature is. Komos is a rule-breaking revel in the flesh, Comedy an orgy in the mind. Perhaps with "holiday humour" we can entertain all three proposals and argue that Comedy, the mask that launched a thousand quips, is named with as provocative an etymology as Helen of Troy: a dreamsong of a revel in the country. Excerpted from The Death of Comedy by Erich Segal. Copyright © 2001 by President and Fellows of Harvard College. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
1. Etymologies: Getting to the Root of Itp. 1
2. The Song of the Komosp. 10
3. The Lyre and the Phallusp. 27
4. Aristophanes: The One and Only?p. 44
5. Failure and Successp. 68
6. The Birds: The Uncensored Fantasyp. 85
7. Requiem for a Genre?p. 101
8. The Comic Catastrophep. 124
9. O Menander! O Life!p. 153
10. Plautus Makes an Entrancep. 183
11. A Plautine Problem Playp. 205
12. Terence: The African Connectionp. 220
13. The Mother-in-Law of Modern Comedyp. 239
14. Machiavelli: The Comedy of Evilp. 255
15. Marlowe: Schade and Freudep. 273
16. Shakespeare: Errors and Erosp. 286
17. Twelfth Night: Dark Clouds over Illyriap. 305
18. Moliere: The Class of '68p. 329
19. The Fox, the Fops, and the Factotump. 363
20. Comedy Explodesp. 403
21. Beckett: The Death of Comedyp. 431
Codap. 453
Notesp. 459
Indexp. 577