'Essays On the Art of Comedy'

by Phineas Redux


Essay 01. The General Concept—What is Comedy?

Disclaimer:— This essay is copyright ©2018 to the author.

Double-Disclaimer:— If any reader is wondering at the sad paucity of length in these essays may I quote Andrew Lang, who once found himself in a similar situation. '. . . add another to thy liking, if thou art a Maker; or, if thou art none, even be content with what is set before thee. If it be scant measure, be sure it is choicely good.'


There is nothing in the world of authorship so deleterious to one's health as the act of writing Comedy. Once again I seek for some kind of safety by focusing on literary comedy alone; giving theatrical, film, and television examples of the art a wide berth. To include such of the latter in this series of short essays would be like trying to pour a quart into a pint bottle.

Henry James once accused a certain type of lazy reader, when they perused a volume, of indulging in the gentle art of skipping; it is my intention, here, to take full advantage of the same method. In looking for the primary sources of Comedy it would be perfectly feasible to trawl right back to Classical Greece and the Comedies of the Greek and Roman playwrights such as Menander or Plautus, then work my way forward in History by way of the Italian Renaissance Commedia dell'arte and the French Theatre of the 18th century; and if I was writing the definitive History of Comedy I would indeed have no choice but to harass the unwary reader by so doing: but I am merciful, and shall refrain—anyway, I haven't the space at the present moment.

I shall admit previous prototypes in the genre, however, by referencing Shakespeare's Comedies, and those of other playwrights of his period; they being distinctly forerunners of the genre we know and love today. Who hasn't, even today, laughed themselves silly over the misunderstandings in 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona', or 'Twelfth Night', by Shakespeare; or 'May-Day' by George Chapman; or 'The Knight of the Burning Pestle' by Beaumont and Fletcher; Phillip Massinger's 'A New Way To Pay Old Debts'; Thomas Middleton's 'A Trick To Catch the Old One'; or that classic of belly-laughs, 'The Shoemaker's Holiday' by Thomas Dekker: all works, I assure my readers, which laid the audience length-ways in the aisles with laughter, in 1635.

And where are we now, some 400 years later, as far as being aficionados or experts of the genre of Comedy goes? Has our taste for the double-entendre been assuaged by Time? No, it hasn't. Has our love of the low sexual jibe been consigned to the dustbin of History—not by any means. Has our interest in the satiric been sated by the years—in no way. No, the old means have simply adjusted themselves, with little effort, to modern tastes and times.

One of the first of modern authors to address the meaning of Comedy was George Meredith with his short but pithy 'Essay on Comedy' of 1879. Meredith, as readers of his novels will attest, was not one to spear a subject and hold it wriggling to the harsh light of day; he rather beat round the bush, hinting and implying rather than attacking the point head-on. As a result it is a little difficult, nowadays, to quite see what he was getting at in any of his somewhat rambling arguments as viewed by the modern reader; herewith a quote—'to touch and kindle the mind through laughter, demands more than sprightliness, a most subtle delicacy. That must be a natal gift in the Comic poet. The substance he deals with will show him a startling exhibition of the dyer's hand, if he is without it. People are ready to surrender themselves to witty thumps on the back, breast, and sides; all except the head: and it is there that he aims. He must be subtle to penetrate. A corresponding acuteness must exist to welcome him. The necessity for the two conditions will explain how it is that we count him during centuries in the single number.'

Well, there may be a meaning in that, but I can't fathom it.

But sticking with Meredith, as indeed you have to, there's more—'We have in this world men whom Rabelais would call agelasts; that is to say, non-laughers; men who are in that respect as dead bodies, which if you prick them do not bleed.—No collision of circumstances in our mortal career strikes a light for them. It is but one step from being agelastic to misogelastic, and—the laughter-hating, soon learns to dignify his dislike as an objection in morality.'

Again, Meredith being a trifle more intellectual, indeed cerebral, than the matter in hand perhaps warrants?

Or again,—yes, relax, this will be the final appearance of Meredith in these pages—to quote from his Essay for the last time—'Our English idea of a Comedy of Manners might be imaged in the person of a blowsy country girl . . . transforming to a varnished City madam. . . When she has frolicked through her five Acts to surprise you with the information that Mr. Aimwell is converted by a sudden death in the world outside the scenes into Lord Aimwell, and can marry the lady in the light of day, it is to the credit of her vivacious nature that she does not anticipate your calling her Farce.'

That, at least, is fairly clear. And so we bid George Meredith a fond farewell. Does anyone read this author today? I have read some half-dozen of his novels, and a great deal of his poetry, so am speaking from personal experience. Ah well, onwards—

All forms of Comedy could perhaps be described as varying degrees of schadenfreude? We the audience laugh, therefore we must be laughing at something or someone? Comedy, and its resultant laughter, must therefore be looked on as a form of release; an answer to the trials and tribulations of daily life for the vast majority of the Public. And in performing this beneficial task it shows itself in various forms; the jolly low-life crude remarks of the Music-Hall comedian; the entertaining bons-mot of the cultured man or woman about town; drawing-room comedies such as Oscar Wilde's plays; or the simple but effective works of P G Wodehouse.

These all cater to a particular audience; but all can also do so with the same individual, in their several moods. Walter Raleigh—no, not that one—was a Professor of English Literature at Oxford University in the early years of the last century and had something to say on Comedy in his work 'Style', of 1897—'Pathos knits the soul and braces the nerves, humour purges the eyesight and vivifies the sympathies—In much of our so-called comic writing a superabundance of boisterous animal spirits, restrained from more practical expression by the ordinances of civil society, finds outlet and relief.—Comedy judges the actual world by contrasting it with an ideal of sound sense, Humour reveals it in its true dimensions by turning on it the light of imagination and poetry.'

A long-winded way of simply saying we all like a good belly-laugh, when all's said and done?

So, the above may give some account of the uses and meaning of Comedy, at least in its original sense; but things have moved on somewhat since. Today the comic novel, in the sense of P G Wodehouse et al, is perhaps past its sell-by date; the Public receiving its jolt of the wished-for sustenance in the form of films and tv panel games and suchlike. Does this mean literary Comedy, as a theme or meme or genre, has suffered a tumble in general appreciation recently? No, I rather fancy it has just, as the old play goes, 'suffered a sea-change, into something rich and strange.'


The second essay in this series will discuss the works of such early comic authors as Thomas Love Peacock, Arthur M Binstead, W W Jacobs, P G Wodehouse, Somerville and Ross, and E M Delafield, among others. It'll be a feast of frivolity, mark my words.