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COMEDY, the general term applied to a type of drama the chief object of which, according to modern notions, is to amuse. It is contrasted on the one hand with tragedy and on the other with farce, burlesque, &c. As compared with tragedy it is distinguished by having a happy ending (this being considered for a long time the essential difference), by quaint situations, and by lightness of dialogue and character-drawing. As compared with farce it abstains from crude and boisterous jesting, and is marked by some subtlety of dialogue and plot. It is, however, difficult to draw a hard and fast line of demarcation, there being a distinct tendency to combine the characteristics of farce with those of true comedy. This is perhaps more especially the case in the so-called “musical comedy,” which became popular in Great Britain and America in the later 19th century, where true comedy is frequently subservient to broad farce and spectacular effects.

The word “comedy” is derived from the Gr. κωμῳδία, which is a compound either of κῶμος (revel) and ἀοιδός (singer; ἀείδειν, ᾄδειν, to sing), or of κώμη (village) and ἀοιδός: it is possible that κῶμος itself is derived from κώμη, and originally meant a village revel. The word comes into modern usage through the Lat. comoedia and Ital. commedia. It has passed through various shades of meaning. In the middle ages it meant simply a story with a happy ending. Thus some of Chaucer’s Tales are called comedies, and in this sense Dante used the term in the title of his poem, La Commedia (cf. his Epistola X., in which he speaks of the comic style as “loquutio vulgaris, in qua et mulierculae communicant”; again “comoedia vero remisse et humiliter”; “differt a tragoedia per hoc, quod t. in principio est admirabilis et quieta, in fine sive exitu est foetida et horribilis”). Subsequently the term is applied to mystery plays with a happy ending. The modern usage combines this sense with that in which Renaissance scholars applied it to the ancient comedies.

The adjective “comic” (Gr. κωμικός), which strictly means that which relates to comedy, is in modern usage generally confined to the sense of “laughter-provoking”: it is distinguished from “humorous” or “witty” inasmuch as it is applied to an incident or remark which provokes spontaneous laughter without a special mental effort. The phenomena connected with laughter and that which provokes it, the comic, have been carefully investigated by psychologists, in contrast with other phenomena connected with the emotions. It is very generally agreed that the predominating characteristics are incongruity or contrast in the object, and shock or emotional seizure on the part of the subject. It has also been held that the feeling of superiority is an essential, if not the essential, factor: thus Hobbes speaks of laughter as a “sudden glory.” Physiological explanations have been given by Kant, Spencer and Darwin. Modern investigators have paid much attention to the origin both of laughter and of smiling, babies being watched from infancy and the date of their first smile being carefully recorded. For an admirable analysis and account of the theories see James Sully, On Laughter (1902), who deals generally with the development of the “play instinct” and its emotional expression.

See Drama; also Humour; Caricature; Play, &c.