Although usually used in reference to the drama (see drama, Western; Asian drama), in the Middle Ages comedy was associated with vernacular language and a happy ending. Thus, the term was also applied to such non-dramatic works as Dante's religious poem, The Divine Comedy.
Dramatic comedy grew out of the boisterous choruses and dialogue of the fertility rites of the feasts of the Greek god Dionysus. What became known to theater historians as Old Comedy in ancient Greece was a series of loosely connected scenes (using a chorus and individual characters) in which a particular situation was thoroughly exploited through farce, fantasy, satire, and parody, the series ending in a lyrical celebration of unity.
Reaching its height in the brilliantly scathing plays of Aristophanes, Old Comedy gradually declined and was replaced by a less vital and imaginative drama. In New Comedy, generally considered to have begun in the mid-4th cent. B.C., the plays were more consciously literary, often romantic in tone, and decidedly less satirical and critical. Menander was the most famous writer of New Comedy.
During the Middle Ages the Church strove to keep the joyous and critical aspects of the drama to a minimum, but comic drama survived in medieval folk plays and festivals, in the Italian commedia dell'arte, in mock liturgical dramas, and in the farcical elements of miracle and morality plays.
With the advent of the Renaissance, a new and vital drama emerged. In England in the 16th cent. the tradition of the interlude, developed by John Heywood and others, blended with that of Latin classic comedy, eventually producing the great Elizabethan comedy, which reached its highest expression in the plays of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Shakespeare, whose comedies ranged from the farcical to the tragicomic, was the master of the romantic comedy, while Jonson, whose drama was strongly influenced by classical tenets, wrote caustic, rich satire.
In 17th-century France, the classical influence was combined with that of the commedia dell'arte in the drama of Molière, one of the greatest comic and satiric writers in the history of the theater. This combination is also present in the plays of the Italian Carlo Goldoni. After a period of suppression during the Puritan Revolution, the English comic drama reemerged with the witty, frequently licentious, consciously artificial comedy of manners of Etherege, Wycherley, Congreve, and others. At the close of the 17th cent., however, such stern reaction had set in against the bawdiness and frivolity of the Restoration stage that English comedy descended into what has become known as sentimental comedy. This drama, which sought more to evoke tears than laughter, had its counterpart in France in the comédie larmoyante.
In England during the later 18th cent. a resurgence of the satirical and witty character comedies was found in the plays of Sheridan. After an almost complete lapse in the early to mid-19th cent., good comedy was again brought to the stage in the comedies of manners by Oscar Wilde and in the comedies of ideas by George Bernard Shaw. In the late 1880s the great Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov began writing his subtle and delicate comedies of the dying Russian aristocracy.
The 20th cent. has witnessed a number of distinct trends in comedy. These include the sophisticated and witty comedy of manners, initiated by Oscar Wilde in the late 19th cent. and carried on by Noel Coward, S. N. Behrman, Philip Barry and others; the romantic comic fantasy of such playwrights as James M. Barrie and Jean Giraudoux; and the native Irish comedy of J. M. Synge, Lady Gregory, Sean O'Casey, Brendan Behan, and Brian Friel.
Also important are the musical comedy, which descends from 18th-century ballad operas and the comic operas of W. S. Gilbert and A. S. Sullivan (see musicals) and the slick, satirical, and professional comedy of George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, and Neil Simon. Strongly contrasting with these sunny styles are the nihilistic, highly unconventional comedy, containing both comic and tragic elements, of dramatists of the theater of the absurd such as Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett and the so-called black comedy, often concerning topics like racism, sexual perversion, and murder, of playwrights such as Joe Orton, Harold Pinter, and David Mamet.
See B. N. Schilling, The Comic Spirit (1965); J. W. Krutch, Comedy and Conscience after the Restoration (rev. ed. 1949, repr. 1967); W. Sorell, Facets of Comedy (1972); M. Gurewitz, Comedy (1975); M. Charney, Comedy High and Low (1978); H. Levin, Playboys and Killjoys (1988).
The theatrical genre can be simply described as a dramatic performance which pits two societies against each other in an amusing agon or conflict. Northrop Frye famously depicted these two opposing sides as a "Society of Youth" and a "Society of the Old" (Anatomy of Criticism, 1957), but this dichotomy is seldom described as an entirely satisfactory explanation.
A later view characterizes the essential agon of comedy as a struggle between a relatively powerless youth and the societal conventions that pose obstacles to his hopes; in this sense, the youth is understood to be constrained by his lack of social authority, and is left with little choice but to take recourse to ruses which engender very dramatic irony which provokes laughter (Marteinson, 2006).
Much comedy contains variations on the elements of surprise, incongruity, conflict, repetitiveness, and the effect of opposite expectations, but there are many recognized genres of comedy. Satire and political satire use ironic comedy to portray persons or social institutions as ridiculous or corrupt, thus alienating their audience from the object of humor. Satire is a type of comedy.
Parody borrows the form of some popular genre, artwork, or text but uses certain ironic changes to critique that form from within (though not necessarily in a condemning way). Screwball comedy derives its humor largely from bizarre, surprising (and improbable) situations or characters. Black comedy is defined by dark humor that makes light of so called dark or evil elements in human nature. Similarly scatological humor, sexual humor, and race humor create comedy by violating social conventions or taboos in comedic ways.
A comedy of manners typically takes as its subject a particular part of society (usually upper class society) and uses humor to parody or satirize the behavior and mannerisms of its members. Romantic comedy is a popular genre that depicts burgeoning romance in humorous terms, and focuses on the foibles of those who are falling in love.
Greeks and Romans confined the word "comedy" to descriptions of stage-plays with happy endings. In the middle ages, the term expanded to include narrative poems with happy endings and a lighter tone. In this sense Dante used the term in the title of his poem, La Divina Commedia. As time progressed, the word came more and more to be associated with any sort of performance intended to cause laughter.
The phenomena connected with laughter and that which provokes it have been carefully investigated by psychologists. They agreed 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 Thomas Hobbes speaks of laughter as a "sudden glory." Modern investigators have paid much attention to the origin both of laughter and of smiling, as well as the development of the "play instinct" and its emotional expression.
George Meredith, in his 1897 classic Essay on Comedy, said that "One excellent test of the civilization of a country ... I take to be the flourishing of the Comic idea and Comedy; and the test of true Comedy is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter.