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The Legacy of Comedy

Maria Szasz,

Course Description

“We know what makes people laugh. We do not know why they laugh.” W. C. Fields

The Legacy of Comedy explores the complex, varied, and rich history of theatrical comedy. A fundamental question of the class is “how has humor changed over time?” We begin our search for the answers with the Greek and Roman comedies of Aristophanes and Plautus, followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedies. We then explore the scandalous social critique underlying the satire in both Molière’s seventeenth-century French plays and Wycherley’s English Restoration plays, which we will compare to Congreve’s gentle eighteenth-century humor. Next, we investigate why Oscar Wilde was one of the Victorian Era’s best loved wits, and why his humor still delights audiences today. Our exploration into twentieth-century theatre includes a vast array of talented comedic playwrights from around the world, such as the French writer Yasmina Reza, Irishmen John Millington Synge and George Bernard Shaw, and one of the finest examples of American musical comedy from the 1950s, Guys and Dolls. As we proceed through the history of theatrical comedy, the class will explore the evolution and definitions of specific types of comedy, such as vaudeville, high comedy, low comedy, comedy of humors, comedy of manners, puns, theatrical pantomime, satire, farce, black comedy, stand-up comedy, and improvisation. Finally, we will contemplate the true meaning and purpose behind comedy. Does most comedy, as Arthur Koestler says, “contain elements of aggression and hostility, even savagery”? Or is comedy, as Paul Johnson and Shakespeare insist, “jolly and forgiving,” ultimately showing us the better aspects of being human? Or is comedy’s main function, in the words of theatre critic Ben Brantley, “to defuse bombs

Readings and Texts

Aristophanes, Lysistrata
Plautus, The Brothers Menaechmus
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Molière, Tartuffe (1664)
William Wycherley, The Country Wife (1675)
William Congreve, She Stoops to Conquer (1773)
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
John Millington Synge, The Playboy of the Western World (1907)
George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion (1913)
Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, Guys and Dolls (1950)
Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966)
Yasmina Reza, ‘Art’ (1994)

Films and Other Course Materials

Lysistrata; a taped version of a live production
The Comedy of Errors; based on the Roman farce The Brothers Menaechmus
The Boys from Syracuse; a musical version of the Roman farce
A Midsummer Night’s Dream; two versions: Max Reinhardt's 1935 film and the 1999 film
Tartuffe; taped live on stage
The Country Wife; two versions, both taped live on stage
She Stoops to Conquer; taped live on the National Theatre stage in London
The Playboy of the Western World; staged and filmed by the Druid Theatre company in Galway, Ireland
My Fair Lady; the 1964 film based on Pygmalion
Guys and Dolls; the 1952 film with Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra
Guys and Dolls: Off the Record; a filmed recording session from the 1992 Broadway revival
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; Tom Stoppard's tragic comedy 

Student Requirements

Reliable and eager attendance; careful, consistent reading and thoughtful contributions to class discussions; three short response papers (two to three pages each); attendance at a local production of a comedy; attendance at one Legacy Lectures and a one to two page review of the lecture; a one page proposal for a research paper and a ten minute conference with the instructor to discuss the proposal; a four to six page research paper; and a group project: a short (15-20) minute performance of one or two scenes from one of the plays we read this semester.

About the Instructor

Maria Szasz's main interests, in addition to comedy, include American and Irish Theatre, Musical Theatre, and Theatre and Human Rights.