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Maria Szasz, 
Core: Humanities



“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 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 that in real life often explode and destroy”? Consider taking this Legacy to help us find out!



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) 1912
Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, (Guys and Dolls) 1950
Tom Stoppard, (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) 1966
Yasmina Reza, (‘Art’) 1994


(Lysistrata; a taped version of a live production)
(The Comedy of Errors; the basis of the Roman farce)
(The Boys from Syracuse; a musical version of the Roman farce)
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream; two versions: Max Reinhardt's 1938 film and the 1999 film)
(Tartuffe; taped live on stage)
(The Country Wife; 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)
(Guys and Dolls: Off the Record; a filmed recording session from the 1992 Broadway revival)
(Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; Tom Stoppard's tragicomedy)



No special course fee required.



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 two Legacy Lectures and a one to two page review of each 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.



Maria Szasz received her MA in Theatre Education from Emerson College and her PhD in English Literature from UNM, where she specialized in Drama and Irish Literature. Her love for musical theatre began with her discovery of the little known musical comedy The Robber Bridegroom.