Legacy of Comedy
Legacy - HNRS 1120

Instructor(s): 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 William Wycherley’s English Restoration plays, which we will compare to Oliver Goldsmith’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 high comedy or wit, low comedy, comedy of humors, comedy of manners, puns, 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”
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
Contemporary articles on Stand-Up Comedians


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; 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 (10-15) minute performance of a scene from one of the comedies we read this semester.

No Video

About the Instructor(s): Maria Szasz

Maria Szasz teaches Theatre History in the UNM Honors College. Her main interests include theatrical comedy and stand-up comedy, American and Irish Theatre, Musical Theatre, and Theatre and Human Rights. She is currently working on a book about the Irish Repertory Theatre Company in New York City.