The Idea of Comedy: History, Theory, Critique

The Idea of Comedy: History, Theory, Critique

The Idea of Comedy: History, Theory, Critique

The Idea of Comedy: History, Theory, Critique

Synopsis

One of the few constants in Western critical though for over twomillennia has been the inexhaustible fascination with comedy: what itis and how it works. Yet comedy has eluded every definition. Why haveso many of the leading critics and philosophers of the West proposedtheories and counter-theories of comedy while often admitting that itenthralls and baffles the mind in equal measure? The Idea of Comedy: A Critique assembles a rich corpus of materials from differentlanguages and eras to construct a history of the commentaries andreflections, the theoretical postulates and conjectures, and the oftenacrimonious debates about comedy through the centuries from Platoand Aristotle to our contemporaries

Excerpt

Since antiquity, comic writers have often chafed at the dominant theories of comedy in their time. The feistiest among them have openly derided critical notions as “hogwash!” and “lies!” and “virulent malice,” even “insolencies worthy to be taxed” (Jonson), or in the rudest epithet of all, “Crrrrritic!” (Beckett in Godot). The gibes and jests are amusing but they have point, and they persist through literary history. The gap between artistic practice and critical thought has often been considerable, particularly in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. All through the centuries, however, such lampoons have been freighted with writerly pride in an art form that, more than most, has been banned by popes and kings, assailed with rotten eggs and lawsuits, esteemed and debased by at least one critic from every intellectual formation.

Yet the theory of comedy has received surprisingly little critical attention. Ever since the commentaries of Plato and Aristotle, each cultural era in the West has contributed some theoretical perspective, or revised the received idea of comedy in some significant way or another, steadily amplifying our understanding of the comic. The theoretical texts are extensive. They are also increasingly disputatious, often asserting contradictory interpretations and clashing, even diametrically opposed claims about the aims and the means of comedy. Such dialogic complexity may be one reason why the critical study of comic theories has largely been piecemeal, exploring a single theorist, such as Freud, or a comic generation, such as the Augustan humorists. Thus we have many studies of Dryden, Bergson, or Pirandello, but no profile of their interrelations as comic theorists. It is no exaggeration to say that therefore, unless one is partisan to a particular . . .

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