Scholia Reviews ns 12 (2003) 1.

Erich Segal, The Death of Comedy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. Pp. xi + 589. ISBN 0-674-00643-7. US$35.00.

Betine van Zyl Smit
University of the Western Cape

Erich Segal is a well known and respected classical scholar.[[1]] Roman Laughter proved that he had a good understanding of what the attraction of Plautus was to the crowds in ancient Rome. He proved that he also understood what pleases the masses in the modern world by writing popular fiction such as the bestseller, Love Story. Segal's fluent and appealing style is again evident in The Death of Comedy. This is a history of the comic theatre from a rather subjective point of view. 'It traces the evolution of the classical form from its early origins in the misogynistic quip by the quasi- legendary sixth-century BC Susarion of Megara, through countless weddings and happy endings, to the exasperated monosyllables of Samuel Beckett' (p. ix).

It is hard to imagine that Segal was not aware that his choice of title would call to mind George Steiner's The Death of Tragedy.[[2]] Comedy and Tragedy are the two kinds of theatrical performance that the Western tradition has inherited from the Greeks via the Romans. According to Steiner tragedy had its origin in the Homeric epics (pp. 5f.) and came to an end in the twentieth century Theatre of the Absurd. Segal again, finds the origin of comedy in Homeric epic (pp. 27f.) and its end in the Theatre of the Absurd. Segal maintains that The Death of Comedy is 'a metaphor, not a history'. It is difficult to know how to interpret this statement, as the book follows a chronological pattern from the opening sentence of the first chapter, 'Comedy was born at night' (p. 1), to the last sentence of the last chapter, 'The traditional happy ending is no longer possible -- because comedy is dead' (p. 452).

It seems that Segal is not denying the continued existence of different kinds of comic plays, films, novels, TV series, but that for him the comedy that matters is a special kind of comic drama which still carries traits that can be traced back to performances in ancient Greece. These may be summarized as plays which provide a joyful holiday from the realities of everyday life and celebrate human fertility.

Segal's style of writing is lively and entertaining. He wears his erudition lightly but the solid substratum of the wealth of references to sources ancient and modern is contained in the endnotes. Even the short first chapter, 'Etymologies: Getting to the Root of It' (pp. 1-9), has fifty-five endnotes! Segal's love of the various verbal devices of comedy comes to the fore in numerous quotable quips, for instance: 'As the proverb says, it may not be true, but it is a great idea' (p. 1); 'Comedy, the mask that launched a thousand quips' (p. 9); 'In the typical comic dénouement, High Noon turns magically into lunchtime' (p. 10); 'The tragic hero dies for what is nobler in the mind, the comic hero lives for what is humbler in the flesh' (p. 12); 'And the happiest of Happy Endings is...laughter in the house.'(p. 26)

The book's basic plan is an account of the development of the genre starting in ancient Greece. The first chapter seeks to define the nature of comedy by discussing the etymological roots of the word. Segal describes the case made for the derivation from KW=MA ('deep sleep') and KW/MH ('country village'), before that of KW=MOJ ('revel') which is accepted as the true origin. Segal nevertheless maintains that the two other words also have legitimate psychical and poetic associations with the true nature of comedy as they offer opportunities for the untrammelled freedom of a holiday from the conventions of everyday life.

The second chapter, 'The Song of the KW=MOJ' (pp. 10- 26), takes the discussion of the nature of comedy further. Aspects covered are the 'heart of darkness' at the core of some of the most frivolous comedies; the orgiastic release from aggression provided by the KW=MOJ which helps maintain the stability of society; release from other constraints such as that of social and sexual identity and the reintegration into the everyday world provided by the happy ending. Segal refers to theories of Plato, Freud, Frazer, Eliade, Burkert and Bergson and cites literary examples from the Homeric epics, Shakespeare and Byron.

The second part of this chapter turns to comedy in the theatre. The omnipresence of the phallus in Attic Old Comedy is linked with fertility rites closely associated with Dionysus, the deity presiding over the festival. The importance of ithyphallic invective in worship and prayer linked to fertility is shown to be widespread. Laughter as a characteristic unique to human beings is a vital sign of humanity and thus comedy that provokes laughter is an important healing power for individuals and society. Segal postulates that the 'agelast (Greek A)GE/LASTOJ, 'not laughing'), thus the antithesis of the comic hero' (p. 25).

Chapter 3, 'The Lyre and the Phallus', deals with early comedy in Greece. The title refers to the blend of melodic purity and discordant grossness that mark comedy. Various characteristics of the genre are highlighted: misogyny, Schadenfreude, the unfettered use of language, attacks on contemporaries, verbal inventiveness, scatological humour and the like. Then Segal briefly discusses the predecessors and contemporaries of Aristophanes of whom we have only fragments: Cratinus, Crates, Pherecrates, Eupolis and Plato Comicus.

The next four chapters concentrate on Aristophanes. Chapter 4, 'Aristophanes: The One and Only?'(pp. 44- 67), first investigates the question of why Aristophanes alone of all the writers of Attic Old Comedy survived. Segal stresses that Aristophanes is neither modern nor an intellectual and that his success was probably due to the fact that he had an organizing principle, 'even in his most ramshackle plots' (p. 45). Segal describes this as the recurring central character or Aristophanic hero who appears in six of the extant nine comedies: 'a dyspeptic old man who gets fired up by an idea and in pursuing it turns the world topsy-turvy'(pp. 46f.). The old man not only succeeds in his quest but gets an additional reward, sexual rejuvenation. The remainder of this chapter analyses the comic features and themes of Acharnians (pp. 47-57), Knights (pp. 57-60) and Peace (pp. 60-67). Throughout the book the approach followed to the discussion of individual plays is one of summarizing the plot, with quotations (mostly from Segal's own translations) and commentary.

'Failure and Success', the title of Chapter 5 (pp. 68-84), alludes to the two comedies it discusses: Clouds (pp. 70-77) and Wasps (pp. 77- 84). Segal attributes Aristophanes lack of success with Clouds to the fact that it 'lacks the essence of the festival spirit' (p. 70). It is one of the comedies that does not celebrate fertility by featuring the rejuvenation of an old man, and it has no female characters. 'There can be no comedy without a KW=MOJ, and no KW=MOJ without ready, willing, earthy females'(p. 70) Wasps, on the other hand, reverted to the tried and proven formula.

Segal regards the Birds as Aristophanes' masterpiece and devotes the whole of Chapter 6 (pp. 85-100) to it. At the same time he sees it as signalling the end of Old Comedy. Thus Chapter 7 is titled 'Requiem for a Genre?' (pp. 101-23). Segal analyses the Frogs in the opening pages. He rightly distinguishes it as a play sui generis that reflected the time in which it was written. Segal spends the central part of this chapter on an overview of Old, Middle and New Comedy and points out that Menander laid down a pattern for comic drama that was to last for two millennia. The last part of the chapter considers Aristophanes' Plutus as a forerunner of New Comedy (pp. 116-123).

Chapter 8, 'The Comic Catastrophe' (pp. 124-152), explores the relationship between Aristophanes and Euripides. The term 'catastrophe' is used here in its sense as an early critical term for the dénouement of a comedy. Segal refers to reciprocal borrowing and parodying between the two playwrights, but then also examines some of Euripides' works which represent a significant step towards New Comedy. Segal discusses Ion (pp. 126-35), Iphigenia in Tauris (pp. 135-40), Helen (pp. 141-48) and finally the Andromeda fragments and points out the features they have in common with New Comedy plays. For Segal the essential adjustments made by the New Comedy authors to the structure of the Euripidean plays discussed here were that they reversed the order of cognitio and frustratio. He therefore dubs Euripides the 'grandfather of modern comedy' (p. 152).

Chapter 9, 'O Menander! O Life' (pp. 153-81), starts with a brief account of the vicissitudes of the texts of the Hellenistic playwright and the reaction of various critics, ancient and modern, to his work. Next the typical characters of New Comedy are listed and the typical elements of a Menandrian plot detailed. The point is made that Menander brought the plot of his plays to the lives of ordinary people. The setting of his plays is metropolitan, or even cosmopolitan, the language chaste but the link with fertility still preserved in features such as marriages and babies. The plays and fragments are described and analysed: Perikeiromene: (pp. 163-64), Misoumenos (pp. 164f.), Samian Women (pp. 165-71), Georgos (pp. 171f.), Dyskolos (pp. 172-76), and finally Aspis (pp. 176-180). Segal concludes this chapter with an important comment: 'Menander provides an anodyne for the painful realities of everyday life. He dares not say all's right with the state, because manifestly it was not. But he can offer that a happy ending is still possible in the private life of the spectator. This has been the balm of comedy ever since' (p. 182).

In Chapter 10, 'Plautus Makes an Entrance', (pp. 183- 204), we are taken from the Greek to the Roman world. Segal sketches the transition of New Comedy from Greece to Italy in less than two pages and then briskly summarizes the native Italian elements of farce and comedy before introducing Plautus. After some discussion of the main characteristics of Plautine comedy, (the Greek setting which permitted him to show characters behaving in an 'unRoman' way, the creation of the clever slave who schemes for the lovesick young man to obtain his pleasure and is the pivot of the Saturnalian inversion of ordinary Roman life) and the use of the term vortere for his adaptations of Greek originals, Segal proceeds to analysis of individual comedies. He first deals with Menaechmi (pp. 191-96) and then with Casina (pp. 196-202). Special attention is given to Plautus' attitude to wives and matrimony as it is manifested in these and other plays. These are both targets of comic hostility, especially the wife who has a dowry and is in a position to boss her husband. Unlike Aristophanes, Plautus does not show the senex amator in triumph at the end of the play, but youth wins the day.

Surprisingly there are only two chapters on Plautus, and the second, Chapter 11, 'A Plautine Problem Play' (pp. 205-19), deals only with the Amphitruo. This play is unique in two respects: it is the only surviving Latin comedy that deals with a mythological subject and the only one in which adultery is consummated. Segal's discussion also deals in passing with the term tragicocomedia.

Two chapters are also devoted to Terence. Chapter 12, 'Terence: The African Connection' (pp. 220-38), starts with the contrasting fates of Plautus and Terence. The former enjoyed success and praise in his lifetime and the latter posthumously. Terence it also was, according to Segal, who perfected classical comedy. His work 'established the classic paradigm for all subsequent comic drama until the twentieth century' (p. 226). Terence's own contribution, the invention of dramatic suspense, is still a staple of dramatic entertainment today. Another innovation of his, the double-plot, also found a number of imitators. Andria is analysed (pp. 230-38) as an example of how Terence creates dramatic suspense and manipulates two plots simultaneously.

Chapter 13 ,'The Mother-in-Law of Modern Comedy' (pp. 239-54), opens with a short discussion of Terence's most successful play with the Romans, Eunuchus. It then treats the problem of why the Hecyra was such a failure with audiences and concludes that it was ahead of its time. It plays with the familiar conventions of Roman comedy and canonizes a new form 'that would dominate the stage for the millennia to come' (p. 254).

The first part of Chapter 14, 'Machiavelli: The Comedy of Evil' (pp. 255-72), reviews the afterlife of the comedies of Plautus and Terence, their eclipse during many centuries, their rediscovery in the Renaissance period and subsequent productions and imitations. Then the 'first author of stature to write stage comedies in the classical tradition...Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)' (p. 261) is introduced. Segal deftly depicts his circumstances and alludes to some of his plays. To the form and style (although his plays were in prose) of his classical models he added 'hard-nosed Realpolitik' (p. 263) which made his work relevant to his age. Machiavelli's masterpiece, Mandragola (The Mandrake), is considered with reference to classical influences and innovation. Scheming, knowledge, manipulation and lewd humour abound. For Segal this play 'represents a moment in history where classical tradition meets Florentine cunning -- and the result is a theatrical masterpiece'(p. 272).

Segal next moves to England. Chapter 15, 'Marlowe: Schade and Freude' (pp. 273-85), deals mostly with Marlowe's Jew of Malta. Segal follows T.S. Eliot in interpreting this play as 'not tragedy but farce' (p. 277).

Throughout The Death of Comedy there are references to Shakespeare and his work. Chapters 16, 'Shakespeare: Errors and E)/RWJ' (pp. 286-304) and 17, 'Twelfth Night: Dark Clouds Over Illyria' (pp. 305-28), bring the Bard to centre stage. First the influence of Plautus' Menaechmi on The Comedy of Errors is traced. Segal finds an extra depth and dimension in the English play which is 'suffused with Christian coloration'. He also notes some echoes of the Amphitruo. Twelfth Night is discussed in some detail and Segal concludes that the play goes 'from comic chaos to cosmic order' (p. 328) .

The next author who represents Segal's comic tradition is Molière, whose life and theatrical achievements constitute Chapter 18, 'Molière: The Class of '68' (pp. 329-62), Segal writes admiringly of Molière's genius and the melancholy he overcame to produce his masterpieces. He produced three comedies in 1668. All three are discussed by Segal. The first, Amphitryon, adapts Plautus' play with liberal doses of the earlier French version of Rotrou. The second was George Dandin where the hero's humiliation by his young wife echoes Molière's own unhappy marriage. The third was destined to become one of the most popular plays in theatrical history, L'Avare (The Miser).

Chapter 19, 'The Fox, the Fops and the Factotum' (pp. 363-402), moves back to Elizabethan England and the comedies of Ben Jonson. His work is contrasted with that of Shakespeare: Jonson's realism, sharp, satirical comedies often set in the streets of London as against Shakespeare's romances in exotic places. However Volpone, his masterpiece is set in Venice. Segal reviews this play (pp. 370-81) before proceeding to a condensed history of the fate of the theatre in England up to 1675 and then jumps to France in 1781 and Beaumarchais' Marriage of Figaro. This play successfully blends a political purpose with familiar comic devices. For Segal, Beaumarchais had achieved the 'ultimate perfection' in comedy and after that, thus starts Chapter 20, 'Comedy Explodes' (pp. 403-30), 'comedy had nowhere to go but down'.

Segal admits that 'the genre continued to flourish in the form we have been studying until the eve of the twentieth century' (p. 401), but he does not present any further examples. This chapter concentrates on the 'assassins of comedy' and they 'are all intellectuals of one sort or another'. The chief perpetrators named by Segal are George Bernard Shaw, Alfred Jarry, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, and Eugene Ionesco. Segal analyses some of the work of each of them and shows how language and coherence progressively begin to falter. The final blow in the process of dehumanization was dealt by Samuel Beckett. This last stage is covered in Chapter 21, 'Beckett: The Death of Comedy' (pp. 431-52).

Segal uses wordplay to illustrate how the anti- classical movement and modern culture first emasculated the comic hero and then silenced him: 'the decline is from the autonomy of the classical hero, to automatons like Ubu, to the autism of Samuel Beckett' (p. 431). He notes the influence of Chaplin and other heroes of silent film on the writers of the Theatre of the Absurd. Segal discusses Beckett's plays in their English and French versions. To Segal Beckett's plays present the polar opposite of Aristophanic comedy: instead of parrhesia, the license to say anything, there is aphasia, the inability to say anything. The inability to communicate is linked to sexual impotence. Where most comedies ended in an energetic gamos, even a rejuvenation of the hero, Beckett's heroes are all 'incapables'. 'The phallus is conspicuous in his dramatic work -- for its total absence' (p. 435). One may of course question whether Beckett's plays are indeed comedies. Segal acknowledges this and suggests that they may perhaps be better described as 'anti- comedies'. He maintains that there is an explicit link between Aristophanes' Birds and Waiting for Godot. Beckett as 'a chimerical post-modern classicist and supreme ironist' (p. 450) deliberately denies the audience their traditional expectation of a happy ending. Because of Beckett's abundant recognition of previous literature, it is clear that his final blow to the comic genre is premeditated and intentional. Thus the last sentence of this chapter reads: 'The traditional happy ending is no longer possible -- because comedy is dead.' (p. 452)

In spite of the finality of this judgement, Segal has attached a coda to the book in which he discusses Kubrick's film Dr. Strangelove. Segal's view of this film's attempt to deal humorously with the possibility of a nuclear holocaust is bleak. For him it seems impossible after the mass slaughter of two World Wars 'to find any more Freudian objects of wit -- moral or religious precepts that command so much respect that they can only be approached in comedy' (p. 453).

As one expects from a writer of Segal's reputation, The Death of Comedy is written with great flair. There is little to mar the pleasure of the style. The only typographical error I noticed was Hecrya on p. 253. The index disappointingly contains only proper nouns and titles, so that if one wanted a quick guide to, for instance, dramatic suspense, it is not possible to find help there.

Because of its highly personal view of the history of comedy and because it does not take much account of recent theory and scholarship this book will probably find more favour with the general public than with an academic audience. Nevertheless, it provides a valuable and sprightly introduction to and overview of the subject.


[[1]] His Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus (Oxford 1987[2]) brought a breath of fresh air to Plautine studies. He has published many other academic works, for instance, Erich Segal (ed.), Oxford Readings in Aristophanes (Oxford 1996).

[[2]] George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy (London 1961).