A Brief History of Comedy

The history of art is well documented but what about the art of comedy? The origins of comedy are less well known but it is generally accepted that dramatic comedy grew out of the boisterous choruses and dialogue of the fertility rites and the feasts of the Greek god Dionysus. He was the God of wine, dancing and generally having a groovy time! What is now known to theatre historians as Old Comedy in ancient Greece was in fact a series of loosely connected scenes in which a particular situation was mocked through farce, fantasy, satire and parody.

Scathing, satirical plays were written by Aristophanes but this Old Comedy eventually declined and was replaced by a new wave of drama which wasn’t as exciting. What followed was a focus on literary displays and romance with a lot less satire and critique involved.  This New Comedy came into being around the mid-4th century B C. The most famous of New Comedy writers was Menander.

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The medieval period saw many of the old festivities relating to comedy kept to a minimum. The Church strove to restrict the critical aspects of comic performances and drama. Aspects of comic drama did survive, however, in the medieval folk plays and festivals. There were also mock religious dramas, showing aspects of parody and farces created from stories of morality and miracles. For details on how to Book A Comedian, visit https://thecomedyclub.co.uk/.

The Italian Renaissance sparked new forms of drama and comedy in 16th century England saw the tradition of the interlude combine with classic Latin comedy to create the great Elizabethan comedies. The best and most iconic of these were the comedies of William Shakespeare. The comedies of Shakespeare ranged from the farcical to the tragic and represent the mastery of the romantic comedy genre. Ben Jonson was another writer of the time who produced material influenced by classical works which was satirical and sarcastic.

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Moliere became famous in 17th-century France for his work that was influenced by the classics and the commedia dell’arte of Italy. Moliere was the one the greatest satirical and comical writers in the history of theatre. Comedy took a pause in England, during the suppressive period of the Puritan Revolution under Cromwell. English comic drama re-emerged with the witty and often bawdy writing of names such as Etherege and Congreve. By the end of the century though, puritanism clamped down on such behaviour again and the raucous joyful comedy of the Restoration became watered down into a kind of sentimental comedy which was more likely to make you cry than laugh.

Thankfully, a century later, England saw a revival of its witty satirical comedies, particularly in the works of Sheridan. During the latter part of the 19th century, excellent comedy was alive and well on the stage. The comedies of ideas written by George Bernard Shaw were also incredibly popular. Elsewhere, the famed Anton Chekhov began writing exquisite comedies about the fading powers of the Russian Aristocracy in the late 1880s.