Musings about the Comedy Form

Ancient forays into Comedy Relief

Ricky Gervais has effectively realised how amusing creatures can appear in his show Animals and with his book Flanimals. The exhibition currently at the Natural History Museum is entitled “Sexual Nature” and John Walsh in today’s Independent (11th Feb 2011) has penned a wry article entitled, “The male snail who likes to give his lady a prod”. This does not refer to some electronic gesture on some sort of zoological Facebook but must have evolved over a very long period of time. Although farce may be swiftly delivered Walsh ponders what he refers to as the “…tenacious Venezuelan Weevil which can maintain the same sexual position for 35 years; and the humble Roman snail, which, in its protracted 20-hour courtship ritual produces little love darts…” The process is aimed at his female partner who must find little opportunity, unfortunately, for comic relief.

‘Comic relief’ appears to have first been used to refer to the cheerful break in a serious work like the Porter’s speech in Macbeth. Dr Johnson praised Shakespeare for such contrasts. This is expounded in the rather jolly, “Exit, pursued by a bear” by Louise Mc Connell who pronounces that Comedy is “amusing and has a happy resolution…. and…. includes words of satire and burlesque”

Originating in Ancient Greece from amongst the revels of wine, fruit and music the production of comedy was later taken forward by the Latin dramatists. The first major figure was Titus Maccus Plautus (254-184 BC) who was born in Sarsina in Umbria. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Umbria) He worked as a stage-carpenter and later wrote plays in the breaks between the heavy labours in a flour mill. Some 130 plays were attributed to Plautus of which some 20 have survived. They were adapted from Athenian comedies of the C4th and C3rd BC. They concern knavish slaves, gullible fathers and licentious captains. Interestingly, the dialogue (diverbium) occupied only about a third of Plautus’ plays; two-thirds were the musical pieces (cantica), thus making them early precursors of the modern musical. The iambics notably contained much local dialect which was less varied in the verse form than in the portions that were sung.

The less prolific but more stylish dramatist Terence (195-159 BC) was born in Carthage and hauled as a slave into Rome. He lacked Plautus’s taste for burlesque and rough brutishness. Only one writer of tragedy, Seneca the Younger (4bc-65AD) whose works drew on the Greeks, had much influence on later drama. More information, if you have time is of course at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_comedy.

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