The word “comedy” comes from the Greek verb, meaning “to revel”. Comedy is an essential part of drama and theater, and apart of our lives today. Comedy today has been influenced by many previous comics, from a variety of countries and time periods.
1. 5th Century B.C. – Ancient Greek Comedy
Along with tragedy, comedy was a principle in Greek theater. There was three periods that Athenian comedy is divided into; Old Comedy, Middle Comedy, and New Comedy.
The Old Comedy, originated from acts of obscene abuse. The first Athenian comedy was around 410 B.C.E. is almost completely lost. Comedy was shown by using similar techniques to tragedy, by using choral dances, masked actors, stage mechanics and its purpose for ridicule. The first Old Comedy plays that were consisted of songs, buffoonery and insights surrounding philosophical ideas, were first performed for the religious festival of Dionysus in Athens. Most Old Comedy is known through the work of Aristophanes, as he is one of the most famous playwrights and his work is the basics of Ancient Greek comedy, and so it is also referred to as Aristophanic Comedy.There is no specific date that shows a divide between Middle Comedy and Old Comedy, as it was very similar. New Comedy lasted around the time of the Macedonian rule, to about 260 B.C.E.
– A greek theater mask, used for comedy plays.
2. 13th Century – Medieval Court Jesters
During the Middle Ages, theater became a way of expressing public religious worship. The Church was the motivation to keep the joy of drama to a minimum , however comic drama survived through medieval festivals and folk plays. In the midst of the 13th Century, court jesters started making appearances. Their role was to entertain the royal court by performance, and they wore a three pointed hat (the fool’s hat) along with bright colored attire One of the most famous jesters is William Sommers who performed and entertained for Henry VIII of England. Jesters were chose for their ability to do a wide variety of skills including tricks, jokes, jumping, clowning, musical performances and acting. Jesters would perform depending on the royal court’s mood, sometimes performing all day and other times not performing for days. They were paid and looked after well, and more often than not they would make fun of nobles and respectable personalities.
– A typical jester in the royal court.
3. 16th to 18th Century – Renaissance Comics
Along with the arrival of the Renaissance, a new and crucial kind of drama emerged. In 16th Century England in, a tradition of the interlude was developed by John Heywood, and combines aspects of classic Latin comedy to create the infamous Elizabethan comedy. This reached its popularity through the works of Shakespeare. Shakespeare had a wide variety of plays, from comedies that ranged from the farcical to the tragicomic. He was the master of what is called Romantic Comedy. The comedy was shown gradually, through tragedy and Shakespeare’s poetic work was what helped blend these two elements together to create beautiful and enchanting comedic plays. The unusual coincidences, incredible reunions and strange discoveries were what drew in the crowds.
– “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, one of the most famous Shakespearean comedies of all time.
Another crucial kind of drama that developed from the Renaissance period is the “Commedia dell’ Arte” or “Comedy of the Art”. This was a new style of theater that involved and emphasized ensemble acting. It consisted of improvisations that were set in firm frameworks of masks and stock situations. The plots of these plays were mainly taken from classical literary tradition of the commedia erudita, or literary drama.
– A painting, depicting what an old show of Commedia Dell’ Arte would look like.
4. 1770s -Melodramatic Comedy (stock characters from Melodrama – who are comic?)
Melodrama originated from France in 1770 during the Romantic literary period and was created to help the romantics express their various emotions in very dramatic ways. These emotions included joy and happiness, which came along with comedy. This new dramatic form of theater expressed emotions through dialogue and musical accompaniments. Melodrama has specific elements and characteristics. There are six main stock characters in Melodrama and they are the staple of Melodramatic performances. Stock characters are characters based on personalities or stereotypes. The types of stock characters in Melodrama are the hero, the heroine, the villain, the villain’s accomplice, the faithful servant and the maidservant. The hero, is usually handsome and manly, while the heroine is beautiful and usually in distress. The villain is portrayed as greedy and evil and in contrast, the villain’s accomplice is quite idiotic and used for comedic purposes. The faithful servant can help uncover clues for the hero, and can serve for comedy relief as well. And lastly, the maidservant is usually flirty, and loyal to the heroine.
Every melodramatic performance also has a sequence which the story follows. There is the provocation, in which something happens that inspires the villain to do an evil action to the hero. Then there is the pangs, which is the pain and hardships that the hero and heroine (and sometimes others) feel caused by the villain, and finally there is the penalty, where the villain receives the punishment they deserve for their bad actions. Many plays and movies to this day follow this structure.
– A sketch of how a melodramatic play would look like.
5. 1780s- Circus Comedy
The first circus that resembles modern circuses, was opened in Paris in 1782 by Philip Astley. It was called the “Amphithéâtre Anglois” and showcased a variety of horse riding tricks. Since then, circus comedy has evolved immensely. Although in the middle of the nineteenth century acrobats began to get more attention. It started with acrobats on horseback, and “Floor” acrobats were also quick to make their mark. The best of them were often clowns. Circus clowns started off as skilled parodists who might talk, sing, ride a horse, juggle, present trained animals, do balancing acts, or tumble. This was the birth of clowns. Now, clowns are commonly seen, from advertising brands, to entertaining children. With a variety of tricks, like balloon art, acrobatics, miming, juggling, jokes, through slapstick humor, they seem to resemble court jesters. With abnormal outfits and makeup, clowns became the center of attention and gave circuses fame.
– a photo of an old circus clown.
6. 1894 to Present – Cinematic Comedy
Cinematic comedy is usually considered to be the oldest film genre. The first kind of film was Silent Film during the early 1900’s. As silent films were reliant on visuals and big actions, comedy was ideal. One of the most known forms of comedy, known as slapstick, was commonly used for silent films as the actions were extremely exaggerated through violence, practical jokes, accidents, acrobatic death-defying stunts, water soakings, and most commonly wild chase scenes. This era led to the fame of very known actors today, one of them is Charlie Chaplin, who starred in many silent comedies. His most famous one is “The Champion” in which Chaplin wins a boxing match by putting a horseshoe in the glove.
Cinematic comedy is one of the most popular genres of comedy to this day as well, in the form of movies, television, video.
– Charlie Chaplin in a scene from the silent film, “The Champion”
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