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Introduction to Theatre Online Course

Dr. Eric W. Trumbull, Professor, Theatre/Speech

Last revision date: January 4, 2008

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Types of Drama / Plays: Comedy


"Komos" -- Greek -- revelry at end of comedies based on some deviation from normality in action, character, thought, or speech "in fun" (tho' can still have serious purpose)

Henri Bergson "On Laughter." -- "anesthesia of the heart" --audiences view objectively -- the banana peel fall is funny, as long as it is not us and if not hurt (cartoons).

Aristotle's book of comedy, if there was one ever, is not extant. In tragedy, people are better than they really are; in comedy, people are worse that they really are.

Often: if a happy ending, therefore a comedy. A kind of catharsis through laughter and amusement -- helps remind us of our frailties and helps keep us sane.

Characteristics of comedy -- a way of looking at the world in which basic values are asserted but natural laws suspended -- to underscore human follies and foolishness -- sometimes wry, rueful, hilarious.

the idea or concept that turns the accepted notion of things upside down and makes it the basis of the play -- provides structural and thematic unity and can be a springboard for comic dialog, characters, and situations.

involves exaggeration and incongruity and contradictions--

Incongruity -- illogical, out of place surprise.

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Comic techniques

verbal humor


malapropisms--LINK to malaprop page --misusing wrong words in such a way that they sound similar but usually are strikingly different from the word intended.

The Rugrats, for example, use a number of malapropisms: Angelica said once that there was a "whole world to deplore" out there (the best are like this--the word sounds similar but means something strikingly different).

Justin Wilson, the "cajun cook," was famous for his malapropisms: he called himself "a half-bleed cajun" who "granulated high school."

(Wilson, pp. 204-205, has some nice examples).

epigrams (or go here)


incongruity between the way characters see themselves or pretend to be, as opposed to the way they really are
lot complications -- especially in farce

coincidences --

mistaken identities -- Comedy of Errors, The School for Scandal


Shakespeare -- uses comedy in tragedy and tragedy in comedy and different kinds of comedies --difficult to categorize.{Top of Page}


Kinds of Comedy: "High" and "Low"

1. Farce: often considered a separate form (Plautus, Charley's Aunt).

often considered to be "low comedy" (versus "high comedy").

physical comedy : "slapstick" -- physical action provokes the thought.

Very high incongruity (surprise, something out of place or unexpected).

Comedy of situation, but extreme incongruity -- buffoonery, accidents, mistaken identities, ludicrous situations.

[H., P., & L: "the average human being as an undeserving, universal victim of circumstance..."]

Often stylized:
(Sometimes referred to as breaking the proscenium or breaking the fourth wall, the term refers to a speech or comment made by an actor directly to the audience about the action of the play or another character. The audience is to understand that this comment is not heard or noticed by the other characters in the play -- from "Glossary of Theatrical Terms," http://www.ebicom.net/~tct/glossary.htm.)
(broad look at the audience and/or another character[s] in surprise, astonishment, disgust, etc.)
(obviously playing to the audience, usually with broad facial expressions and movements)

2. Burlesques-- lampooning other works of art, including theatre pieces.

3. Satire -- ridicule of public institutions and figures.

4. Domestic Comedy --home and hearth.

5. Comedy of Manners / Wit: similar to character and situation aristocratic and witty characters .

6. Comedy of Ideas

Additional forms not mentioned in Wilson and Goldfarb:

a. Comedy of situation:

character and ideas are minor hidden identities, discoveries, reversals, etc. similar to farce, but less unrealistic

b. Comedy of character: eccentricities of the protagonist (Molière)

c. Romantic comedy struggles of love, sympathetic characters, ludicrous devices lovers use (Shakespeare's Midsummer, 12th Night)

Restoration Drama (School for Scandal)

Concept or thought is essential.

Shaw (prostitution, English class system), Aristophanes (Birds, Lysistrata) {Top of Page}

Ladder of Comedy:

"Pure Comedy" --"High Comedy" Satire -- biting humor -- criticism of life
[Sporre, 100] highly complex, embracing a wide range of approaches--from intellectual wit to slapstick Incongruity -- surprise, out of place
  Verbal Wit

"Low Comedy"

Plot devices -- misunderstandings, mistaken identities

comedy that depends on action and situation, usually involving trivial theme [Sporre, 100]

in all farce

inopportune arrivals
  embarrassing occurrences

Lightness of touch --

elements of story can be serious, but most is funny, or humor plays a significant part.

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This page and all linked pages in this directory are copyrighted Eric W. Trumbull, 1998-2008

Last revision date: January 4, 2008