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Italian comedians, portrayed by Antoine Watteau , 1714

A comedy (in the 15th century synonymous with Latin cōmoedia, from ancient Greek κωμῳδία [kōmōdía] from κωμῳδός [kōmōdós] "comic actor" and "comedy poet", originally "who recites mocking songs at the Dionysus festival") is a drama with often amusing storylines that ends happily for the hero (s) . The entertaining mood arises from an exaggerated representation of human weaknesses, which can also have critical purposes in addition to amusing the audience.

The audience feels drawn to the characters on stage either because they recognize themselves in them, or they look down at them and laugh at them because they have weaknesses that need to be avoided or because they belong to a lower social class. If this attitude fluctuates towards the comic characters , one speaks of a tragic comedy .

The characteristic of the cheerful was often brought to the fore in order to weaken the fact that the comedy was supposed to bring the "worse people" ( Aristotle ) onto the stage, since the modern era that is, according to the general opinion, the non-noble bourgeois figures. Martin Opitz explained, for example: "The comedy exists in bad being and people" - it shows "servants" instead of "potentates" ( Von der Deutschen Poeterey , 1624). In the course of bourgeois emancipation, there have been variants of the "comedy" since the 18th century that are hardly or not at all cheerful, but have bourgeois staff, such as the Opéra comique , the touching comedy or the stirring piece .

Story of comedy

Comedy in ancient Greece

Scene from a Greek comedy, 4th century BC. Chr.

Today's comedy is based on ancient Greek comedy, the beginnings of which date back to before the 6th century BC. The Greek word Komodia is a compound of Komos (procession) and ado (to sing), i.e. singing procession , and denotes (at least one research opinion ) the exuberant worship of the fertility god Dionysus , whom the satyrs and maenads followed in intoxication. The cult of Dionysus was so popular that it became a state cult in Athens in the 6th century . The competing derivation of the word from the Greek kome (village) is a product of Hellenistic scholarship, which is related to speculations about the origin of the Komos in the context of village festivals (the so-called rural Dionysia ), but is linguistically unsustainable.

Regular premieres of comedies took place mainly in Athens, as part of the Dionysus Festival, where performances of the great Dionysia took place every four years for four days. Five comedies were performed on the first day, followed by three tragedies with a satyr play at the end.

Attic comedy distinguishes between three phases or epochs: the old comedy , the most famous author of which is Aristophanes , the medium comedy , of which only the names of the authors but no plays have been preserved, and the new comedy , the most important representative of which is Menander . Characteristic of the old comedy is an often caustic criticism of social and political conditions, combined with attacks against living people, as well as a mostly loosely composed plot, while the new comedy thrives more on the comedy of the plot depicted. The Attic comedies, especially those by Menander and his contemporaries, were popularized in the 3rd century BC. BC also known and loved in Rome .


Roman comedian with mask, 2nd century BC Chr.

See main article: Theater of Ancient Roman (section: Genres of Comedy) .

Plautus was arguably the most prolific Latin comedy writer. As the latest research suggests, he mostly resorted to Greek templates. His pieces, geared towards popular success, were also popular with the common people. He cultivated the type of cunning little man who asserted himself against the authorities with motherly wit and became the model for many figures such as Falstaff , Scapin or the Truffaldino of the Commedia dell'arte . His Miles Gloriosus , a cocky soldier, became a role model for modern comic characters. Twenty comedies by Plautus have come down to some extent in full. In addition, only six other Latin comedies from antiquity have survived, namely by Terentius (Terenz), who is considered the somewhat more distinguished comedy poet.

The themes of the Roman comedy are apolitical, the plot straightforward and its characters simple. The authors began to deal with new forms and materials. In Mimus , for example, there is a mixed work, the Epyllion : It uses the inherently "heroic" hexametric meter , which creates an ironic distance from the completely unheroic content and creates part of the comic effect. Theocritus had already written verses in which shepherds speak in the measure of heroic poetry while tending the sheep.

middle Ages

The medieval theater did not yet have to invoke the ancient separation between tragedy and comedy like the modern theater . The spiritual games that were widespread were mixed forms of serious and comic episodes. Devil scenes represented the wicked and the comic. The ointment shop scene or the race of the apostles in the Easter game became extensive burlesques .

At the end of the Middle Ages, secular games emerged, especially pranks, simple dialogues, masked parades that depict folk-related acts to amuse the audience: quarreling scenes, courtroom scenes, marriage scenes such as in the carnival games ( vasnaht means "expelling evil"). They become the source of popular theater that led to variants such as the Commedia dell'arte . This is evidenced by the development of the devil Hellekin (from Norman) into a harlequin . It is a pan-European development. Worth mentioning is the 15th-century Swiss Uri dish game and Carnival games that mock the Pope and the indulgence trade (for example with the Bernese author Niklaus Manuel Deutsch ).

Modern times

16th Century

A Capitano in the Commedia dell'arte around 1600

The Renaissance took its bearings from the ancient theorists. Above all, the poetics of Aristotle and the Epistle letters ( De arte poetica ) of Horace were used by the humanists in relation to the theater. The plays by Lope de Vega or Shakespeare , on the other hand, are still at the end of the medieval tradition, in which there is no clear distinction between tragedy and comedy. This can be seen even more clearly in Fernando de Rojas ' tragic comedy La Celestina around 1500 , which is later taken up by Max Frisch in Don Juan or The Love of Geometry .

In England, Shakespeare created many comedies since the end of the 16th century, such as The Comedy of Errors , Lost Love Labor , Two Gentlemen from Verona , A Midsummer Night's Dream , The Taming of the Shrew . Often, joke and seriousness are close together. He was not a courtly writer, but an actor, director, writer and even co-owner of the Globe Theater . In 1642 all theatrical performances were banned in England, which meant a slump in the development of the theater. In the late 17th century, the "comedy of manners" was created, the moral and social comedy.

At the same time, in the Siglo de Oro , there was a heyday of theater in Spain with Tirso de Molina , Lope de Vega and, towards the end, Pedro Calderón de la Barca . Misunderstandings, intrigue, confusion, forbidden love and deception through masks are the means of popular comedies.

In Italy, the Commedia dell'arte emerged from the 16th century , which is considered impromptu theater because rehearsed dramas played a minor role for it. The Italian word arte means handicraft , indicating that the performers were professional actors whose training included speaking training, correct walking, sitting, standing and falling, as well as fencing, singing and dancing. In addition, there was often memory training, voice training and rules of behavior. The characters in the pieces always corresponded to the same stereotypes , which were recognizable by their disguise, such as Dottore , Pantalone , Il Capitano and their adversaries and heroes, the Zanni . The audience also played a role through their reactions. The performances took place at annual fairs; the Parisian fair theater had been the European center since the end of the century . The comedy arose less from a plot with intrigue and conflict than from the situations, such as missteps by the protagonists such as stumbling or putting on a hat incorrectly. From the Commedia dell'arte to Brecht, Giorgio Strehler and Dario Fò, European theater has been decisively influenced.

17th century

17th century English comedy

The baroque age is characterized by the splendor of the court theater . In the French classical period , a sharp contrast developed between exclusive courtly and public bourgeois theater (which endeavored to copy courtly theater). Even if tragedies were played at the annual fairs, it was generally accepted that they could only be involuntarily comic copies of the court theater, i.e. comedies. This is how the parodies and travesties in the Parisian fair theater or the main and state actions came about . At the time of the formative French Classical period, the personnel of the tragedy were predominantly aristocratic, the personnel of the comedy were predominantly bourgeois (class clause ), as requested by Martin Opitz .

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known as Molière , was the master of courtly comedy. He mocked and criticized the weaknesses of his fellow human beings, certain professions, scheming ways of acting and created masterpieces of character comedy. So he helped King Louis XIV with political statements like in Tartuffe , whose ridicule is directed against the clergy . Molière drew from the commedia dell'arte and initially moved through the country with a traveling theater until he received a royal monopoly, from which the Comédie-Française later developed. Don Juan makes a nobleman the main character in comedy, which was very controversial but was especially popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Ariane Mnouchkine modeled Molière's work in the 20th century with her cast at the Théâtre du Soleil and in her film Molière (1978) .

Compared to the courtly French theater, the comedies by Andreas Gryphius and Martin Opitz seem rather clumsy. The courtyards in the German-speaking area were based on the Italian cities and Paris, but they could not even come close to matching these models.

In addition to courtly comedy, there were the " grotesque " theater forms of the people or " third estate ". Such crude comedies have long been performed by traveling theaters. The establishment of permanent houses gradually began in Europe from around 1600, but these were mostly continued to be used by migrating English and Italian theater troupes. From around 1700 the German touring theaters also gained in importance.

18th century

In the 18th century, the actor's specialization in tragedy or comedy dissolved. Here is an allegorical representation of David Garrick between comedy and tragedy.

After the death of the Sun King in 1715, bourgeois comedy gradually began to emancipate itself, such as vaudeville at the fairs. Musicalized forms of comedy such as opera buffa and opéra comique no longer necessarily originated in the courts. In the somewhat backward German-speaking area, however, theater reformers such as Johann Christoph Gottsched and Caroline Neuber always tried to adapt to the courtly theater of French classical music, introduced tragedy into bourgeois theater and tried to make the buffoon of the impromptu comedy into a civilized and literary figure .

Gottsched announced in the 11th chapter of his theatrical essay Attempt at Critical Poetry to the Germans that joking was inferior by defining comedy as "an imitation of a vicious act which, through its ridiculous nature, can amuse the viewer, but at the same time edify". His wife Luise Adelgunde Victorie Gottsched , however, created a comedy with her work Die Pietisterey im Fischbein-Rocke, published anonymously in 1736 . The introduction of courtly tragedy into bourgeois theater failed, but such reform efforts resulted, among other things, in the written farce as a further development of comedic impromptu theater.

An important author of the still authoritative Comédie-Française was Marivaux , succeeding Molière. His pieces deal primarily with the theme of love and intrigue, are easily written and often address differences in class between lovers. However, he does not yet advocate bridging class boundaries through love. In Beaumarchais , a pre-revolutionary social criticism emerges more clearly.

Comedy was also literary outside of France, for example by the Dane Ludvig Holberg and the Italian Carlo Goldoni . A frequent topic is the relationship “master and servant”, which is not only addressed in The Servant of Two Lords by Goldoni, but is an important topic of the Enlightenment and ends in Hegel's reflections on domination and servitude (which in turn von Brecht in Herr Puntila and his servant Matti be picked up). The great success on the opera stage is Pergolesi's intermezzo La serva padrona . The Venetian Carlo Gozzi relies on the tradition of the Commedia dell'arte and with his holidays exerts a great influence on music and literature of the 20th century (such as Dario Fò).

Because, according to the usual distinction between tragedy and comedy, the bourgeoisie was ridiculous from the start, which offended the bourgeois theatergoers, forms of comedy that tried to differentiate themselves from the farce developed , also forms of comedy that were not at all cheerful, but sentimental to tragic. A pioneer of serious, but not tragic, bourgeois theater was Denis Diderot . His theories were influential, but his plays failed to catch on.

On the other hand, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing had success in the sense of Diderot , who knew theater practice from the ground up and also dealt with it theoretically. The latter happened particularly in his Hamburg Dramaturgy , written in 1767/68 , in which he dealt with current theater, the Aristotelian theory of drama and the performance practice of the French classics. He demanded truthfulness in relation to the act as well as the people. For him, comedy is a “mirror of human life”, which he used against unrealistic situation comedy. In his youth Lessing wrote several comedies, but probably only Minna von Barnhelm is known , the piece that he deliberately called a " comedy ". The poets of Sturm und Drang and the young Goethe carefully wrote comedies that were critical of society. Parodies , satires , and jokes turned against the grievances of the time.

The French Revolution brought the downfall of the exclusive court theater and with it the strict division between tragedy and comedy. At the same time, the theater was commercialized. Numerous mixed forms emerged such as the Rührstück , the opera semiseria or the melodrama , which could have comic elements and a happy ending, but was mostly serious. At the turn of the 19th century there are the comedies by August Wilhelm Iffland and August von Kotzebue , which are easy and entertaining, whereby Kotzebue's comedy Die deutscher Kleinstädter can still be topical today and is played relatively frequently.

During this time, the boulevard theater (so named after the place of its origin, the Boulevard du Temple in Paris) was born in France, which spread widely until the beginning of the First World War in 1914 and since the last decades of the 20th century by the everywhere emerging small theaters, private theaters or room theaters experienced a renaissance.

19th century

The actors August Wilhelm Iffland and Franz Labes in Molières The Miser , 1810

Since the norms of the court theater no longer existed, the theater had to be redefined. It tried a literary criticism and later an academic literary study . Often the popular farce was not recognized as a comedy. Gustav Freytag maintained in 1863 that the comedy would only have reorganized itself when "weakness of the princes, [...] arrogance of the Junkers " were portrayed.

German Romanticism was rather poor in comedies, it was sometimes claimed, although its poets are masters of satire and irony . Ludwig Tieck wrote interesting but impractical plays for the theater. Christian Dietrich Grabbe , Karl Ferdinand Gutzkow and Heinrich Laube are certainly to be recognized as comedy poets. With the Austrian writers Franz Grillparzer , who is still in the comedy tradition, Ferdinand Raimund and Johann Nestroy , who build on models of commercial French and sometimes English theater, German-language comedy reached a now recognized climax.

Johann Nestroy as an actor, 1857

At the beginning of the 19th century the comedy The Broken Jug by Heinrich von Kleist maintained its literary status, while his play Amphitryon is more of a tragic comedy . Based on the lightness of French literature, Georg Büchner succeeded in creating a romantic comedy with Leonce and Lena that had a great impact on the theater of the 20th century. In view of the fact that this century discovered the dialects or dialects, the varieties of local comedy, including the local farce in Germany, are to be mentioned, which are often neglected. Ernst Elias Niebergall , for example, is unforgettable , whose Datterich in the Hessian dialect certainly has political traits. Gerhart Hauptmann's Der Biberpelz shows the change from comedy to a description of the milieu at the end of the 19th century, as later expressed by Carl Zuckmayer in his drama Der Hauptmann von Köpenick .

Due to the size of the city and therefore the audience volume, Paris remained the theatrical center of Europe. Here the comedy experienced a great upswing by Alfred de Musset , Alfred de Vigny , Alexandre Dumas , Eugène Scribe ( The Glass of Water ). Victorien Sardous Madame sans gêne from the time of Napoléon is still often played today. The small private stages in particular celebrate success with the boulevard play , in which the audience is amused above all by the inadequacies of others, by intrigues and puns. Georges Feydeau and Eugène Labiche were masters of this genre , which is often considered superficial. The light entertainment dominated the repertoire of Europe.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Oscar Wilde shone with his comedies ( An Ideal Husband ), which are often referred to as conversational pieces , on the stages of England and later Europe. Not to be forgotten is the Russian theater with authors such as Nikolaj Gogol , whose plays The Auditor or The Marriage are among the most frequently performed comedies. Even Ivan Turgenev is important as a comedy writer, Alexander Ostrovsky is mainly caused by the comedy The forest known.

20th century

The successful comedies of entertainment theater and the literarily prestigious stage plays finally went their separate ways in the 20th century. Comedies are often referred to as plays that are not actually funny, but rather show people in the Aristotelian sense of their ridiculousness, indignity, and absurdity. The rule that comedy must present bourgeois and tragedy aristocratic personnel has now been broken for good. In Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Der Schwierige or Fritz von Herzmanovsky-Orlando's Emperor Joseph and the Railway Warden's Daughter , nobles also appear as comic main characters.

As a comedy writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal is probably less known than as a poet or theorist ( Chandos letter ), but not only his operatic libretti , but also his comedies Der Schwierige or Christina's Journey Home show that comedy plays have a serious background and are nevertheless cheerful can. He regarded the comedy as a particularly difficult type of poetry.

Poster of the world premiere of Alfred Jarry's King Ubu

The avant-garde showed comedy new ways. In this regard, the 19th century ended with a clap of thunder: In Paris, King Ubu belched in 1896: merdre ("scream"). The final break with the rule of bienséance (propriety) had become possible, and a noble (albeit stylized) figure could become a crude comedy figure. Its creator Alfred Jarry ushered in the era of grotesque theater. A generation later, Antonin Artaud , the creator of the Theater of “Cruelty” , and André Breton , the author of the Manifesto of Surrealism, followed . Boris Vian , Eugène Ionesco , Jean Genet , Michel de Ghelderode , Fernando Arrabal and many others (including filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder ) are influenced by Jarry, including the alternative theater scene in Europe and especially the theater of the absurd . In the 19th century the ennui (boredom, weariness) was still the big topic, in the 20th century - especially in the big cities - it is the desire for the extreme, ugly, cruel, contradicting, morbid and unconventional. The laughter suffocates in black humor .

In Russia, too, a kind of public shock set out to provoke politicians and the media: Vladimir Mayakovsky , who described the October Revolution as his work and satirically staging a kind of world theater from a proletarian perspective in Mysterium buffo (1918). His influence on Erwin Piscator , Sergej Michailowitsch Eisenstein and Bertolt Brecht should not be underestimated. Daniil Charms' avant-garde comedies did not become available to the public until the end of the 20th century. The Polish poet Sławomir Mrożek is very well received in Europe with his grotesque pieces. Witold Gombrowicz has created a grotesque masterpiece with his “Tragifarce” Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy , Tadeusz Różewicz ( Die Kartothek ) also elevates the ironic and grotesque to the satirical and is one of the most important authors of the absurd theater.

In Western Europe, the French and Belgians are masters of absurd theater, but Federico García Lorca was also successful with his play The Miraculous Shoemaker's Wife . Not to forget Samuel Beckett , who mastered French and English equally, and who wrote the most important work of the absurd theater in his work Waiting for Godot . Many of Eugène Ionesco's pieces are comical, grotesque and absurd , whose pieces The Lesson and The Bald Singer have been played evening after evening at the Théâtre de la Huchette Paris for over 40 years . The comedies of Sacha Guitry , Jean Anouilh and Jean-Paul Sartre dominated the theater repertoire for years.

see also: Astracán , Spain

The Irish George Bernard Shaw animated comedy poetry in almost all of Europe : satire , irony and subtle humor are characteristics of his pieces, but they also have the ease of conversational pieces. One of the best known, which is still played today, is probably Pygmalion , which provided the template for the musical My Fair Lady . Also John M. Synge ( The Playboy of the Western World ), TS Eliot and Christopher Fry stand in the Anglo-Saxon tradition of European comedy seal. In Italy, Luigi Pirandello brought comedy back to life, especially with his play Six People Looking for an Author in which Being and Appearance meet, and with the less played play Henry IV , which is about madness and reality. Dario Fo renewed the socio-critical traits in Italian comedy.

A socially critical Swiss version of the comedy was established by the writers Max Frisch ( Biedermann and the Arsonists ) and Friedrich Dürrenmatt ( The Physicists ). The subtle, often macabre Viennese humor is also evident in the later 20th century in the plays of Thomas Bernhard and in the bizarre language games by Werner Schwab .

Types of comedy

According to the shape
According to the content

See also


  • Helmut Arntzen: The serious comedy. The German comedy from Lessing to Kleist. Munich 1968.
  • Helmut Arntzen (ed.): Comedy language. Contributions to the German comedy between the 17th and 20th centuries. Munster 1988.
  • Kurt Groom: European Comedies. Represented on individual interpretations. Frankfurt am Main 1964.
  • Bernhard Greiner: The Comedy . Tübingen 1992.
  • Walter Hinck (Hrsg.): The German Comedy. From the Middle Ages to the present. Düsseldorf 1977.
  • Helmut Prang: History of the comedy. From antiquity to the present (= Kröner's pocket edition . Volume 378). Kröner, Stuttgart 1968, DNB 457841362 .
  • Moraw / Nölle (ed.): The birth of the theater in ancient Greece . Mainz 2002.
  • GE Lessing: Hamburg Dramaturgy . Stuttgart 1963.
  • Georg Hensel: Schedule . Stuttgart 1975.
  • Wolfgang Kayser: The linguistic work of art . Bern 1948.

Web links

Wiktionary: Comedy  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  2. Wolfgang Martens: Afterword, in: Luise Adelgunde Victorie Gottsched (1736): Die Pietisterey im Fischbein-Rocke, ed. by Wolfgang Martens. Stuttgart: Reclam 2010.
  3. Gustav Freytag: The technique of drama . Hirzel, Leipzig 1863, foreword.