Five Types of Comedy
When we speak of a play as a comedy we generally mean a play which has a pleasant atmosphere and a happy ending. It may not actually make us laugh, but it must at least be amusing or entertaining. Speaking roughly and broadly, the history of English comedy offers certain distinct types of this kind of play. These types are romantic comedy, the comedy of humours, the comedy of manners, sentimental comedy, and black or dark comedy. Each of these may separately be considered.
A romantic comedy is a play in which we find a delightful or pleasing mixture of love and laughter. It was Shakespeare who carried romantic comedy almost to perfection, with A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. Fine poetry is also an ingredient in these well-known examples of romantic comedy. Other writers of romantic comedy in Shakespeare's time were Beaumont (1584-1616) and Fletcher (1579-1625) who together wrote a number of such plays.
The Comedy of Humours and of Manners
The "comedy of humours" is a phrase generally used in connection with Ben Jonson (1572-1637). His comedies include Every Man in His Humour, Every Man Out of His Humour, The Silent Woman, Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair. Jonson's idea was that in comedy, each character should be a personification of some human passion or weakness. Jonson used the word humour not in any of its modern senses but in the sense of a dominant passion or obsession. In Every Man in His Humour, the rich merchant Kitely has a young and pretty wife of whom he is madly jealous. Jealousy is thus his humour or his ruling passion. The young hero's father, Old Knowell, in this play is always worried about his son's behaviour and safety: anxiety is thus his humour. Captain Bobadill is the talkative but cowardly old soldier: his humour is boastfulness. Afterwards the phrase "comedy of manners" came to be applied to the plays of Congreve (1670-1729) and Wycherley (1640-1716), and still later to those of Sheridan (1751-1816) and Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). The comedies of these writers make fun not so much of individual human beings and their humours as of social groups and their fashionable manners.
The word "sentimental" in the phrase "sentimental comedy" is used in an unusual sense. A sentimental comedy was one written with the intention of expressing moral sentiments. In other words, a sentimental comedy contained an element of preaching even though the preaching might be disguised as entertainment. The chief writer of sentimental comedy was Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729). Steele wrote several plays of this kind, including The Funeral and The Conscious Lovers. In the twentieth century there was a rebirth of the sentimental comedy, but under new names and in new forms. Phrases like "the drama of social consciousness" and "the dram of commitment" have been used by writers and critics who felt, like Steele, that comedy should be morally instructive as well as entertaining. Thus writers as different as Wilde, Sir James Barrie, Sir Noel Coward, and Sir Terence Rattigan have sometimes been criticized for being frivolous and for having no serious moral purpose, whereas Shaw has been praised for using comedy as propaganda for his own opinions. The worldwide influence of the German dramatist, Brecht (1898-1956), has encouraged many playwrights to believe that drama should be concerned with political and social problems, if not actually propagandist.
The Dark Comedy
This species of comedy is so-called because of an element of cynicism and bitterness in it. Shakespeare, famous for his romantic comedies, himself provides us with examples of the dark comedy. These are Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida both of which are cynical and bitter, and are therefore typical of the darker side of comedy. This darker side appears also in such plays as Moliere's Tartuffe, Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, and Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, but the fifties and sixties of the twentieth century provide many more examples of dark comedy in the work of a number of playwrights.
A New Kind of Drama
When John Osborne's Look Back in Anger was first seen on the London stage in 1956, it became clear that new age in the history of English drama was beginning. It no longer seemed possible to keep the old distinction between tragedy and comedy—a distinction which has always been an unreal one, though convenient for the purposes of literary history. Osborne was an actor before he became a dramatist. He has written two historical plays— Luther and A Patriot for Me—as well as dark comedies like Epitaph for George Dillon (written in collaboration with Anthony Creighton), The Entertainer, and Inadmissible Evidence. The importance of Look Back in Anger was not that it was a better play than Osborne's later works, but that it introduced a new kind of drama to the English stage. If we call it comedy, we must not make the mistake of thinking that it is in any way like the comedy of Sheridan or Wilde, or the artificial drawing-room comedies that have always been popular in the commercial theatre. The subject of Look Back in Anger is basically the hidden class-war between those who have grown up in comfortable middle-class homes, and those who have fought their way up the social stairs by their own intelligence. Osborne shows us something of the married life of a young man of the latter type, and his wife—a girl of equal intelligence but higher social class, who is unable to understand his anger and frustration.
The Kitchen-Sink Drama
After Look Back in Anger, the phrase "angry young man" became popular as a description of those who, like Osborne, were unhappy with the injustice and inequality which still seemed to exist in Britain despite the recent "victory for democracy" in the Second World War. Another popular phrase was "kitchen-sink drama"—generally used by those who did not care for plays like Look Back in Anger, and who perhaps saw the dark comedy of the time as a sign of imminent social revolution. This phrase could reasonably be applied to the work of Arnold Wesker.
Wesker as a Writer of Dark Comedy
Wesker's play The Kitchen was actually set in the kitchen of a London restaurant, and showed the relations, both tragic and comic, between the people working there. With the possible exception of Harold Pinter, Wesker seems to be the most important writer of dark comedy. His three plays Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots, and I'm Talking About Jerusalem were started in the 1950's, and are concerned with the same Jewish family from the East End of London. The trilogy shows a group of people who are basically loving and idealistic, trying in a small way to improve the world and build a better life for themselves, but generally defeated and frustrated by the hard facts of life and human nature. The trilogy has that unusual mixture of comedy and tragedy, social consciousness and human warmth, which we find in writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens.
The Theatre of the Absurd
Some of the most successful of the younger dramatists have been much influenced by the so-called "theatre of the absurd". The kind of plays suggested by this phrase began in France with the works of Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. Beckett, an Irishman, lived for many years in Paris and wrote most of his plays in French. One of them, Waiting for Godot, was performed in London in English translation in the 1950's. Audiences found it puzzling, but it was extremely successful, and established Beckett as one of the chief influences in the English experimental theatre. For the ordinary reader or spectator it is difficult to see what Beckett's plays are about. In Endgame the characters live in dust-bins, and the audience sees only their heads and shoulders. In Happy Days the woman who is almost the only speaking character is slowly buried in sand until, at the end of the play, only her head is visible. In Come and Go (which lasts for three minutes) there is no action, and only 121 words.
Other Examples of Modern Dark Comedy
Apart from Beckett, the chief writers to use the ideas of the theatre of the absurd were Harold Pinter (The Birthday Party), N.F. Simpson (A Resounding Tinkle), the American dramatist Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead). It is hard to say what readers and audiences in the year 2000 A.D. will think of these examples of modern dark comedy. In the opinion of some critics, these plays are difficult and tedious to read, but fascinating to see and hear them presented on the stage.