Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.02.04

Erich Segal, The Death of Comedy.   Cambridge MA:  Harvard University Press, 2001.  Pp. 589 + xi.  ISBN 0-674-00643-7.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Fred Franko, Hollins University (

Erich Segal's examination of comedy reaches a dubious diagnosis: real comedy is what Aristophanes, Menander, and Plautus wrote; successful imitators include Shakespeare and Moliere; the genre reached its "ultimate perfection" in Beaumarchais; comedy of this sort expired in the mid-twentieth century, assassinated by the Theater of the Absurd. Dr. Segal places the cadaver not on the examining table but rather on the couch, invoking Freudian theory with admixtures of Bergson, Frye, Frazer, Cornford, Burkert, and a score of others. The results? Segal distills the true nature of dramatic comedy as those pieces that aim for komos and gamos: party and wedding. This is a reasonable enough outline, and such a macroscopic view often provides a welcome corrective to analyses that forget the earthier preoccupations of comedy. But the view can be overstated. For Segal, Acharnians succeeds because it shows Dicaeopolis' progression from sexual dysfunction to rejuvenated virility, while Clouds failed because "the humor remains firmly at the anal stage, never acquiring the phallic dimension essential to the komos state of mind" (p.72). Birds is Aristophanes' masterpiece because the play, in essence, "becomes one magnificent erection" (p.87). Such a diagnosis should provoke wry smiles among scholars and spirited discussion among hormonally-driven undergraduates or prurient general readers, but it will only appear convincing to hard-core practitioners of the Freudian school of literary criticism.

This lengthy case study contains twenty-one chapters -- largely plot summaries -- plus a preface and coda. After introductory chapters on etymology and comic form, Segal surveys Old Comedy, Aristophanes (seven plays at some length, but primarily Acharnians, Clouds, Birds), Euripides (Ion, Helen, IT), Menander, Plautus (but only Menaechmi, Casina, Amphitruo), Terence (Eunuch, Andria, Hecyra), Machiavelli (Mandrake), Marlowe (Jew of Malta), Shakespeare (only Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night), Molie\re (Amphitryon, George Dandin, Miser), Jonson (Volpone), Wycherly (Country Wife), the Absurdists (Jarry, Apollinaire, Cocteau, Ionesco), and Beckett (Godot). The coda summarizes the film Dr. Strangelove. Some of these are very good choices, and the inclusion of Euripides in this subject is excellent. Yet, given the authors analyzed, one must wonder at why the choice of three Plautine plays ignores the clever slave, why the "matchless" Marriage of Figaro receives less than three pages of print, why a book emphasizing sexuality shuns Lysistrata, etc. The index is only of proper nouns; hence one cannot locate quickly such recurrent themes as cuckoldry.

M.D.s need continuing education to keep abreast of developments in the field and be re-certified. While Dr. Segal notes that this book has been thirty years in the making, it largely betrays little evolution in thought or attention to current scholarly trends. Indeed, since comedy supposedly expired in the mid-twentieth century, this post-mortem might well have been released in 1975. Chapters One and Seven are largely verbatim copies of articles from 1973. The first of two chapters on Plautus covers only two plays in detail, Menaechmi, through a distillation of Segal's own Roman Laughter (1968) and Casina, through a bare plot summary. Consider this: of the thirty-two footnotes on the examination of Casina, twenty-nine are simply "Ibid" with a citation of line numbers in the play; readers will find not a single reference to what anyone else has thought or said about Casina.1 The one hundred eighteen pages of notes can be baffling for their range of inclusions and omissions. For a bizarre inclusion, witness the citation of the Magazine of the Yale Graduate School (p.522, n.21). For an unaccountable omission, witness the oversight of Miola's Shakespeare and Classical Comedy (Oxford 1994). Readers will find virtually nothing on comic theory since Northrop Frye. Good though Frye is, especially for Shakespeare, he is hardly the last word. Though the book's approach is Freudian, neo-Freudian thinkers such as Lacan are ignored, as is feminist criticism in any form. Segal seems content for his readers to consider scripts rather than to see or envision plays. The complete lack of attention to performance criticism -- arguably the most fruitful approach to classical comedy over the past two decades -- is hard to excuse in a book on dramatic comedy. Thus, while the adjective "metatheatrical" appears twice in the chapter on Plautus, it does so only incidentally and with no discussion of how the concept plays a central role in his comedy.2 Since Dr. Segal is not willing to apply such new treatments, persons interested in comedy ought to seek another more current primary care physician.

Segal writes with a flair, which makes this book an attractive placebo for undergraduates and the general public. Many readers will excuse the occasional logorrhea that springs from continual namedropping and free association.3 However, the search to turn a witty phrase often distorts the case. Consider the following remark on Menander's characters: "The women belong to one of two distinct groups: virgins or prostitutes. Hardly a nuanced view of the opposite sex, it is nonetheless a social dichotomy of fundamental importance. One group is suitable for partying, the other for parturition." (p.154). So much for subtlety in Menandrean characterization. Such a reductionist view has no place for Menander's nurses and matrons, and Epitrepontes is no doubt ignored because Pamphile explodes this mold of virgin or prostitute. Segal wants to keep all the focus on his case study of komos and gamos, wedding parties and pregnancies. Hence: "This may explain the ongoing appeal of Menander's formulaic plot, which was presented with scarcely an alteration each year. For the audience it was still essentially a subliminal dramatized fertility rite, a maypole dance of the imagination. Menander's appeal is similar to the joy felt by a husband whose wife gives him a tie each year which varies by one stripe or polka dot" (161-2). A memorable analogy of dubious value as literary criticism. But perhaps a tie is not just a tie?

The preceding mention of "maypole" in relation to Menander is symptomatic of Segal's approach: concepts are treated transhistorically, such that practices of the Renaissance explicate the twentieth century CE or the fifth BCE. Carnival is Saturnalia is the Dionysia, and so forth because the human psyche has not changed. But the endurance of the ludic spirit returns us to the opening diagnosis that comedy has died. Has it? Is dramatic comedy only the production of Aristophanes, Menander, and their imitators? Such a narrow, Eurocentric definition of comedy smacks of ivory-tower smugness that is misguided and dangerous. Misguided, because even if we leave aside Broadway and the West End, anyone who has gone to the movie theater, rented a video, or watched television will see countless living progeny of Old and New Comedy that have escaped -- and even been enriched by -- the Absurdist "assassins." These new media proudly carry the living Greco-Roman comedic tradition to viewers beyond the narrow confines of theaters.4 Dangerous, because if comedy is truly dead, then the academic study of dramatic comedy becomes forensic rather than family medicine. Rather than stick to a hermetically sealed canon of dead white European male dramatists, should we not seek to explicate how Old and New Comedy inform modern comedies on stage and screen and television? We are all in trouble if we praise the wits of such comic heroes as Dicaeopolis but turn up our noses at Bart Simpson.

In short, while this amusing survey occasionally offers good insights on komos and gamos, the titular metaphor exposes a detrimental and ill-considered fatalism. Why not instead look at the evolution of the comic species? The evolution of a species is not steady and constant, but comes in fits and starts. While Aristophanes, Menander, Plautus, and Shakespeare represent great leaps forward, the period from Terence to Machiavelli is quiet, with little lasting progress in secular dramatic comedy. In this light, the Absurdists are but one odd branch of the comic family tree, and Dr. Segal's pronouncement of comedy's death is premature. Malpractice? No. But anyone interested in the life cycle of comedy needs to seek a second opinion.


1.   The other three are a citation of Cistellaria, a reference to an Italian performance of Casina that Segal saw in 1962, and Williams' article on Roman marriage ceremonies (1958).
2.   There is no mention of Slater's Plautus in Performance (Princeton 1985). Moore's recent discussion of Plautine metatheater (The Theater of Plautus, Texas 1998) is the chapter on Terence (p.245).
3.   Typical is this pointless parenthesis from p.125: "The lavatory, for example, is never mentioned in 'serious' Greek tragedy (or the nineteenth-century novel, for that matter)."
4.   And if one restricts the field to dramatic comedy, as Segal wishes to do, then neither should one discuss Chaplin and Dr. Strangelove at such length without venturing further into the world of comedic film, nor should one drop allusions to sitcoms (Fawlty Towers) and comedic novels (Don Quixote) as corroborating evidence. For a more catholic introduction to the comic genre, see T.G.A. Nelson, Comedy. The Theory of Comedy in Literature, Drama, and Cinema (Oxford 1990).

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010