A Comedy is a play of light and amusing characters with a happy conclusion to the plot. It adopts a humorous or familiar style and depicts laughable characters, incidents, and situations. In a Comedy, even if there are serious and complex incidents, ultimately they are resolved and the plot ends in happiness. Like tragedy, comedy also originated in ancient Greece from the festivals celebrating the nature-god Dionysus. While tragedy dealt with persons in high places, comedy dealt with people of much less importance. Among the Greeks, Aristophanes was the most important comedy writer. The atmosphere of comedy is mirthful and light. Comedy moves us to laughter through humorous intrigues, strange situations, and witty dialogue. Comedy shows the common errors of life and ridicules man’s follies and foibles. Comedy is usually allowed to convey its own moral, though it is sometimes stated at the end of the play by one of the characters.
Comedy can be divided into two types- the Classical and the Romantic. The Classical form was based on the Greek and Latin Models. Ben Jonson and the Restoration Playwrights tried the classical form of comedy. Shakespeare and some of the university wits like Lily and Greene write Romantic Comedies. Ben Jonson’s comedy was called the ‘comedy of humor’ as it was based on the medieval theory of the four ‘humor’ that determined human character. The ‘Comedy of Manners’ of the Restoration period ridiculed the follies and foibles of the upper classes and was highly stylized and artificial. Then came the genteel comedy of Colley Cibber and the sentimental comedy in which there was an excess of Melodrama and moralizing and less of wit and laughter. Anti-sentimental comedies of Sheridan and Goldsmith retrieved comedy from too many weak moralizings and ridiculous sentimentalism. They combined morality with wit and sobriety with laughter. The language and atmosphere of the English comedy remained fairly remote from those of ordinary life until the 1860s when T.W. Roberston’s play ‘Caste’ appeared. Then onwards English comedy began to employ everyday language and familiar subjects culminating in the plays of Bernard Shaw and Galsworthy in modern times. The comedy of dialogue and narration flourished in the plays of Oscar Wilde. The plays like ” The Importance of Being Earnest” and ” Lady Windermere’s Fan’ derived their strength from witty dialogue and comic situations. Shaw’s plays dealt with social problems and his comedies are characterized by intellectual wit, irony, and satire apart from penetrating analysis of social and moral problems confronting society. Some of his important plays are ‘Arms and the Man’,’ The Applecart’, ‘Major Barbara’ and ‘John Bull’s Other Island’. An experimental playwright who wrote under the influence of Shaw was James Bridie. His themes covered a wide range and plays like ‘The Anatomist’ and ‘Mr.Bolfry’ were successes.
The latter half of the present century saw plays with little literary merit succeeding on the stage. The audience wanted only entertainment and so the Playwrights provided dialogue that made a good impression and situations that tickled the audience into laughter. The theatre became a tangle of illusion and make-believe. Among the playwright of this kind, the foremost was Noel Coward who wrote plays about the leisured classes. He became famous popular with the plays such as ‘Hay Fever’ and ‘The Happy Breed’. The modern comedy is shying away from serious social and moral themes while concentrating on impressive dialogue and effective presentation on the stage.