Timely Reflections on his Art of Comedy
Introduction A Main Principle of ‘Comedy’ in Classical Style
Since the object of comedy is to provoke mirth and laughter in the audi- ence, critics are apt to assume that comedy’s roots, too, lie in pleasure and good feeling.1 Perhaps in some instances they do. But at least in the classical period2 in France, the pleasure of comedy originates in, makes its capital of, and even provides the remedy for, the frictions, anxieties, pains, and unpleasantness of human society: which is to say that, in this era, contrary to appearances, the pleasure emanates, not from good feeling, but from distress.3 Later on, some of the historical features of this peculiar situation will be explored. But meanwhile, the stellar example of the paradox, an author who ironically even became a martyr to it, was of course the great- est modern practitioner of the comic genre, Molière. His importance in this connection is without equal, if only because his art is based on, and perhaps even sums up, so many of the comic traditions that went before him (Roman, French, Italian, more indirectly, Spanish [see Martinenche 1900]), and because he set the style for comedy almost everywhere in Europe for the next hundred years. But how can classical comedy’s ‘pleasure’ emanate from ‘distress’, when the two terms are not just opposites, but – at least in those blessed centuries prior to the invention of the German Schadenfreude – mutually destructive, so that in fact they cancel each other out? An excellent question, particu- larly in respect to Molière, whose entire art...
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