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Dramatic Comedy
Ancient Roots: dramatic format created by Greeks endured through time. Often political & full of
raucous & zany humour.
Satire was popular. As well as bawdy humour. Storyline tended to be mere frameworks on which to
hang a set of sketch pieces & slapstick routines.
Later New Comedy was invented in which plot was central. Characters fit into stock types & the pace
was fast & the dialogue witty a happy ending was often achieved through implausible thing.
Sex & satire was no longer important.
Shakespeare: playwrights began to write comedies for the public playhouses from the 1580’s
onwards they had already a genre to imitate. Shakespeare's comedies far more sophisticated than
those before him, plot character & wit were still driving the action.
Not all comedies were funny.
As comedy refers to the formal conventions not humour.
But Shakespeare comedies weren't just taken from the formal model, the pre commercial,
community based English they're of the middle ages and early Tudor period frequency mixed
slapstick & even bawdy humour with the treatment of serious religious matters. But unlike some
theatre this style began to be associated with the tastes of the lower social status.
Some dudes reinstated comedy as a politically motivated thing (Ben Jonson) along with the bawdy
humour & satire & plot & audience teasing ruses.
Jonson was influenced by the City Comedy of the start of the 17th century, these had the values of
the honest London shopkeepers triumph over the misplaced cunning of freckles but greedy
aristocratic layabouts. Thwarted love remained the main plot strand, and marriage remained the
signifier of a happy ending.
Restoration Rudeness & the Revenge of the Respectable: Puritan dominance during the Civil War &
their reign meant that theatres were closed. But when King Charles II returned from France City
Comedy was revived with a twist. In Restoration Comedy the bawdy & licentious aristocratic
layabouts get all the best lines & the honest people who they attempt to seduce & dupe didn't fare
so well.
Double entendre & farcical situations were staple.
Some plays added satire to the mix with one having the main character a parody of a court rake
infamous for his misdeeds, this of course meant to be the Earl of Rochester.
Theatre become very close to the court & its libertine lifestyle due to this tragedy lost its comedic
element. These two genres became very distinct.
The respectable & godly middle classes reaction to the bawdy excess of Restoration Comedy was to
create the sentimental & more so subdued Comedies of Manners.
Such as Goldsmith's ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ & Sheridan ‘The Rivals’. These combined brilliance of
plot with comic characterization.
It was at this point that, in the mainstream theatre had come to mean a sentimental tale of thwarted
love featuring a broadly predictable gallery of stock characters.
Zany & satirical comedies continued to be popular in the working-class theatres, in the 19th century,
with parodies of ‘legitimate’ dramas & Shakespeare plays were also popular. Farce & sketch style
pieces were shown as afterpieces shown in the big London playhouses.
Comedy Gets Serious: the turn of the 20th century brought great change to theatre. Oscar Wilde
comedies, in particular the enormously successful TIOBE (1895) explored forever the comedy of
respectable but thwarted love in its brilliantly self-conscious send-up of the conventions of the genre
as it had existed.
It was not so much that Wilde offered a political critique the middle class values dominant in
comedy, but rather that made it impossible to ever take the genre seriously again.
A new ‘Realistic’ form of theatre arose dedicated to political critique.
You also had the ‘French Farce’ that was a comedy of misunderstanding, evasion and
embarrassment which accelerates towards finely tuned chaos & a climatic denouement - popular
1920’s & 1930’s.
Post War Revival: in the years after WW2 English theatre underwent a great revival & comedy of
many forms flourished. It was no longer a genre with limiting conventions.
The rebirth of the stage was often driven by working-class & left-wing writers, satire was prominent.
Some adapted the farce to (Joe Orton) make highly irreverent comedies attacking the middle class
hypocrisy, sexual & otherwise.
One attacks suburban materialism whilst also having great pathos for those that live in those worlds.
In the gentler vein domestic comedies often have a farce like structure & have expose the sadness &
hollowness at the heart of ‘respectable society’.
Farce has remained popular to this day.
Theatrical comedy became a voice to oppose a series of right wing gov in the late 1970’s for
example in the 1985 ‘Pravda’ production the principles of Murdoc’s news empire was attacked. In a
manner now seen as extraordinary prescient.
Contemporary Comedy: typically set around a set of bravura set piece scenes which echo the sketch
format of popular theatre & much TV comedy, yet preserve the rhythms & structures of the Wellmade Play’ (20th century invention) following the conventions of exposition, complication, cliffhanger, resolution.
There is often a tragic edge. Two of the best comedies of this century so far being Alan Bennett’s
‘The History Boys’ and Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’, exemplify these qualities.
Both are also moving & intelligent reflections on their societies. Bennetts play is a examination of
the value of education, literature and love in a market driven capitalist England.
English comedy today turns out to be more Aristophanes than Shakespeare: not so much a
recognisable genre, but rather an uncovering of the fear, anarchy and joy just beneath the surface
of a fragile society. Yet there are signs that a happy ending may still be found.
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