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American Journal of Philology 123.4 (2002) 641-644

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Erich Segal. The Death of Comedy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. xiv + 589 pp. Cloth, $35.

"In a grand tour of comic theater over the centuries," says the jacket blurb, "Erich Segal traces the evolution of the classical form from its beginnings . . . to Samuel Beckett. With fitting wit, profound erudition lightly worn, and instructive [End Page 641] examples from the mildly amusing to the uproarious, his book fully illustrates comedy's glorious life cycle from its first breath to its death in the Theater of the Absurd." I agree, in part: It's a grand tour, after the fashion of Segal's Dionysian Ivy-League lectures, mixing pleasure with instruction and reminding the reader of comedy's changing devices, delights, and powers in the different periods and locales in which Segal has made himself comfortably at home. He doesn't, of course, "fully illustrate"—and I don't think he's gotten comedy's "life cycle" quite right, especially that titular death. Rival comedy tour guides like myself will question this or that judgment call, especially in their specialties (and still more when their own supremely valuable writings go unacknowledged). Yet there is much to praise in this highly readable, highly entertaining book, which I shall happily put on the reserve shelf next time I teach Honors 28 ("Comedy and Satire") to my laughter-loving sophomores and juniors at UNC.

Segal's first 250 pages, more than half the book, take us from comedy's hypothetical beginnings in holiday fun and revelry to Terence's beleaguered Hecyra. To the usual etymologies of "revel-" and "country-song" (from komos and kome) he adds the less familiar "nightsong" (from koma, "sleep"), anticipating the prominent place of dreamlike disguises, confusions, and misadventures in comedy and in the human unconscious as explored by Freud. In subsequent chapters, Segal sketches the rise and fall of Old Comedy, which reaches new heights in the imaginatively playful erections of Aristophanes' Acharnians, Peace, and Birds, thenceforth declining towards Middle Comedy as sex gives way to money, Phales to Plutus. A chapter on Euripides' Ion entitled "The Comic Catastrophe" (why not "Eucatastrophe"?) provides a helpful bridge to the familial concerns and dramatic conventions of the New Comedy of Menander. From there, pivoting on Plautus and Terence, Segal follows "the evolution and transmutations of the classical literary form" (256), from Machiavelli and Marlowe, through Shakespeare, Molière, Jonson, Wycherley, and Beaumarchais, to what he regards as its foul and unnatural murder by the Surrealists and Absurdists of the last century—even as the beginning of Beckett's Waiting for Godot ironically completes a great circle by recalling the beginning of Aristophanes' Birds.

Through all this, Segal keeps up a good, brisk pace. He chooses his plays well, discussing them with a skillful mix of plot summary, paraphrase, quotation (the good, clear translations are his own), and lively running commentary. As classicists, we readers of AJP will have our professional quibbles, our personal bones to pick (some of them juicy) about Aristophanes' Clouds (underrated by Segal), say, or Terence's borrowings from Plautus (which he plays down); but we are amateurs, too, more easily pleased when it comes to Shakespeare or Molière. Here, two of Segal's leitmotifs seem most effective and affecting: First, the dreamlike movement of events in Comedy of Errors (after Menaechmi, but we should add Amphitruo for the twice-doubling) and in Twelfth Night, drifting out of shipwreck, through confusion of identity approaching nightmare and madness, to the komos and gamos of festive comedy—or is it Freudian wish-fulfillment?; second, the sad clown or playwright, poor old cuckolded Molière, pushing to his life's very [End Page 642] end the comic enactments of cuckoldry, sickness, aging, and (near) death. Which reminds me, painfully, of what a difference it would make to our overly naive or sophisticated readings of Aristophanes or Terence if we knew more, even a little more, about their life and work than the usual, all too meager hearsay.

Like his beloved Plautus, Segal...


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