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Title: Comedy
Original Title: Comédie
Volume and Page: Vol. 3 (1753), pp. 665–669
Author: Jean-François Marmontel
Translator: Ian Nicholson [FRSA (Royal Society of Arts),]
Subject terms:
Original Version (ARTFL): Link

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Citation (MLA): Marmontel, Jean-François. "Comedy." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Ian Nicholson. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2008. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Comédie," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 3. Paris, 1753.
Citation (Chicago): Marmontel, Jean-François. "Comedy." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Ian Nicholson. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2008. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Comédie," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 3:665–669 (Paris, 1753).

Comedy is the imitation of social mores performed on stage: imitation of mores, in which it differs from tragedy and heroic poetry: imitation on stage, in which it differs from didactic moral poetry and simple dialogue.

It differs particularly from tragedy in its principle, in its means and in its purpose. Human emotion is the principle on which tragedy is based: pathos is the means; the horror of great crimes and a love for the sublime virtues are the purposes it sets for itself. The malice natural to man is the principle of comedy. We see the faults of our peers with complacency mingled with contempt, when the failings are neither affecting enough to excite compassion, nor repellent enough to arouse hatred, nor dangerous enough to inspire fear. These images make us smile, if they are depicted with finesse; they make us laugh if the darts of that malicious joy, as striking as they are unexpected, are sharpened by surprise. Comedy draws its strength and its resources from this inclination to highlight folly. It would no doubt have been more advantageous to convert this immoral complaisance into philosophical pity; but it has been found easier and more certain to use human malice to correct the other human vices, rather like using the points of a diamond to polish the diamond itself. This is the object or the purpose of comedy.

It has been wrongly distinguished from tragedy through the quality of the characters: the king of Thebes, and Jupiter himself, are comic characters in the Amphytrion; and Spartacus, of the same status as Sosie, would be a tragic character at the head of his fellow conspirators. The degree of passion distinguishes comedy from tragedy no better. The despair of the Miser after losing his treasure chest is no less intense than the despair of Philoctetes from whom the arrows of Hercules are removed. Tragedy is characterised by extraordinary misfortunes, perils and feelings, whereas comedy is characterised by common interests and characters. The one depicts men as they sometimes were; the other as they are accustomed to be. Tragedy is a tableau of history, comedy is a portrait; not the portrait of one man, like the satyr, but of a species of men spread throughout society, whose most marked traits are united in a single figure. Ultimately, vice only belongs to comedy as long as it is ridiculous and contemptible. Once vice becomes odious, then it belongs to tragedy; thus Molière makes a comic character out of the Impostor in Tartuffe, and Shakespeare creates a tragic character in Gloucester. If Molière made Tartuffe odious in the 5th act, it is, as Rousseau observes, out of the necessity to put the final touch to the character.

Some ask if comedy is poetry; a question as diffficult to resolve as it is useless to pose, like all arguments about words. Does one really want to deepen the interpretation of a sound, which is but a sound, as if it encapsulated the nature of things? Comedy is not poetry for those who only grant the name to that which is heroic or miraculous: it is poetry for those who place the essence of poetry in description: a third group will use the term to refer to verse comedy, and witholds it from prose comedy, on the principle that metre is no less essential to poetry than to music. What does it matter if people differ on the name, provided one has the same idea of the thing? L’ Avare just like Télémaque will either be or not be poetry, but will be nonetheless an excellent work. People argued against Addison about Paradise Lost being a heroic poem: Well, he said, it will be a divine poem.

Since almost all the rules of dramatic poetry combine to bring fiction close to reality by means of realistic detail, the action of comedy being more familiar to us than that of tragedy, and the lack of realism being easier to detect, the rules must be observed more rigorously. From this is derived that unity, that consistency of character, that ease, that simplicity in the weaving of the plot, that natural quality in the dialogue, that depiction of real feelings, that art of concealing art itself in the sequence of situations, from which theatrical illusion results.

If you consider the number of features going to make up a comic character, you could say that comedy is an exaggerated imitation. It is indeed hard to envisage that one man, in a single day, could display so many avaricious traits as Molière combined in Harpagon; but this exaggeration becomes realistic again when the traits are multiplied within a series of artfully contrived situations. As regards the strength of each trait, realism has its limits. Plautus’ Miser, examining the hands of his valet, says to him, let’s see the third one, which shocks. Molière translates the other one, which is natural, given that the Miser’s haste had made him forget that he had already examined two hands, and taken the latter as the second one. The others is an error by the actor who has slipped into the wrong impression.

It is true that the theatre demands strong colour and grand gestures, but within correct proportions. That is, so that the eye of the audience can easily reduce them to the true scale of nature. The Bourgeois gentilhomme [1] pays for the titles given to him by a complaisant money-grabber; but he admits that he is paying for them, that is for the My Lord; this is how he improves on his models. Molière draws from a fool the admission of this folly to make it more apparent to those minded to conceal it. This kind of exaggeration demands a great balance of reason and taste. The theatre has its visual character, and the picture fails if the audience sees that nature has been violated.

By the same argument, to make the plot and the dialogue realistic, it is not enough to cut out the asides, which everyone hears except the interlocutor, and the errors based on a resemblance or a disguise, which all eyes see through, except the character one intends to deceive; it is still necessary that everything which happens and is said on stage should be such a naïve depiction of society that one forgets one is at the theatre. A picture is badly painted if as soon as you look at it, you are aware of the canvas, and if one notices the degradation of the colours before seeing the shapes, the reliefs and the background. The prestige of art is to make it disappear to the point that not only does illusion precede reflection, but it repels it and pushes it aside. Such must have been the illusions of the Greeks and Romans with the comedies of Menandres and Terence, not those of Aristophanes and Plautus. Let us observe, however, regarding Terence, that the possible, which ensures the credibility of a character or a tragic event, does not ensure the realism of mores in comedy. It is not about fathers there might be, but fathers such as they exist; it is not an individual, but a species that must be used as a model; this rule is sinned against by the unique character of his own executioner.

Strictly speaking, it is not a possible combination; it is a natural sequence of familiar events which should produce the plot of a comedy, a principle which condemns the plot of Hecyre: however, if Terence intended to make a comedy out of some entirely emotional action, setting aside with marked caution the only character who might have been agreeable, then he was acting with extreme caution.

According to these rules we are going to have the opportunity to develop and apply, one may judge the progress of a comedy or rather its revolutions.

On the wagon of Thespis [2] comedy was merely a clutch of insults addressed to passers-by by wine workers smeared with dregs. Crates, with the examples of Epicharmus and Phormis, Sicilian poets, raised it to a more decent level of theatre, and with more regular orderliness. So comedy took as its model the tragedy invented by Aeschylus, or rather they both based themselves on the poetry of Homer; the one on the Iliad and the Odyssey, the other on Margites, a satirical poem by the same author, and that is the real birth of Greek comedy.

It is divided into ancient, middle period and new, less from the chronology than from the various successive changes observed in the depiction of mores. First they dared to portray satires in action on the Athenian stage, i.e., characters who were known and named, whose quirks and vices were imitated: such was ancient comedy. To suppress this licence, the law prohibited naming. Neither the spite of the poets nor that of the audience lost anything through this defensive measure; the resemblances in the masks, the costumes, the action, pointed to the characters so effectively that they were named as soon as they appeared: such was middle period comedy, where the poet, no longer needing to fear the reproaches of the target personality, was all the more audacious in his insults; all the more certain to be applauded by indulging the malice of the audience by the blackness of his portraits, he exploited their vanity with the pleasure of unmasking the models. It was in these two genres that Aristophanes triumphed so many times, to the shame of the Athenians.

Satirical comedy initially offered an advantageous face. There are vices on which the law did not crack down: ingratitude, betrayal of secrets or breaking promises, the furtive and cunning usurpation of the merits of others, the pursuit of personal interest in public affairs; satirical comedy brought down a punishment all the more severe because it was undergone on the open stage. The guilty were brought to account and the public had their justice. It was no doubt to uphold such a salutary terror that the satirical poets were first tolerated, then engaged by the magistrates as censors of the republic. Plato himself had allowed himself to be seduced by this advantage when he allowed Aristophanes into his feast, if the comic Aristophanes is nevertheless the Aristophanes of the feast; which can at least be subject to doubt. It is true that Plato recommended to Denis a reading of this poet’s comedies, in order to learn about the mores of the Athenian republic; but it was a matter of showing him a good informer, a skilled spy, whom he did not particularly admire.

Regarding the levels of tolerance of the Athenians, a people hostile to all domination must fear above all the superiority of merit. The most bloodthirsty satire was certain to please this jealous people, when it fell upon the object of its jealousy. There are two things which vain men never find excessive: flattery for themselves, and slander against others; thus at first, everything combined to favour satirical comedy. It did not take long for people to notice that to be useful, the talent for censuring vice had to be governed by virtue; and that satirical licence given to a dishonest man was a dagger in the hands of a madman: but his madman encouraged envy. That is why in Athens, as elsewhere, the wicked found so much indulgence, and the good so much severity. Witness the comedy The Clouds, a memorable example of the wickedness of the envious, and of the struggles which must be faced by those who dare to be wiser and more virtuous than their own century.

The wisdom and virtue of Socrates had attained such heights of subliminity that he was subjected to no less than a solemn public censure to give consolation to his own country. Aristophanes was accused of the infamous practice of slandering Socrates on the public stage; and this society, who banned a just man, simply because he tired of hearing it called just, went drunk to this play. Socrates remained upright.

Such was comedy in Athens, at the same time when Sophocles and Euripides fought over the honour of making virtue attractive and crime odious, through touching or terrible scenes. How could the same theatre-goers approve of such contrasting mores? The heroes celebrated by Sophocles and Euripides were dead; the sage slandered by Aristophanes was alive: we praise great men for having been; we do not forgive them for being.

But what is inconceivable is that comedy which is coarse, base and obscene, without morals, without verisimilitude, was able to find enthusiasts in the century of Molière. We need only read what remains of Aristophanes to judge, like Plutarch, that it was not so much for decent people that he wrote, as for the vulgar populace, for men possessed by envy, darkness and debauchery. After that we should read the eulogy made to him by madame Dacier. Never did a man have so much finesse, nor a more ingenious turn of phrase; the style of Aristophanes is as pleasing as his wit; if one has not read Aristophanes, one does not yet know all the charms and beauty of Greek, etc.

The magistrates realised, but too late, that the comedy known as mid-level had merely circumvented the law which banned naming targets: they brought in another law which, in banning all imitations of persons, limited comedy to general depictions of mores.

It was then that new comedy stopped being satire, and assumed the respectable and decent form it has kept since. It was in this genre that Menandres flourished, a poet as pure, elegant, natural, and simple as Aristophanes scarcely was. One cannot read Plutarch’s tribute, which reflects the opinion of all antiquity, without keenly felt regret for the works of this poet. It is a flower studded meadow, where one loves to breathe in pure air....The muse of Aristophanes resembles a fallen woman; that of Menandres a decent woman.

But as it is easier to imitate coarseness and baseness, than delicacy and nobility, the first Latin poets, emboldened by republican liberty and jealousy, followed in the footsteps of Aristophanes. Plautus himself was among them; his inspiration, like that of Aristophanes, according to a reliable admission of one of their apologists, was a priestess of Bacchus, to say nothing worse, whose tongue was dipped in venom.

Terence, who followed Plautus, as Menandres followed Aristophanes, imitated Menandres without equalling him. Caesar called him a semi-Menandres, and reproached him for having no comic force; an expression which commentators have interpreted in their fashion, but which must mean those great traits which give characters depth, and which seek out vice within the recesses of the soul, to expose it on the stage to the comtempt of the audience.

Plautus is more lively, more light-hearted, stronger, more varied; Terence is more refined, more true-to-life, purer, more elegant: the one has the advantage of imagination, which is enslaved neither by the rules of art nor of morality, over a talent subject to all these rules; the other has the merit of having reconciled pleasure with decency, politeness with jocularity, exactitude with facility: Plautus, always varied, does not always have the art of pleasing; Terence, revealing too much of himself, has the gift of always seeming new: one would like to see Plautus with the soul of Terence, and Terence with the wit of Plautus.

The revolutions undergone by comedy in its earlier stages, and the differences still observed today, have their origin in the genius of the peoples and in their forms of government: the administration of public affairs, and consequently the conduct of the leaders, being the main target of envy and censure in a democratic state, the people of Athens, always restless and discontented, had to enjoy seeing exposed on stage not only the vices of individuals, but the inner workings of government, the prevarications of the magistrates, the mistakes of the generals, and their own tendency to be corrupted or seduced. Thus they acclaimed the political satires of Aristophanes.

This licence had to be suppressed as the government became less popular; and this moderation can be seen in the later comedies by the same author, but even more so in what we know of those of Menandres, in which the state was always portrayed with respect, and where private intrigues took the place of public affairs.

The Romans under the consuls, as jealous of their freedom as the Athenians, but more jealous of the dignity of their government, would never have allowed the republic to be exposed to the insulting pinpricks of their poets. Thus the earliest Latin comedy writers risked personal satire, but not political satire.

Once abundance and luxury had softened the mores of Rome, comedy itself mellowed its harshness into gentleness; and as the vices of the Greeks had been bequeathed to the Romans, Terence simply copied Menandres in order to portray them.

The same convenient inheritance shaped the character of comedy in all the theatres of Europe, after the renaissance of literature.

A people who used to affect an ostentatious gravity in their mores, and a Romanesque pomposity, must have served as a model for plots full of exaggerated incidents and characters. Such is the Spanish theatre; it is only here that the character of this lover (Villa Mediana) could be at all realistic:

Who burned his house to embrace his lady,
carrying her off through the flames.

But neither these forced exaggerations, nor a licence of imagination which breaks all the rules, nor an often puerile level of jocular refinement, could deny Lopes de Vega one of the top places amongst modern comic poets. Indeed he combines a most felicitous sagacity in his choice of characters with a power of imagination which the great Corneille himself admired. It was from Lopes de Vega he borrowed the character of the Liar, of whom he said with so much modesty and so little reason, that he would give two of his best plays for having created him.

A people who placed its honour for so long in the fidelity of women, and in a cruel revenge for the insult of being betrayed in love, must have supplied perilous plots for lovers, which could give scope for the guile of valets. Moreover, these people created pantomime, the silent game by which a lively and pleasing expression, and often the grimaces that make a man look like a monkey, sustain a plot lacking in art, sense, wit, and taste. Such is Italian comedy, equally laden with incident, but with less well worked plots than the Spanish comedy.

What is even more characteristic of Italian comedy is the mixture of national mores, which, through the communication and mutual jealousy of the little Italian states, informed the imagination of their poets. You will find in the same plot men from Bologna, Venice, Naples or Bergamo, each displaying the dominant weakness of his own region. This bizarre mixture could not fail to succeed through its novelty. The Italians made of it an essential rule for their theatre, and comedy found itself thereby condemned to the crude uniformity it had possessed in its origins. Thus, in the huge collection of their plays, you will find not one which could be tolerated by a man of taste. The Italians themselves have acknowledged the superiority of French comedy; and whilst their actors maintain a place at the centre of the fine arts, Florence banned them from their theatres, and replaced their farces with the best comedies of Molière, translated into Italian. Following the example of Florence, Rome and Naples admire in their theatre the masterpieces of ours. Venice is still holding out against the revolution; but she will soon yield to the example and the appeal of pleasure. Will Paris alone no longer see Molière performed?

A state in which every citizen takes pride in thinking independently, must have provided many originals to paint. The affectation of not resembling anyone often results in people not resembling themselves, and people distort their own character, as they are afraid of moulding themselves into someone else’s likeness. These are not current absurdities; they are personal peculiarities, which give rise to ridicule; and the dominant vice of society is not to be sociable. This is the source of English comedy, moreover simpler, more natural, more philosophical than the other two, and in which verisimilitude is rigorously observed, even at the expense of tastefulness.

But a gentle and polite nation, in which everyone makes it a duty to conform their feelings and ideas to the mores of society, in which prejudice becomes principle, in which custom is law, in which one is condemned to live alone as soon as one wants to live for oneself; that nation can only offer characters softened by consideration, and vices palliated by respectability. Such is French comedy, which has enriched the English theatre as much as differences in mores have allowed.

In accordance with the mores it depicts, French comedy is divided into low comedy, bourgeois comedy and high comedy. See Comic.

But a more essential category is based on differences between the aims proposed by comedy: either it depicts vice, making it contemptible, as tragedy makes crime odious, which creates comedy of character; or it makes men the playthings of events, which creates the comedy of situation; or it presents common virtues with traits which make them attractive, and in perils or misfortunes which make them interesting, which creates comedy which touches the audience.

Of these three genres, the first is the most useful for mores, the strongest, the most difficult, and consequently the rarest: the most useful for mores, in that it goes to the source of the vices, and attacks their principles; the strongest in that it holds a mirror to humanity, and makes them blush at their own image; the most difficult and rarest in that it presupposes in its author a consummate study of the mores of his time, a fair and swift discernment, and a strength of imagination which combines in a single standpoint all the traits which his penetrating observation could only see in detail. This quality is lacking in most of those who depict character, and was possessed most eminently by Molière, that great model of all genres; it is the philosophical gaze, which sees not only the extremes, but the middle ground: between the rascally hypocrite and the gullible believer, we see the good man who unmasks the villainy of the one and pities the credulity of the other. Molière juxtaposes the corrupt mores of society with the untamed probity of the Misanthropist: between these two extremes appears the moderation of the wise man, who hates vice and does not hate humanity. What a fund of philosophy is needed to see the fixed point of virtue! We recognise Molière by this precision, even more than a painter of classical times might have recognised his rival in a brushstroke made on a canvas.

If we are asked why situation comedy makes us laugh, even without comedy of character, we shall in turn ask why we laugh at the sudden fall of a passer-by. It was of this kind of humour that Hensius was right to say: plebis aucupium est et abusus. See Laughter . It is not the same with comedy which touches; perhaps it is more useful for mores than tragedy, given that it interests us more closely, and that therefore the examples it offers us touch us more keenly: that is at least the opinion of Corneille. But as this genre can neither be sustained by the greatnesss of its subject, nor enlivened by the power of situations, and as it must be familiar and interesting at the same time, it is difficult to avoid the double hazard of being cold or romanesque; it is simple nature which must be seen, and it is art’s ultimate task to imitate simple nature. As for the origins of touching comedy, it would be necessary never to have read the classics to attribute its invention to our own times; you cannot conceive that this error could have survived one moment in a nation used to seeing performances of the Andrian of Terence, in which one weeps from the first act onwards. In order to condemn this genre, some critic or other dared to say that it was new; he was taken at his word, such is the frivolity and indifference of a certain type of audience, in the matter of literary opinion, which gives free rein to effrontery and ignorance.

Such are the three genres of comedy, among which we count neither the comedy of words so widely used in society, the feeble recourse of minds without talent, learning, and taste; nor that obscene comedy which is no longer tolerated in our theatre except by a kind of decree, and at which decent people cannot laugh without blushing; nor that kind of travesty, where the parodist follows the original in order to debase the most noble and touching acts by burlesque imitation: contemptible genres, of which Aristophanes is the author.

But a genre superior to all the others is one which unites situation comedy with the comedy of character, that is in which the characters are engaged by the vices of the heart, or by the idiosyncrasies of the mind, in humiliating circumstances which expose them to the ridicule and contempt of the audience. Such, in Molière’s The Miser , the encounter between Harpagon and his son, when they talk together, without recognising each other, one as a moneylender, the other as a spendthrift.

There are characters who are too weakly drawn to nourish sustained action. The more adept portraitists have grouped them together with dominant characters; this is the art of Molière. Others have created contrasts between several minor characters amongst themselves, in the manner of Dufreny. While Dufreny is less successful in economy of plot, he is, after Molière, the comic author who has best depicted human nature. The difference between them is that we all believe that we have seen the traits portrayed by Molière, but we are surprised not to have noticed those which Dufreny allows us to see.

But how far is Molière above all those who preceded and followed him? One should read the comparison drawn between him and Terence by la Bruyère, the author of the time of Louis XIV most worthy to judge them. Terence did not fail to be colder, he said: such purity! Such accuracy! Such politeness! Such elegance! Such characters! Molière’s only failing was not to avoid jargon, and to write purely: what fire! What naivety! What a well of good humour! What faithful depiction of mores! What a scourge of folly! But what a man could have emerged from a combination of these two comic authors!

The difficulty of picking out folly and vice, as these men did, has meant that it is said that it is now impossible to create comedies of character. It is claimed that the grand traits have been exhaustively drawn, and that there remain only imperceptible nuances: one would need to have given scant study to the mores of the time to see no new characters to portray. Is hypocritical virtue harder to unmask than hypocritical devoutness? Is the pretend misanthropist less ridiculous than the principled misanthropist? The modest fool, the minor aristocrat, the falsely magnificent, the distrustful, the friend at court, and so many others crowd in, ready to be portrayed by anyone with the talent and courage to depict them. Courtesy masks the vices; but they are masked by a light kind of fabric, through which the great masters can show them in their nakedness.

As for the usefulness of moral and decent comedy, as it is nowadays in our theatre, to call this into question again is to claim that men are insensitive to contempt and shame; it is to suppose either that they are unable to blush, or that they cannot purge themselves of the faults which make them blush; it is to make characters free of self-esteem which is the soul of them, and place us above public opinion, of which weakness and pride are the slaves, and from which virtue itself has so much difficulty in freeing itself.

Men, they say, do not recognise their own image: this can be denied boldly. People think they can deceive others, but they can never deceive themselves; a person may claim public esteem, but he would not dare show himself if he feared he might be known as he knows himself.

People still say that nobody will reform himself: this is unfortunate for those for whom this is an emotional truth; but if indeed human nature is in essence incorrigible, at least the exterior is not. Men touch each other only on the surface; and all would be in order if one could reduce those who are born vicious, ridiculous, or wicked, to being so only within themselves: this is the aim of comedy; and the theatre is to vice and folly what the courts are to the crimes they judge, and the scaffolds where they are punished.

One could further divide comedy by states, and one would see, born of this division, the comedy we have just discussed in this article, the pastoral and fairytale genres: but these scarcely merit the term comedy except as a kind of misuse of the word. See the articles on Fairy tales and Pastorales.


1. [Middle-class aristocrat]

2. [Horace claims that Thespis (who is credited with inventing tragedy) toured towns in the countryside around Athens and performed at festivals with his chorus standing on a wagon.]