The Ludicrous Ugliness of Comedy: “The Poetics of Aristotle, Section V”

The Marx Brothers (unknown photo) by kndynt2099

In Section V of The Poetics, Aristotle takes a closer look at Comedy.

    Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type, not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the Ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.

Comedy does not necessarily portray that which is morally bad, or that which inflicts harm.  It is an depiction of the flaws and foibles of humans (and gods) who seem not to be able to aspire to nobility.  Often in good comedies, circumstances conspire against comic characters such that their best efforts are foiled.  Good comedy is based on miscommunication and double entendre.  It is “ugly” in the sense that is does not “neatly” knit together a beautiful plot – there are ample plot twists in Comedy, but this only adds to the fun.

Aristotle does not have much to say about the history of Comedy.

      The successive changes through which Tragedy passed, and the authors of  these changes, are well known, whereas Comedy has had no history, because it was not at first treated seriously. It was late before the Archon granted a comic chorus to a poet; the performers were till then voluntary.   Comedy had already taken definite shape when comic poets, distinctively so called, are heard of. Who furnished it with masks, or prologues, or increased the number of actors,—these and other similar details remain unknown. As for the plot, it came originally from Sicily; but of  Athenian writers Crates was the first who, abandoning the ‘iambic’ or lampooning form, generalised his themes and plots.    

One gets the impression that early comics, like Rodney Dangerfield, “got no respect”.  Their work was not considered important enough to record for posterity.  They were “voluntary” – amateurs, in the best sense of the term, who performed for the love of the art and we have them to thank for its survival.

Aristotle concludes Section V by comparing and contrasting Epic poetry and Tragedy –

      Epic poetry agrees with Tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in verse of characters of a higher type. They differ, in that Epic poetry admits but one kind of metre, and is narrative in form. They differ, again, in their length: for Tragedy endeavours, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit; whereas the Epic action has no limits of time. This, then, is a second point of difference; though at first the same freedom was admitted in Tragedy as in Epic poetry.    

      Of their constituent parts some are common to both, some peculiar to Tragedy, whoever, therefore, knows what is good or bad Tragedy, knows also  about Epic poetry. All the elements of an Epic poem are found in Tragedy, but the elements of a Tragedy are not all found in the Epic poem.

Epic poetry might be considered a sub-set of Tragedy.  It is Tragedy written in a particular kind of metre and which is confined to a single day (or so) of action.

As I consider modern play-writing, it would seem that perhaps musicals and operas have taken the place of Epic poetry.  Perhaps you know of other examples of Epic poetry being produced today?

As for Tragedy, I saw two very good examples of this form in the movies, “Les Miserables” and “Lincoln”.  Both films portray noble characters battling the odds (and ultimately facing death) yet ultimately living out and dying for a higher cause.

(image above The Marx Brothers (unknown photo) from kndynt2099, some rights reserved)

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