Segal—yes, he of Love Story and, if you didn’t know, a fellow at Oxford—turns his attentions to literary criticism in this survey of comic theater from the ancient Greeks to a humorless Irishman.
Explaining and analyzing comedy is a thankless task; humor either flies or it falls, and most theatergoers do not require a more experienced hand to guide them in their responses. Given these exigencies, Segal’s interpretive achievements soar in a work both accessible and informative. Offering a sweeping tour of comic theater from the Greeks to Beckett, he argues wistfully that the dour Irishman killed off the swell old stuff of life and laughter, in which plots ended right where they should in the joys of marriage and home. Segal weights the argument strongly in his favor, with 19 chapters detailing the good stuff (as he sees it) and 2 describing the bad (especially Theater of the Absurd). With a work of this scope, quibbles inevitably arise, and certainly Segal could pay more attention to the comedies of the medieval period and the 18th century. The Greeks (especially Aristophanes), the Romans (that wacky pair Plautus and Terence), and a certain Renaissance man known as William Shakespeare receive the lion’s share of the author’s critical attention, but one cannot hardly fault Segal for packing the tome with his favorites when he makes no claims to be offering an exhaustive study. Even with more than 500 pages of text, including 118 of endnotes, much remains to be debated on this crucial topic in the humanities, and the snobbish scholar will certainly look elsewhere for more detailed analysis. The lay reader, on the other hand, will find much to enjoy in a genial perusal of western civilization’s funniest theatrical moments. The ample quotations provide a gut-busting overview of theater at its hilarious best.
If only every writer so smart were so engaging.