Magda Romanska and Alan Ackerman, eds., Reader in Comedy. An Anthology of Theory and Criticism. London and New York: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2017. xl, 375 p. 108 ill. ISBN 9781474247887. £ 95.00 (hardcover).
Magda Romanska and Alan Ackerman’s Reader in Comedy is a well-thought-out anthology that embarks on a challenging enterprise: to provide an overview of theories related to comedy, broadly conceived, starting with the ancient Greek comedy and ending with the present-day sitcoms, vaudeville performances, slapstick comedy, and Internet humor. While comedy is traditionally considered peripheral to intellectual culture when compared to tragedy, in this anthology the authors successfully demonstrate that, “from Plato to Aristotle to Henry Bergson and Sigmund Freud, comedy has attracted the attention of serious thinkers” (14) and has been an effective mechanism of social change.
The Reader is organized chronologically, in five sections: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Restoration to Romanticism, the Industrial Age, and the Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Century. To help the reader navigate the wide range of texts compiled in this volume, the editors preface each section with generous introductions that provide an overview of the distinguishing characteristics of each period, make perceptive generic comparisons, and point to continuities and discontinuities over time. Chronology does not only organize the volume but also informs the prefatory analyses, which explain changes in the understanding of humor, laughter, and comedy at large from a historical perspective. As such, these introductory pieces help readers identify common trends in the texts collected under each section and explain historically-contingent changes in comic structures. The general introduction, in turn, offers a valuable outline of the book: it explains the provenance of key terms, outlines debates on the role of comedy in particular periods, discusses typical comic plots and character-types, and ends with a brief synopsis of relevant theories of humor and laughter. Combined with the useful bibliographies following each of these prefatory studies, the Readeris an invaluable tool for teachers and students alike.
The anthology includes a selection of over seventy texts, both by renowned and lesser-known authors. The editors have obviously tried to balance contributions to the development of comedic theory from all relevant European and North American cultural centers, some times more successfully than others. The absence of selections related to commedia dell’arte, for instance, so important in the subsequent development of the English pantomime and eighteenth-century entertainments at large, is noticeable. The pantomime itself receives no attention, despite its huge impact on the early eighteenth-century stage and the critical attention it received at the time. The Restoration to Romanticism section also contains none of the responses to Jeremy Collier’s famous A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, so fervently (and wittily) attacked by John Vanbrugh and Thomas D’Urfey, among others. The section on the twentieth and early twenty-first century, on the other hand, contains a superb selection of texts, from expected pieces by Luigi Pirandello, Jacques Derrida, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Northrop Frye, to insightful analyses by contemporary theorists, such as Glenda R. Carpio (with a piece on black humor in slavery fictions), Ruth Wisse (on Jewish humor), and Magda Romanska (on disability in tragic and comic frame). This selection provides, thus, an inspiring diversity of views on the modern comic theory that could inform courses on comedy and/or dramatic art in both literature and theater departments.
Last but not least, Eleanor Rose’s cover design showing a detail from Jan Mateyko’s famous painting, Stańczyk during a Ball (1862), with its iconic jester, is an apt and visually appealing choice that adds to the marketability of this volume.