Playboys and Killjoys: An Essay on the Theory and Practice of Comedy
ISBN 0195048776 (0-19-504877-6)
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Softcover, Oxford University Press, 1988
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Book summary: Harry Levin is one of the major literary critics in America. This book is a brilliant and original study of the whole world of comedy, concentrating on playwrights through the centuries, from Aristophanes and Plautus in classical times to Bernard Shaw and Bertolt Brecht and their recent successors.
Theories about the subject of comedy have abounded, but they have generally been divorced from theatrical practice. The alternative--discussions of plays and playwrights, without defining or analyzing the problems they have in common--is also unsatisfying. Moreover, many critics, in trying to make the subject of humor "respectable" have treated the subject humorlessly, while others have succumbed to the temptation to be flip.
Levin views the comic repertory as a richly variegated but broadly unified whole and provides a synthesis of theory and practice plus a further synthesis of theories heretofore regarded as conflicting. He isolated two fundamental aspects of comedy: one centers on the ludicrous (irresponsible, irreverent) "playboy" whom we laugh with, and the other on the ridiulous (pretentious, forbidding) "killjoy", whom we laugh at. Levin traces the dialectical interplay of these components throughout history and across various cultures and media. He places strong emphasis on such major dramatists as Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Molière, and William Congreve. He comments on the nature and theory of comedy as enunciated by such famous figures as George Meredith and Henri Bergson, and includes essays on such related ideas as humor, satire, and games; but the emphasis throughout is on the plays and on the stage, with incidental reference to comedians like Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers.
About the Author:
Harry Levin is Irving Babbitt Professor of Comparative Literature Emeritus at Harvard University. His many books include The Question of Hamlet and Shakespeare and the Revolution of the Times.
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