Trevor R Griffiths
Anyone who fancies reading this volume, published in the Forms of Drama collection, should not be put off by the first line of the series preface which reads, “the scope of this series is scripted aesthetic activity that works by means of personation.”
Romantic Comedy may or may not achieve this, although whether even the writer of those words understands their meaning could be open to doubt. Instead, Trevor R Griffiths has compiled a volume that opens with a history of romantic comedy from the Ancient Greeks to the last decade.
He then analyses a selection of plays that could reasonably come under the classification, which is often radically different from the turgid romcoms that have become so popular on TV and in the movies.
Going back to the earliest times, the analysis opens with Greek and Roman comedies. Remarkably, although his work completely disappeared for millennia, the granddaddy of them all was Menander, the only surviving writer of Greek New Comedy, who heavily influenced the Romans Plautus and Terence. From there, it is a relatively short step to Shakespeare, who drew on the Roman duo.
Comedies of manners from the 17th and 18th centuries by the likes of Congreve and Goldsmith moved the medium on, before it reached something of a zenith in the 19th century.
By the time that readers finish the initial overview, they will have established an understanding of Griffiths’s definition of Romantic Comedy. Broadly, this involves a clash between the economic benefits of marriage perceived by families and dynasties and the more emotional reactions enjoyed by the younger folk who are actually expected to take part in the marriages. Looked at differently, it can also be viewed as a battle between commerce and sex.
The second half of the book reviews a series of seminal plays starting with the aforementioned Greeks and Romans then running through A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night to works from the following three or four centuries including The Way of the World, She Stoops to Conquer, London Assurance and The Importance of Being Earnest.
In its own way, each of these plays and others that receive shorter commentaries all exemplify the thesis. It begins to break down a little in the 20th century, where few of the plays chosen strictly come into the original definition of romantic comedy.
Instead, they have been selected to make other points about society more widely, which is not to diminish the value of plays such as Hobson’s Choice, Private Lives, A Taste of Honey, Beautiful Thing and East Is East.
The other slight oddity in a book that one would expect to be wide-ranging is its author’s deliberate limitation of reference points. Having decided on the plays that he wished to include, virtually no other gets as much as a mention, which leads to an overall picture that can seem slightly unbalanced.
Even so, Romantic Comedy is worth reading particularly for the intelligent way in which it defines its subject then follows it through history from ancient times to the present day.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher