Aristotle's articulation of the distinct genres of tragedy and comedy in Ars Poetica was largely ignored in the long evolution of comedy on the American stage. Occasional productions ranging from classical Greek and Roman comedies to those of Shakespeare, Molière, and their contemporaries could be seen on early American stages, but the earliest comedies written by American citizens tended to imitate late 18th-century British comedies of manners plays. Royall Tyler's The Contrast (1787) was inspired by English plays of the era, but its satire of contemporary fashions and values praised American qualities over European mores, as did Anna Cora Mowatt's Fashion (1845). Broad stock characters and romantic situations were often borrowed from various European forms. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, purely comedic plays tended to be ramshackle vehicles for dynamic comic actors and the stock characters they created from emerging national stereotypes drawn from gender, racial, and ethnic characteristics. Comedy was more effectively employed within other popular genres of this period, including burlesques and travesties, minstrel shows, vaudeville entertainments, and the emerging musical theatre. Significantly, comedy was also a central component of melodramas, with a range of secondary characters often supplying comic relief from the suspenseful main actions of the plays.
   From the 1870s, comedies of greater wit and style appeared with increasing frequency. Producer-playwright Augustin Daly led the way by showcasing his venerable stock company, John Drew, Ada Rehan, Mrs. G. H. Gilbert, and James Lewis, in classical and contemporary comedies for fashionable New York audiences. As a rule, however, the more sophisticated comedies seen on Broadway at the turn-of-the-century were foreign imports, including the plays of Oscar Wilde, J. M. Barrie, and the early, lighter works of George Bernard Shaw, such as the witty romance Arms and the Man, which won favor with star Richard Mansfield as leading man in 1894. William Dean Howells was the American who came closest to achieving a light, sophisticated touch with his insightful comedies about fashionable and would-be fashionable people.
   Most new American comedies after 1880 were less sophisticated, usually depicting middle- and lower-class values and characters and rural settings. Female impersonator Neil Burgess scored success in the role of an old lady in Widow Bedott (1879) and a similar character, Aunt Abby Prue, in The County Fair (1889). Similarly, Denman Thompson scored as the title character of the rustic comedy Joshua Whitcomb (1878), honing a role he revisited for the hugely successful The Old Homestead (1887). Charles H. Hoyt won a following with A Texas Steer (1894), A Trip to Chinatown (1891), and other broad farces. Also popular were the many Mulligan Guard plays created by Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart and set on New York's Lower East Side. AcTOR-playwrights of the era often included comedies in their repertoires. For example, James A. Herne crafted several comic vehicles for himself, as did William Gillette, although both found far greater success with melodramatic works, and Clyde Fitch, perhaps the most promising dramatist to emerge during the 1890s, wrote several light comedies, but gained his lasting recognition near the end of his career with hard-hitting dramas of contemporary life. The finest of melodramatic plays of the era featured comedy with an increasingly satiric edge, such as Bronson Howard's The Henrietta (1887), one of the most popular plays of the late 19th century due to its insider view of Wall Street speculation.
   From 1900 to the Great Depression, comedies and farces predominated on Broadway stages and found more lucrative second lives on provincial tours and in stock. The modernist era saw many variations on the genre of comedy that had once stood clearly defined in classical terms or as an embellishment to other forms. By the beginning of the 20th century, a proliferation of high comedies, low comedies, light (or romantic) comedies, farce-comedies, comedy-melodramas, rural comedies, and others appeared with regularity. George M. Cohan wrote popular comedies (along with musicals) setting rural characters (or "rubes") against Broadway wiseguys to mildly satirize contemporary American values and slang. Cohan's comedies frequently depicted the experiences of the Irish American immigrant class, and the flood of European immigrants pouring into New York from the 1880s to World War I led other playwrights to similarly exploit their experiences in the comic form. These writers, and the actors appearing in their works, created new American stock characters by broadly caricaturizing Irish, German, Greek, Asian, and Eastern European Jewish figures in ethnic comedies of assimilation. The most popular of such comedies, Abie's Irish Rose (1922), written by Anne Nichols, ran for a staggering, record-setting 2,327 performances and created a subgenre of romantic ethnic comedies.
   More unfortunately, African Americans were similarly depicted in broadly stereotypical caricatures that clung to American theatre well into the mid-20th century.
   Despite the rise of serious drama after World War I, light situation comedies and broad farces were plentiful. The most noted writers of such works, Max Marcin, George H. Broadhurst, Montague Glass, Frank Craven, Margaret Mayo, Edward Peple, Clare Kummer, Frederic and Fanny Hatton, A. E. Thomas, Winchell Smith, Porter Emerson Browne, Roi Cooper Megrue, William Anthony McGuire, Barry Conners, Samuel Shipman, and Aaron Hoffman, among others, found frequent success and healthy income perfecting the form, but increasingly less so on Broadway. Their plays often had comparatively brief New York runs before lucrative extended tours and in stock productions. This was certainly true of the greatest purveyor of farces in this era, Avery Hopwood, whose prolific output of mildly risqué comedies populated American stages for the first half of the 20th century and were adapted as motion picture successes after the dawn of sound.
   In the 1910s and 1920s, rural comedy shifted from one-dimensional stereotypical characters to more realistic images in sentimentalized portraits of small-town life, as in stage adaptations of Booth Tarkington's novels and in the rural and collegiate comedies of George Ade. A touch of nostalgic longing emerged in J. Hartley Manners's comedy Peg O'My Heart (1912), a much-imitated vehicle written for his wife, Laurette Taylor.
   Jesse Lynch Williams's mildly satiric comedy, Why Marry? (1917) was awarded the first Pulitzer Prize, but comedies rarely won this acknowledgment in subsequent years. During the 1920s, the only other comedy awarded a Pulitzer was George Kelly's Craig's Wife (1926). Among directors, former actor George Abbott became a potent force in the development of popular comedies and musicals from the early 1920s, while a generation of writers contributed a more sophisticated brand of comedy in this era. The prolific George S. Kaufman stood out among this generation, working with a series of collaborators, including Morrie Ryskind,* Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, and Moss Hart,* in the writing of popular stage comedies stressing character and gently satirizing contemporary mores. Kaufman also wrote broader comedies for the Marx Brothers, among the best of a generation of comic performers who had honed their skills in vaudeville before turning to Broadway comedy and musicals.
   In the 1920s, Philip Barry developed an Americanized brand of comedy of manners in such plays as Holiday (1928), while S. N. Behrman brought a more satiric edge to his sophisticated comedies and Preston Sturges, who would spend most of his career writing and directing motion pictures, brought a screwball sensibility to his hit comedy, Strictly Dishonorable (1929). Mae West sexualized the comic form with bawdy plays and musicals in which she played the lead, and often found herself embroiled in controversy for pushing past the boundaries of accepted proprieties, while Anita Loos explored the sexual liberation of the flapper in Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1926), an enduringly popular comedy. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur* merged broad comedy with melodramatic embellishments in their rambunctious satire, The Front Page (1928), but after 1930, Kaufman, Barry, and Behrman dominated Broadway stages with their sophisticated, character-driven comedies, inspiring subsequent generations of comic writers, from Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse* to Neil Simon,* all of whom kept Broadway comedy alive and well into the 1980s.

The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. .

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