Starting from a premise that [Comedians] is novel and rich with antic possibility, the play manages to scuttle itself with perfunctory, self-righteous anger. Set in Manchester, Comedians begins with a group of young men who aspire to be nightclub comics, meeting in one of those dismal cubicles of adult education….
There is one student … who we perceive has a genuine and personal comic imagination, whose humor, at least in the classroom, goes much deeper than that of his fellow students. Among those who are simply looking for a better way to earn a living, he stands out as a real artist….
[We] wait for this prize pupil to perform in a manner that will send his provincial audience back to bingo and Comedians' audience into several levels of appreciative laughter.
While waiting, one is treated to a variety of ways in which a comedian can endure an agonizing death on stage, and in each of the bumbling performances, Griffiths manages to present not only the comedy of ineptitude, but also the true character of the performers. The failures are painful and funny, and one believes nothing can possibly go wrong in a work that seems so closely in tune with the lives and setting it depicts. But, alas, one's confidence is premature. The genius of the classroom comes on and proceeds to aspire to social significance. Wearing the make-up of a mime, he tries to make human contact with a pair of poshly dressed dummies that, naturally enough, remain indifferent to all his overtures of friendship and assumptions of common feeling. As he pushes his demands for some sort of acknowledgment from these upperclass effigies, his hostility mounts, and his crude cordiality changes into threatening anger. His act ends in harangue and homicide, a conclusion which, I suppose, informs one that comedy is a serious business.
After such a heavy intrusion of high purpose, it should be no surprise that the final act is mostly taken up with a fierce debate between pupil and teacher on the functions of comedy, a debate which manages to draw concentration camps and the problems of working-class solidarity into its arguments. It should also be no surprise that vitality and humor drain out of the play with each reference to the social obligations of comedy, and one can only remind oneself afterward how much of Griffith's drama deserved a fate better than this windy and hollow conclusion. (p. 74)
[Griffith] should have forgotten that when a comic must fall back on a "seriously-now-folks" plea to his audience, his act is in serious trouble. (p. 75)
Jack Richardson, in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), April, 1977.