Ancient Greek comedy

Greek comedy is the name given to a wide genre of theatrical plays written, and performed, in Ancient Greece. Along with tragedy, it makes up the greater portion of ancient Greek theatre, and its descendent traditions.

Evolution

The evolution of comedy is much simpler than that of its sister art, tragedy, though as to its origin and earlier development there is little exact information. All that Aristotle can tell us is that it first took shape in Megaris and Sicyon, whose people were noted for their coarse humour and sense of the ludicrous, while Susarion, the earliest comic poet, was a native of a Megarian town. Add to this that it arose from the phallic processions of the Greeks, as did tragedy from the dithyramb, and we have about all that is known as to the inception of the lighter branch of the drama.

At country festivals held in celebration of the vintage it was the custom for people to pass from village to village, some in carts, uttering the crude jests and abuse unjustly attributed to the tragic choruses; others on foot, bearing aloft the phallic emblem and singing the praises of Phales, the comrade of Bacchus. In cities it was also the custom, after an evening banquet, for young men to roam around the streets with torches in their hands, headed by a lyre or flute-player. Such a group of revellers was called a comus, and a member of the band a comoedus or comus-singer, the song itself being termed a comoedia, or comedy, just as a song of satyrs was named a tragoedia, or tragedy.

The Phallic processions were continued as late as the days of Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), and we learn from one of the orations of Demosthenes that the riotous youths who infested the streets of Athens delighted in their comic buffooneries. Pasquinades of the obscenest kind were part of the exhibitions, and hence, probably, it was that comedy found a home at Athens during the time of Pericles, for it furnished the demagogues with a safe and convenient means of attacking their political opponents. When formally established as a branch of the drama it had its chorus, though less numerous and costly than the dithyrambic choir, and the actors, at first without masks, disguised their features by smearing them with the lees of wine.

By Plato comedy is defined as the generic name for all exhibitions which have a tendency to excite laughter. Though its development was mainly due to the political and social conditions of Athens, it finally held up the mirror to all that was characteristic of Athenian life.

Forms of Ancient Greek Comedy

By a consensus of authorities comedy has been arranged in three divisions, or rather should they be termed variations in form - the old, the middle and the new.

Old Comedy

The old comedy, dating from the establishment of democracy by Pericles, about 450 BC, arose, as we have seen, from the obscene jests of Dionysian revellers, to which was given a political application. In outward form these comedies were the most extravagant of burlesque, in essence they were the most virulent of abuse and personal vilification. In its license of word and gesture, on its audacious directness of invective, no restriction was placed by the dramatist, the audience or the authorities. The satire and abuse were directed against some object of popular dislike, to whom were not only applied such epithets as coward, fool and knave, but he was represented as saying and doing everything that was contemptible, as suffering everything that was ludicrous and degrading. But this alone would not have won for comedy such recognition as it received from the refined and cultured community of the age of Pericles. The comic dramatist who would gain a hearing in Athens must borrow from tragedy all its most attractive features, its choral dances, its masked actors, its metres, its scenery and stage mechanism, and above all the chastened elegance of the Attic language - for this the audience required from the dramatist, as from the lyric poet and the orator. Thus comedy became a recognized branch of the drama, often presenting a brilliant sparkle in dialogue and a poetic beauty in the choral parts not unworthy of the best efforts of the tragic muse. Thus, also, it became a powerful engine in the hands of a skillful and unscrupulous politician.

It was upon this stock that the mighty genius of Aristophanes grafted the Pantagruelism, which, ever since it was reproduced by Rabelais, has had among European writers, as in Cervantes, Swift, Voltaire and others, some adequate representation. Though the word Pantagruelism is applied by Rabelais to the characters sustained by court fools, he made a free use both of the spirit and mechanical appliances of old Greek comedy, adopting the disguise of buffoonery to attack some prevailing form of cant and hypocrisy. And this is precisely what Aristophanes did, the term invented by the great French master accurately describing the chief characteristics of his prototype.

Middle Comedy

The line between old and middle comedy is not very clearly marked, Aristophanes and others of the latest writers of the one becoming the earliest writers of the other. The latter was indeed merely an offshoot of the former, but differed from it in three essential particulars:

  1. it had no chorus
  2. public characters were not personated on the stage
  3. the objects of its ridicule were general rather than personal, literary rather than political.

Where Old Comedy was caricature and lampoon, Middle Comedy was criticism and review.

The period of the middle comedy extended from the close of the Peloponnesian war to the enthralment of Athens by Philip of Macedon; that is to say, from the closing years of the fifth to nearly the middle of the fourth century BC. It was extremely prolific in plays, but not especially so in genius. The favorite themes were the literary and social peculiarities of the day, which, together with the prominent systems of philosophy, were treated with light and not ill-natured ridicule. The grandest tragedies of Æschylus and Sophocles, the noblest passages of Homer, and the most beautiful lyrics of Pindar and Simonides were freely parodied, and in the same way were treated subjects taken directly from ancient mythology. In dealing with society, classes rather than individuals were attacked, as courtesans, parasites, revellers, and especially the self-conceited cook, who, with his parade of culinary science, was always a favorite target for the shafts of middle comedy.

New Comedy

The new comedy lasted throughout the reign of the Macedonian rulers, ending about 260 BC. It may be studied to better advantage in the Latin adaptations by Plautus and Terence than in the few Greek fragments that have come down to us (though during the twentieth century, the complete text of Dyskolos, a play by Menander, the leading writer of New Comedy, has been rediscovered. It is the only example of New Comedy to have survived in its entirety. A few long fragments by Menander have survived as well from such plays as The Arbitration, The Girl from Samos, The Shorn Girl, and The Hero), nor did it differ essentially from the comic drama of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, Congreve and Wycherley. For the first time love became the principal element in the drama, but it also was seldom an honest love. The heavy father also makes his appearance, as still we know him, and is often led into the vices and follies which he has reproved in his son. With these exceptions the characters were very much as in the middle comedy, but with the addition of the mercenary soldier newly returned from the wars, with noisy tongue, full purse and empty head. There can be little doubt that the new comedy represented faithfully the most salient features of Athenian society; but it made no attempt to improve it, presenting only in attractive colors the lax morality of the age.

Ancient Greek Humour, Alfred Guy Kingan L'Estrange

References

  • Aristotle, Poetics, lines beginning at 1449a.
  • The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, volume 1, by Alfred Bates. (London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906)
  • Aristophanes, Lysistrata & Other Plays: The Acharnians, the Clouds, Lysistrata , Alan H. Sommerstein (Penguin Classics) ISBN: 0140448144
  • Aristophanes, The Birds and Other Plays : Lysistrata, Wealth, Assembly Women (Penguin Classics) , David Barrett , Alan Sommerstein (Translators) Penguin Classics ISBN: 0140449515
  • Francis MacDonald Cornford, The Origin of Attic Comedy, 1934.
  • Xavier Riu, Dionysism and Comedy, 1999. [1]

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