Comedy in Ancient Greek Theatre

Also Read

1. Aristophanes and Contemporaries

      The cradle of European comedy also rocked in the Mediterranean, in the Athens of 5th century BC. There the second day of the Dionysian celebrations was traditionally devoted to five comedies. Athenian comedy is conventionally divided into three periods, Old Comedy, Middle. Comedy, and New Comedy. Old Comedy survives today largely in the form of the eleven surviving plays of Aristophanes, while Middle Comedy is largely lost, i.e. preserved only in relatively short fragments by authors such as Athenaeus of Naucrats. New Comedy is known primarily from the substantial papyrus fragments of Menander (340-290 BC). The only playwright competing, whose name was handed down to us, is Aristophanes (446-385 BC), with whom we connect the genre of Old Comedy and satirical plays of the Ancient Greek Theatre. His works, with their pungent political satire and abundance of sexual and scatological innuendo, effectively define the genre today. The earliest surviving complete play is Aristophanes’ Acharnians, first performed in 425 BC. Aristophanes lampooned the most important personalities and institutions of his day, as can be seen in his buffoonish portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds, and in his racy anti-war farce Lysistrata. In Athens in the late 5th century, the most important contemporary rivals of Aristophanes were Cratinus (whose works include Cheimazomenae 426 BCE, Satyrs 424 BCE and Pytine 423 BCE), Eupolis (Numeniae 425 BCE, Maricas 421 BCE, Flatterers 421 BCE and Autolycus 420 BCE) and Hermippus. All of them were multiple winners at the most prestigious festivals. The Old Comedy subsequently influenced later European writers such as Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, and Voltaire. In particular, they copied the technique of disguising a political attack as buffoonery. Old Comedies have fantastical plots with often surreal turns combined with political and social satire of contemporary figures. Since 425 BCE, Aristophanes wrote 40 comedies, 11 of which survive. Aristophanes developed his type of comedy from the earlier satyr plays, which were often highly obscene. Of the satyr plays the only surviving examples are by Euripides who comes much later not to be remembered as the representative of the genre. In ancient Greece, comedy originated in bawdy and ribald songs or recitations apropos of phallic processions and fertility festivals or gatherings.

      It is, of course, tongh to distinguish the period of the Old Comedy from the Middle Comedy. Aristophanes along with some others of the latest writers of the Old Comedy is sometimes regarded as the earliest Middle Comic poets. For ancient scholars, the Middle Comedy writers are the “later than Aristophanes and his contemporaries, but earlier than Menander”. Middle Comedy is generally seen as differing from Old Comedy in three essential particulars: the role of the chorus was diminished to the point where it had no influence on the plot; public characters were not impersonated or personified onstage; and the objects of ridicule were general rather than personal, literary rather than political. Interest in mythological burlesque and the utilization of stock characters were important features of the Middle Comedy. As no complete Middle Comic plays have been preserved, it is impossible to assess the literary value or ‘genius’ of this comedy. But many Middle Comic plays appear to have been revived in Sicily and Magna Graecia in the present day as they have widespread literary influence.

      According to Wikipedia - the Free Encyclopedia, the New Comedy followed the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE and lasted throughout the reign of the Macedonian rulers, ending about 260 BCE. It is comparable to situation comedy and comedy of manners. The three best-known playwrights belonging to this genre are Menander, Philemon and Diphilus. Menander was the most successful of these three comedians. Unlike predecessors such as Aristophanes, Menander’s comedies tended to center on the fears and foibles of the ordinary man, his personal relationships, family life and social mishaps rather than politics and public life. This seems to be what made him more successful than the other Greek comedians who wrote in the same genre. These plays were much less satirical than preceding comedies. The other two comedians are Philemon and Diphilus. Philemon was a comedian whose comedies dwelt on philosophical issues and Diphilus was a comedian whose comedies were noted for their broad comedy and farcical violence. Philemon’s comedies survive only in fragments, but Diphilus’ comedies were translated and adapted by Plautus as in Asinaria and Rudens.

      However, old or middle or new, along with enough comic flavors, all of the ancient Greek comedies provide valuable insights into the Greek culture, religions, education, politics, legal systems and warfare in the Hellenic world. Uniquely, the plays also reveal to us something of the identity of the audience. From a generalized view of Greek comic plays it is very easy to gather information about the Greeks’ sense of humor of the then society time. It is, in fact, mentionable that both the Greek comedy and its immediate predecessor Greek tragedy would together form the foundation upon which all modern theatre is based.

2. Aristotle's View on Comedy

      The first indications of comic activity in the Greek world come from pottery where decoration in the 6th century BCE frequently represented actors dressed as horses, satyrs, and dancers in exaggerated costumes. Another early source of comedy is the poems of Archilochus (7th century BCE) and Hipponax (6th century BCE) which contain crude and explicit sexual humor. A third origin, and cited as such by Aristotle, lies in the phallic songs which were sung during Dionysiac festivals. Around 335 BCE, Aristotle, in Poetics, stated that comedy originated in the phallic processions and the light treatment of the otherwise base and ugly. He also adds that the origins of comedy are obscure because it was not treated seriously from its inception. However, comedy had its own Muse: Thalia. According to Aristotle, comedy is generally positive for society, since it brings forth happiness in the final goal of any activity. A comedy is about the fortunate arising of a sympathetic character and it is not necessary to involve sexual humor in comedy. Aristotle divides comedy into three categories or subgenres as farce, romantic comedy and satire. On the contrary, Plato views that comedy is destruction to the self. He believed that it produces an emotion that overrides rational self-control and learning. In The Republic, he says that the Guardians of the state should avoid laughter, “for ordinarily when one abandons himself to violent laughter, his condition provokes a violent reaction”. Plato says comedy should be tightly controlled if one wants to achieve the ideal state. 

      Aristotle defines comedy as one of the original four genres of literature, while the other three genres are tragedy, epic poetry and lyric poetry. The philosopher Aristotle wrote in his Poetics (c. 335 BC) that comedy is a representation of laughable people and involves some kind of blunder or ugliness which does not cause pain or disaster: “imitation of men worse than the average; worse, however, not as regards any and every sort of fault, but only as regards one particular kind, the Ridiculous, which is a species of the ugly. The Ridiculous may be defined as a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others...” C. A Trypanis wrote that comedy is the last of the great species of poetry Greece gave to the world. Literature in general is defined by Aristotle as a mimesis, or imitation of life. Comedy is the third form of literature, being the most divorced from a true mimesis. Tragedy is the truest mimesis, followed by epic poetry, comedy and lyric poetry. The genre of comedy is defined by a certain pattern according to Aristotle’s definition. Comedies begin with low or base characters seeking insignificant aims, and end with some accomplishment of the aims which either lightens the initial baseness or reveals the insignificance of the aims.

      Aristotle draws no distinction between the universality which the poetic art, embodies the type rather than the individual, and to this extent they have a common function. An Athenian of the 5th century would hardly have singled out comedy as an example of poetic generalization. The large admixture of personal satire in the Old Attic Comedy would rather have suggested the view that the main ingredient in comic mirth is the malicious pleasure afforded by the discomfiture of another (Gassner 1951: 368-388). In course of explaining comedy, Plato goes deeper than Hobbes with his well-known quotation: “The passion of laughter is nothing else but a sudden glory, arising from a sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison of the infirmity of others or our own formerly.” In his Poetics, Aristotle steps ahead in this context. According to him, the quality that provokes laughter is certain ‘ugliness’, a ‘defect’ or ‘deformity’. The ludicrous’ he says, ‘consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.’ The phrase ‘not painful or destructive’ is the object of laughter and also a remarkable contribution to cause comical response. Still more significant is the omission of malice, which to Plato had seemed an essential ingredient. Aristotle argues that a good joke becomes, indeed, a little more pungent if it is seasoned with malice, but, even without the malice, laughter may be provoked.

      Lastly, it should also be mentioned that Aristotle’s definition of comedy is still wanting exactness; for though the ludicrous is always incongruous, yet the incongruous is not always ludicrous. Incongruity, in order to be ludicrous, requires a transition, a change of mood, resulting in the discovery of either of an unexpected resemblance where there was unlikeness, or of an unexpected unlikeness where was resemblance. There is always a blending of contrasted feelings. Indeed, Aristotle selects comedy as a salient illustration of what he means by the representation of the universal.

3. Comedy Versus Tragedy in Poetics

      Although in Poetics (ch. IX) Aristotle draws no distinction between the generalization proper to tragedy and comedy, still there exist some real distinction between them. Comedy looking at a single aspect of life, at the follies, the imperfections, the inconsistencies of men, withdraws its attention from the graver issues which concern the end of conduct. It takes those moments when life appears to be idle and distorted - a thing of vanity and nothingness. It brings out its negative sides, its inherent limitations. It exhibits situation in which the sense of the ideal is lost under an outward gaiety, or its realization is wholly frustrated. Comedy does not detach the essential of life from the unreal appearances; rather some of the earnest tragic elements are represented. Remaining in its own limits, comedy represents a rounded and complete action of human life, an image of universal human nature as is also done in tragedy. Both tragedy and comedy refers to the imperfections and inconsistencies of human life. The basis of difference between them is that while the former continues with experimentation and adventure, and ultimately ends with disaster, the later thoroughly continues and reaches to a happy ending with the reunion of the broken matters or relationships.

      The tragic event and that of the comic fade into each other by almost insensible gradations, and the greatest beauty of a poetical work, often consists in the harmonious blending of these two elements. Not only in the same drama may both exist in perfect unison, but even in the same character. Great actors generally have a similar quality, and frequently it is hard to tell whether their impersonations be more humorous or more pathetic. This happy transfusion and interchange of tragic and comic coloring is one of the characteristics of supreme art; it brings the relief along with the pain; it furnishes the reconciliation along with the conflict. For example, Shakespeare’s tragedies never fail include to comic interludes; his comedies also have a serious thread in possible cases, and sometimes a background with a tragic outlook. Life is not all gloom or all delight; the cloud will obscure the sun, but the sun will illumine the cloud - at least around the edges. Still, the comic is not the tragic, however subtle may be their intertwining, and however rapid their interaction. They rest upon diverse, and in some respects opposite to each other. Humor enriched by sympathy, directs its observation to the more serious realities of life. Humor is the meeting-point of tragedy and comedy. The opinion of Socrates in the Symposium that ‘the genius of tragedy and of comedy is the same’ is greatly justified. It is chiefly through humor of the deeper sort that modern comedy has acquired its generalizing power. To the humorists, there is no such thing as individual folly, but only folly universal in a world of fools. Humor annihilates the finite. As Coleridge says, “The little is made great and the great little, in order to destroy both, because all is equal in contrast with the finite”. Greek tragedy like all tragedy of the highest order combines in one harmonious representation of the individual and the universal. Whereas comedy tends to merge the individual in the type, tragedy manifests the types through the individual - In brief, it may be said that comedy creates personified ideals; tragedy on the other hand creates idealized persons.

4. Performance of Greek Comedy

      The Greek Plays were performed in an open-air theatre (theatron) as in the Athenian Dionysus. The theatre was open for all of the male populace and the presence of women is contested. Comedies and also tragedies were widely performed in Orchestra which is the central area surrounded by a semi-circle of seats. The performance of Chorus was very popular in the Greek orchestra. In many cases the play was actually named after the Chorus, e.g. Aristophanes’ The Wasps. The main actors performed on a raised stage with a background provided by the skgne - a two-story structure which also provided various entrance points for the actors and provided a means to change costumes unobserved by the audience. There were some movements between these areas as the Chorus might occasionally climb the stage, and actors could also enter the orchestra via the public entrances or parodoi at each side of the theatre.

      On the occasion of Dionysia and the Lenaea, comedies were performed in competition over three days. First five and later three comedies used to compete among themselves. A comedy had been performed at the end of the day after the tragedy and satyr plays. The plays were judged by a panel of ten judges chosen by lot and they voted by placing pebbles in an urn. Five urns were then chosen at random to decide the final winner.

      Each of the performances had at least four parts or steps on the structural ground — parados, agon, parabasis and exodos. In the first part or parados, the Chorus of almost 24 performers multiplies dressed in used to enter and perform a few songs and dances that can be treated as welcome beginning of the play. In the second phase or agon, there is the witty verbal contest or debate between the principal actors with fantastical plot elements and the fast changing of scenes with some improvisation in necessary cases. Improvisation means the performances done by the actors who have not practiced before. Normally such actors are none but the audiences who had been taken occasionally in the scene by the actors on the stage. In the parabasis, the Chorus spoke directly to the audience and even directly spoke for the poet. The concluding finale of a comedy play i.e. the exodos takes place when the Chorus gave another rousing song and dance routine indicating the show end.

      Fantastical elements such as giant creatures and improbable disguises are mixed with references to the audience which delivers a roller-coaster ride of satire, parody, puns, exaggeration, colorful language, and crude jokes. Indeed, as the plays were popular entertainment, they reveal some of the popular language used by the Greeks, language not usually found in more serious written material. All performers were male professional actors, singers, and dancers and they were helped in their endeavor to represent a vast variety of human and non-human characters by wonderful costumes and highly decorated face masks. The main actors or protagonist in the lion’s-share of the limelight and two other actors used, to perform all of the speaking parts. Occasionally a fourth character could also be employed.

      Due to the restricted number of actors each performer had to take on multiple roles which involved fast changes of costume and the use of recognizable character masks such as those for slaves or gods like Hercules and Hermes. In addition, some masks may well have been decorated to represent in caricature certain contemporary figures that the poet wished to poke fun at. Masks did, however, deprive the actor of using facial expressions and consequently the use of voice and gesture became extremely important.

Previous Post Next Post