Old comedy (Greek)

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Aristophanes (c. 448—380 bc) Greek comic dramatist

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Terence (c. 190—159 bc) Roman comic dramatist

Menander (c. 342—292 bc) Greek dramatist

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‘Old Comedy’ is best defined as the comedies produced at Athens during the 5th cent. bc. An early form of comedy was composed in Sicily by Epicharmus, the connection of which with Attic comedy is hypothetical. In Athens itself no transition from Old to Middle Comedy occurred precisely in 400, but the two extant plays of Aristophanes which belong to the 4th cent. differ in character from his earlier work, esp. in the role of the chorus (see para. 2 below). The provision of comedies at the City Dionysia each year was made the responsibility of the relevant magistrate in 488/7 or 487/6 bc. Comedies were first included in the Lenaea shortly before 440. Before and after the Peloponnesian War five comedies were performed at each festival; there is evidence that the number was reduced to three during the war, but the question is controversial. In the 4th cent. comedies were performed also at the Rural Dionysia, and it is likely, given the existence of early theatres in several Attic demes, that such performances were widespread before the end of the 5th cent. No complete plays of any poet of the Old Comedy except Aristophanes survive, and he belongs to the last stage of the genre, but we have many citations from the work of his elders (notably Cratinus) and contemporaries (notably Eupolis). Some of these support generalizations about Old Comedy based on Aristophanes, but where support is absent or doubtful, one must remember Aristophanes' date and not assume that the structural features common to his earliest plays constitute, as a whole, a formula of great antiquity.2. The chorus, which had 24 members, was of primary importance in Old Comedy, and many plays (e.g. Babylonians, Banqueters, Acharnians) take their names from their choruses. In Aristophanes the chorus addresses the audience in the parabasis, which has a central position in the play, and again at a later stage. In parts of the parabasis the chorus maintains its dramatic role (as Acharn‐ians, knights, clouds, jurors, etc.), while in others it speaks directly for the poet; in the former case dramatic illusion is partly broken, in the latter case wholly. The entry of the chorus is sometimes a moment of violence and excitement; it may be (as in Acharnians and Wasps) hostile to the ‘hero’ of the play, and it has to be won over; thereafter it is on his side, applauding and reinforcing what he says and does.3. The plots of Old Comedy are usually fantastic. In their indifference to the passage of time, the ease with which a change of scene may be assumed without any complete break in the action (places which in reality would be far apart can be treated as adjacent), and the frequency of their references to the audience, the theatre, and the occasion of performance, they resemble a complex of related charades or variety ‘turns’. The context of the plot is the contemporary situation. In this situation, a character takes some action which may violate the laws of nature (e.g. in Aristophanes' Peace Trygaeus flies to the home of the gods on a giant beetle in order to release the goddess Peace from imprisonment and bring her back to earth) or may show a complete disregard for practical objections (e.g. in Acharnians Dikaiopolis makes a private peace treaty with his country's enemies and enjoys the benefits of peace). Events in Old Comedy are sometimes a translation of metaphorical or symbolic language into dramatic terms, sometimes the realization of common fantasies; they involve supernatural beings of all kinds. The comic possibilities of the hero's realization of his fantasy are often exploited by showing, in a succession of short episodes, the consequences of this realization for various professions and types. The end of the play is festive in character (Aristophanes' Clouds is a striking exception), a kind of formal recognition of the hero's triumph, but the logical relation between the ending and the preceding events may be (as in Aristophanes' Wasps) very loose, as if to drown the question ‘But what happened then?’ in the noise of song and dance and to remind us that we are gathered together in the theatre to amuse ourselves and Dionysus by a cheerful show.4. Men prominent in contemporary society are vilified, ridiculed, and parodied in Old Comedy. Sometimes they are major characters, either under their own names (e.g. ‘Socrates’ in Clouds and ‘Euripides’ in Thesmaphoriazusae) or under a very thin disguise (e.g. the ‘Paphlagonian slave’ in Knights, who is Cleon). Many plays, e.g. Hyperbolus and Cleophon, actually bore real men's names as their titles (see hyperbolus; cleophon). The spirit in which this treatment was taken by its victims and by the audience raises a difficult question in the study of Old Comedy. A man would hardly become a comic poet unless he had the sense of humour and the natural scepticism which combine to make a satirist, and prominent politicians are always fair game for satire. Equally, artistic or intellectual change is a more obvious and rewarding target for ridicule than traditional practices and beliefs. There is nothing in the comic poets' work to suggest that as a class they positively encouraged an oligarchic revolution, and their own art was characterized by elaborate and continuous innovation. There is some evidence for attempts to restrict the ridiculing of individuals by legislation; the evidence for their scope and effect is scanty.5. Mythology and theology are treated with extreme irreverence in Old Comedy; some plays were burlesque versions of myths, and gods (esp. Dionysus) were made to appear (e.g. in Aristophanes' Frogs and Cratinus' Dionysalexandros) foolish, cowardly, and dishonest. Yet the reality of the gods' power and the validity of the community's worship of them are consistently assumed and on occasion affirmed, while words and actions of ill‐omen for the community are avoided. It is probable that comic irreverence is the elevation to a high artistic level (Demodocus' tale of Ares and Aphrodite in Odyssey 8 may be compared) of a type of irreverence which permeates the folklore of polytheistic cultures. The essential spirit of Old Comedy is the ordinary man's protest—using his inalienable weapons, humour and fantasy—against all who are in some way stronger or better than he: gods, politicians, generals, artists, and intellectuals.6. The actors wore grotesque masks, and their costume included artificial exaggeration (e.g. of belly and phallus) for comic effect; the phallus may have been invariable for male roles until the 4th cent. No limit seems to have been set, in speech or action, to the humorous exploitation of sex (normal and unorthodox) and excretion, and the vocabulary used in these types of humour eschews the euphemism characteristic of prose literature.7. Most of the extant comedies of Aristophanes require for their performance four actors and, on occasion, supernumeraries.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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