Genre - Old Comedy
Three great comic poets in the
fifth and early fourth century were recognized by ancient literary
critics: Cratinus, Eupolis and Aristophanes.
No plays by the first two comedians have survived, but eleven
of approximately 40 comedies by Aristophanes are extant. The
plays of Aristophanes represent the only surviving examples of
a genre conventionally called Old Comedy.
The plots of Old Comedy have
certain characteristics in common. They are not derived from
traditional myth and legend as is the case in tragedy, but are
the concoctions of the comic poet. They are characterized by
free comic fantasy. The most outrageous projects are presented
as plausible solutions to contemporary problems. For example,
in Aristophanes's Lysistrata, a group of Athenian women
decide to persuade their husbands to make a truce with Sparta
by refusing to have sex with them; in the Frogs the god
because of the lack of good tragic poets, decides to bring the
recently deceased Euripides
back from the underworld.
In Old Comedy, the contrast
with the dignity and seriousness of tragedy could not be more
marked. Slapstick action, scatological and sexual jokes and just
about every other device of humor known to man are found in Old
Comedy. The purpose of this genre, however, goes beyond low farce.
Political and social satire along with literary parody are also
characteristic of Old Comedy. For example, political and intellectual
figures from the contemporary Athenian scene such as Pericles,
and Euripides are targets of harsh comic censure. The Athenian
people themselves are sometimes the objects of criticism. With
regard to parody, the language of Old Comedy often mimics the
high-blown style of tragedy for comic effect.
Hellenistic scholars in Alexandria
first established the categorization of Athenian Comedy into
three stages: Old, Middle and New. One important basis of distinction
among Old, Middle and New Comedy is the prominence of the chorus.
In Old Comedy the chorus plays an integral part in the drama.
Middle Comedy, which first appears in the early fourth century,
is characterized by a marked decline in the importance of the
chorus and the absence of political satire.
In the late fourth century the
development of the final stage of Athenian Comedy called New
Comedy is apparent. In New Comedy the absence of the chorus except
for a rare non-essential chorus) is notable. This form of comedy
focused on family matters such as complications in love relationships,
with no interest in the concerns of the polis, which were central
to Old Comedy. Of the three stages of Athenian Comedy, New Comedy
has had the greatest influence on modern comedy. The universality
of human relationships which formed the subject matter of New
Comedy allowed this form of comedy to translate well, first to
Rome, and then to Renaissance Italy and England and eventually
to our stages, movie and television screens. Old Comedy, on the
other hand, was tied to the political and social milieu of fifth
century Athens and therefore could not be as easily transplanted.
But the spirit of Old Comedy still survives, for example, in
modern political cartoons, occasional musical comedies, and comedyskits
on television which satirize political figures and current trends.
The modern reader must be imaginative
in trying to recreate in the mind a performance of Old Comedy,
which was very much a musical form with singing and dancing by
the chorus and actors. In addition, the understanding of the
political and social context of a given play is essential to
the appreciation of any Aristophanic comedy.
Old Comedy was produced along
with tragedy at the City
Dionysia, and also at a lesser Dionysiac festival in January
called the Lenaea 'wine-vat festival'. Before the Peloponnesian
War five comedies were produced at the City Dionysia, but during
the war the number was limited to three.1 In the latter
period, on each of three days of the festival a tragic tetralogy
(three (3) tragedies and a satyr play) was presented in the morning
and one comedy was put on in the afternoon. As in the case of
tragedy, the archon chose the three poets whose comedies would
be presented. A panel of judges ranked their efforts and awarded
prizes. The comic poet also composed his own music and usually
trained the chorus.
was a similar reduction from five plays to three at the Lenaea.
Old Comedy was presented in
the same theater of Dionysus as was tragic drama, with the same
orchestra and theatrical devices (mechane
Much of what was said in reference
to the tragic actor in the matter of duties, the exclusion of
women,2 the wearing of masks and acting style also
applies to the comic actor. There are, however, some important
differences. The comic masks, which represented a variety of
human and even animal figures, were comically grotesque. The
masks worn by actors impersonating well-known Athenian figures,
of course, bore a facial resemblance to those figures. Four speaking
actors are often required in Aristophanic Comedy in contrast
with the normal three in tragedy. The costume of the comic actor
gave him more freedom of movement than that of the tragic actor.
While the tragic actor was encumbered by heavy robes, the comic
actor wore a short tunic, which allowed for the characteristically
violent slapstick action of Old Comedy. Heavy padding of the
costume produced a significant distortion of the human form.
The grotesque appearance produced by this distortion and also
by the abnormally large leather phallus often worn by comic actors
suited perfectly the outrageous action of Old Comedy.
parts in Old Comedy were taken by men, but there were occasional
silent parts for young women (e.g., as slave-girls) which, because
they required nudity, were played by females. The girls who played
these roles were not respectable Athenian women, but slaves.
The functions of the comic chorus
remain essentially the same as those of the tragic chorus: to
sing and dance choral odes and engage in dialogue with the actors
in the person of the Coryphaeus. The comic chorus had 24 members
compared with the 15 member tragic chorus. Finally, the comic
chorus often had to impersonate non-human characters, as is evident
from the titles of Aristophanes's Clouds, Wasps,
Birds, and Frogs, which were named after their
Although Old Comedy occasionally
employs the tragic structure in which stasima act as dividers
between episodes, it tends to favor the construction (found in
early tragedy) wherein the stanzas of choral songs are separated
one from another by interspersed dialogue, thus closely integrating
choral song and dialogue.
There are two elements which
are regular structural features of Old Comedy: the parabasis
and the debate. The parabasis, a long choral passage both recited
and sung, is a direct address to the audience representing the
views of the poet during which the action of the play is suspended.
Debate, in the general sense of a contest of words, is not peculiar
to Old Comedy. Tragic dialogue often takes the form of a debate
between two characters (e.g., the contest of words between Dionysus
in the Bacchae,
460-508), but the debate as a combination of speech and song
is a readily identifiable feature of Old Comedy.
Old Comedy has a typical pattern
of action. In the beginning of the play the main character conceives
an outrageous solution to some problem. Opposition to his plan
is overcome in the debate. The parabasis, since it has no organic
role in the development of the plot, can come either before or
after the debate. The plan then is put into action and the results