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Introduction to Old Comedy

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 Dionysus, 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, Cleon, Socrates 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.

Comic Festivals

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.

1There was a similar reduction from five plays to three at the Lenaea.

Theater

Old Comedy was presented in the same theater of Dionysus as was tragic drama, with the same background (skene), orchestra and theatrical devices (mechane and ekkyklema).

To learn more about ancient Greek Theater, see the Greek Theater Knowledge Builder.

Actors

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.

2All speaking 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.

Chorus

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 choruses.

Structure

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 and Pentheus 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 are dramatized.


Table of Contents > Next Section: Aristophanes' Clouds

 

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Global Glossary Terms
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City Dionysia

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