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Aristophanes and Greek Old Comedy
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan


Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.


Suggested Background Reading

Items to note: *Old Comedy, typical structural elements of Old Comedy, *parabasis


Greek Old Comedy. The historical origins of tragedy and comedy are often sought in Greek religious ritual. A ritual origin for tragedy is difficult to establish, but there are several elements in the so-called *Old Comedy that can be employed to make a good prima facie case for the development of 5th-century Athenian comedy out of Dionysiac rites. The Greek komoidia means "the song of the komos." A komos is a communal ritual carouse: on a small scale it is the ancient equivalent of party-crashing and bar-hopping rolled into one, but as part of a communal festival of Dionysus it recalls modern carnivals such as that of Mardi gras (although the ancient rites were usually more carefully scripted and ordered) — a time when normal social rules and inhibitions are cast aside and people party in the streets, singing, dancing, and (often) drinking. The ancient komos often involved masks and costumes, as does Mardi gras, but was marked by another practice foreign to most festivals in modern North America: aischrologia or the ritual abuse of individuals. Another distinctive feature, found in many Dionysiac rites and no doubt in some komoi, was the phallos: an imitation penis, often too large for one person to lift with ease, carried on a pole or cart. As with Mardi gras, these rites tended to occur in spring (or mid- to late-winter) and although they may have served a number of psychological, social, or political ends, their main function was to promote fertility by honoring or encouraging the god (and driving away any spirits of blight) through a boisterous display of health, prosperity, and virility.

Many of these same elements make up the essential core of Old Comedy. The actors wore padded costumes, grotesque masks, and (in the case of the male characters) a large leather phallos. The latter could at times serve as a useful prop (Aristophanes' Lysistrata, for example, involves a sex-strike by the women of Greece: the males who come on stage are made the butt of "is that a screwdriver in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?"-type jokes) but this seems to be relatively rare. While the size and appearance of the phallos may have told the audience something about a particular character (consider, e.g., the two Arguments in Clouds), its casual presence is best explained as a hold-over from an earlier form of comedy more directly tied to the komos. The chorus of comedy often appears dressed as animals, insects, or in some other non-human guise (as the titles of many plays indicate: e.g., Wasps, Birds, Frogs); the evidence of vase painting suggests that this, too, goes back to earlier ritual (see The World of Athens ill. 7:17). Like Dionysiac ritual, Old Comedy teems with vitality: it abounds in references to food, drink, and sex, and frequently concludes with a triumphant revel — often celebrating a marriage — reminiscent of the komos. It generally celebrates the life of the countryside, presenting the fantasy of an idyllic agrarian utopia, and frequently incorporates rites of Dionysus into the plot of the play. Most distinctive, perhaps, are the frequent attacks on prominent individuals — politicians, the wealthy, philosophers, artists. Often such an attack forms the heart of the play (as in Clouds), but incidental swipes at individuals not concerned with the main plot are also common. Aischrologia, it can be argued, is here transformed into a particularly biting form of political/philosophical/literary satire. (Cf. the Course Notes on Aristophanes' Clouds.)

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In contrast to the tragedians, the comic playwrights produced their works at two festivals of Dionysus: the City Dionysia (March) and the Lenaea (January). [FN 1] At the former festival the comedies were produced at the Theater of Dionysus, on the same stage as the tragedies; whether there was a separate theater for the Lenaea is uncertain. The conventions governing the staging of comedy differ from those of tragedy in a number of ways. We have already dealt with costume. Props and scenery are employed a great deal more, both for sight gags and as part of the earthy, humorous realism for which comedy strives. Devices like the eccyclema and mechanê are employed more freely, with the playwright often calling attention to their use in order to shatter the dramatic illusion and thereby raise a laugh. Comedy often seems to require four actors rather than three, particularly in the second half of the play, which generally involves a series of rapid comic skits, part of the humor of which is provided by the sight of the actors madly dashing on and off stage in various guises. The chorus is larger (24 members as opposed to 12 or 15 in tragedy) and, as we have seen, often appears dressed in elaborate attire. The size and costuming of the chorus is essential to many of the plots (e.g., the chorus frequently breaks into two opposed camps, one of which supports the hero while the other opposes him/her) and was made possible by the fact that the producer (choregus) of comedy had only one play to finance, whereas the producer of tragedy had four (three tragedies and a satyr play). These features of the chorus would have added further to the color and motion of the comic stage. Many scholars feel that the comic stage requires three doors, although the plays can be produced with only one. The language and meters of comedy are less formal than those of tragedy and much closer to actual speech (as you would expect); dialect and (in the case of non-Greeks) comic gibberish are often employed.

The typical plot of an Old Comedy centers on two elements: (1) the Aristophanic hero and (2) the fantastic scheme. The hero of an Aristophanic play typically dominates the work. Usually he is male: a farmer, a member of what we would call the lower middle class who earns an honest but not lavish living by tilling his fields. He is not what we would consider an admirable type but is something of an id figure, always ready to gorge himself and get drunk, to pilfer what he can, to grab any opportunity for sexual gratification that happens his way. (This quality is referred to as *poneria or comic roguery. If you read other plays you will find that while the Athenians found such a trait delightfully funny in a male protagonist, they were not about to accept it in a female: Aristophanes' female heroes are dreadfully earnest and proper.) He is usually redeemed, however, by a certain earthy wholesomeness that puts us firmly on his side. The play usually opens with the hero's distress at some troubling feature of contemporary society: e.g., the prolonging of the war, the corrupt politicians who dominate the ecclesia, the folly of the Athenian demos, the sorry state of contemporary literature. Unable to convince others of their folly, the hero sets out on his own, putting into effect some kind of fantastic scheme that is intended to set things right.

[In Acharnians the hero makes a private peace with the Spartans so that he can enjoy the blessings of peace that were lost with the beginning of the war. In Peace the hero gorges a dung beetle by having his slaves feed it non-stop (this leads to a good deal of scatological humor — a favorite with Aristophanes — since, of course, a dung beetle eats shit) until it grows to monstrous size; he then rides up to Olympus on its back like a comic Bellerophon and frees the goddess Peace from her prison. In Birds the hero becomes a bird and founds a city in the sky (Cloudcuckooland); he establishes a blockade between the gods and humanity, thereby becoming monarch of the universe. In Lysistrata (as we have seen) the women of Greece stop the war by staging a sex strike and seizing the Acropolis (where the state funds were kept). In Frogs Dionysus, upset with the tripe that is being produced on the tragic stage nowadays, descends to Hades to bring back the dead Euripides.]

Usually this fantastic scheme puts the hero at odds with the chorus (which is won over) and with an authority figure, who is bested in a comic agon near the mid-point in the play. The contrast between the mean-spirited sterility of the opponent and the hero's comic boisterousness ensures that the audience's sympathy is firmly on the hero's side. The second half of the play usually explores the comic results of the scheme's implementation via a rapid series of comic skits. The play ends with the hero's triumphant exit and often with the sense that society has somehow been cured or redeemed by the hero's victory. The conclusion often suggests a return to the mythical Golden Age, when toil and suffering were unknown. Taken as a whole, Old Comedy reads like an amalgam of Monty Python, Lenny Bruce, and the modern political cartoon. (On unusual features in the plot of Clouds, see the Course Notes on Aristophanes' Clouds.

For details re the typical structural elements of Old Comedy, see A. H. Sommerstein transl., Aristophanes, Lysistrata and Other Plays and The World of Athens.

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Aristophanes (c. 447-c. 385): Works
First production: 427
Total number of victories: 4

Preserved Works: Acharnians [425 - First place (Lenaea)], Knights [424 - First place (Lenaea)], Clouds I [423 - Third place (Dionysia)], Wasps [422 - Second place (Lenaea)], Peace [421 - Second place (Dionysia)], Clouds II [418?], Birds [414 - Second place (Dionysia)], Lysistrata [411 - Lenaea?], Women at the Thesmophoria [411 - Dionysia?], Frogs [405 - First place (Lenaea)], Women in Assembly [392 or 391], Wealth [388]

Bibliography: G. Norwood, Greek Comedy

The life and career of Aristophanes are discussed in the introduction to Aristophanes, Lysistrata and Other Plays (A. H. Sommerstein transl.). See, as well, s.v. "Aristophanes" in the on-line Perseus Project's encyclopedia.


Notes

[FN 1] Tragedies were produced at the Lenaea, but were clearly subordinate to the comedies. We have no evidence that any of the major tragic playwrights produced plays there. [Return to text]


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Last Modified: Wednesday, 11-Nov-2009 23:25:17 CST
Please send queries and comments to john.porter@usask.ca.