Old Comedy was genre of Ancient Greek Theater that was performed in religious festivals, usually in honor of Dionysus. The comedic plays were well known for their satire of specific public officials and contemporary events. They remained popular from the 5th century BCE. to the end of the Peloponnesian War. However, Old Comedy’s focus on specific topics and people from the time period harmed their long term survival, with jokes about particular people and events becoming less understandable to younger generations.
Origins & Development
The exact origins of the old comedy as a genre are difficult to place. Aristotle credits Megarians with the invention of comedy, but a majority of the earliest vases depicting comedic theater were found around Corinth.
Regardless of its origins, comedy’s boost in popularity can be traced to the Athenian Symposium. The symposium began as a religious celebration, but evolved into a social gathering for the aristocracy. Here, early forms of comedy from other cultures would merge together with new ideas thrown in. The most prominent of these ideas is that of the padded dancer. These dancers would have worn pads to emphasize certain features and drunkenly parodied foreigners or social misfits. As years passed, comedy continued to evolve. Susaron is said to have introduced a comedic chorus around 581 – 561BCE, inspired by padded dancers and the komos, a drunken procession to and from a symposium that involved masks and costumes. In the late 6th and early 5th centuries, Sicilian playwrites Phormis and Epicharmus began to add plot to comedies, changing them from simple scenes of pure silliness to actual skits and stories. In the 5th century BCE, comedy began to be featured in popular religious festivals for all of Greece to watch.
The Performance of Old Comedy
Like drama, old comedy was performed in religious festivals, mainly in City Dionysia and Lenaea. City Dionysia was a March festival that officially recognized comedy and gave the genre its own competition in 486BCE. Before comedy had its own competition, it was restricted to satyr plays, which would accompany the set of three dramas each playwright would perform in the competition, which began around 520-510BCE. Lenaea was a January festival that began competitions for comedy in 442BCE, then added tragedy about 10 years later. Unlike City Dionysia, whose March weather allowed people from all over Greece to attend, Lenaea’s January timing made it more difficult for foreigners to attend, giving the comedy writers more freedom for satire without fear of their leader’s wrath from being insulted in front of foreign leaders.
Drama had influenced comedies by allowing them to borrow plots, gain inspiration, and create parodies, but comedy and drama had many, strong differences in style, regardless of influence. Where drama had been focused on a mythic past, far from the world of the audience, to discuss realistic topics, comedy set its plays in the present day filled with fantasy aspects in order to parody real life. Their different styles can also be seen in dialogue, for drama used beautiful and elegant language and comedy uses a wide range of accents and phrasing to add to each character.
Comedies were also twice as much expensive to perform per play. One portion of the budget went right to the cast of the play, which was much bigger than those of the drama with 24 members in the chorus, as opposed to drama’s 12-15 member chorus. Another portion of the budget was used for props, special effects, and costumes. Comedic plays often used animal choruses (such as frogs), fantasy creatures (such as satyrs) and actors with exaggerated features, which required more demands of a good set of costumes to accurately portray these characters. The plays also involved many more scenes than regular dramas, requiring much more work to change a stage to from one setting to another.
The structure of a comedy was also much different from drama. Both comedy and drama begin with a prologue, but comedy follows that with a parodos, the entrance of the chorus with a large song and dance routine. Then, there is an exodos, where all the characters and chorus leave the stage, letting the syzygy, episode, and agon to perform, musical scenes in which characters would alternate responses in the form, which would create a single ode. Another ode, followed the scenes, but the major difference between drama and comedy is the parabasis, where the chorus got the stage to themselves, the ability to break out of character and speak directly to the audience, and the chance to break the fourth wall. Another syzgy, episode, agon, ode, and exodos would follow, and the play would end for the day.
Aristophanes is the most well-known playwright of old comedy in Greece. He wrote around 40 plays, 11 of which have survived in their entirety. While not much is known about his personal life, his work has given us a different perspective on topics in Athens around the time of the Peloponnesian War.
Aristophanes is believed to have been born c. 450BCE. He was born to Philippus and was a citizen of the Athenian deme, Cydathenaeum. His early life in the deme appears to have influenced his career later, like his relationships with fellow-demesmen, Cleon and Philonedes, and the structure of social interactions. Much of the information we do have about Aristophanes life is inferred from his work, for example, we know that he was bald from the narrator’s comments in Peace. He also had at least 3 sons, who, as active participants in Greek comedy, should be credited with perpetuating Aristophanes works long enough for a collection to be formed in Alexandria, two centuries after his death c. 388BCE.
Part of what makes Aristophanes’ works interesting is their focus on local themes and issues, however this also threatens their longevity as they may not hold the same weight with foreign and future audiences. While his style did not rely on a proper plot, his effective use of satire and witty dialogue allowed him to publicly challenge popular Athenian ideas and figures. He had an affinity for targeting popular figures in his plays, some favorites being General Cleon, Socrates, and Euripides. His works were performed in several competitions, mostly at the Lenaea and City Dionysia, which brought him great publicity and recognition.
His career began in 427BCE with the lost play, The Banqueters, which focused on contemporary educational and moral theories through the opposition of two brothers representing two different schools, “traditional” and “sophist”.
His next play, The Babylonians, (also only surviving in fragments) struck a chord with the audience as it alluded Athenian allies to slaves of the Demos. This play is what incited Cleon to charge eisangelia (impeachment) on Aristophanes for his denigration of the Athenian state. This appears to have gone nowhere, though, and Aristophanes returned to his work.
Archanians is the oldest of the surviving plays, and won Aristophanes first place in the Lenaea of 425BCE. It follows a storyline similar to Euripides’ Telephus, where the protagonist, an Athenian farmer fed up with the Peloponnesian War, makes a private peace treaty with Sparta and lives his life in comfort, while the rest of Attica, particularly general Lamachus, suffers. This play opens with a direct criticism of Athenian democracy at the time, as it is not the will of the general population to continue the war, but for the benefit of Athenian officials.
Cleon was the clear target of Aristophanes’ next play, Knights (424BCE). The comic’s portrayal seemed to have little influence outside of the theater, though, as Cleon continued to be an important figure in the Athenian world.
Clouds (423BCE) was an attack on Socrates and the Sophist movement, and was not well accepted by the City Dionysia audience. At the time Socrates was somewhat of a hero in Athens, and the protagonist in Clouds was an uncouth farmer looking to the Sophists for a way to weasel his way out of debt.
Cleon was targeted again in Wasps (422BCE), this time for his abuse of Athenian juries. This play was one of Aristophanes’ more skillful works, with a graceful delivery of the subject matter.
Peace was written in 421BCE and followed the deaths of Cleon and the Spartan general, Brasidas. The main character of Peace travels to the heavens to ask the gods why the war has lasted so long, rescues the goddess, Peace, with the aid of a farmer-chorus, and then returns to earth where he marries the goddess of Harvest. This play expresses the impending resolution felt by the populous trailing the deaths of the popular war proponents, Cleon and Brasidas. The Peace of Nicias was ratified shortly after.
While many of Aristophanes early works were focused on a singular issue and were slightly careless in terms of composition, his later works became increasingly multifaceted and improve in construction.
The allusions in his 414BCE play, Birds, are obvious yet elusive at the same time. This play follows a man who desires to create a utopia in the sky. He and his company of birds coerce the gods’ cooperation by imposing an embargo on traffic between humans on earth and the gods in the heavens. It has been “viewed variously as topical satire or escapist fantasy, comic utopia or dark Thucydidean parable”, but is most likely a political satire on Imperialist Athens.
Lysistrata (411BCE) was the first comedic play to feature a female in the main role. Themes of gender, politics, and war are present in this story as women all across Greece begin a sex-strike until their husbands form a peace treaty, and end the war. In many ways this bawdy play is typical of old comedy with its lewd sex-jokes and double-entendres.
Aristophanes’ eighth surviving play, Women at the Thesmophoria (411BCE), also stars a group of plotting women, this time with the goal of taking revenge on Euripides for his portrayal of women. The story is a collection of parodies of Euripides’ plays (Telephus, Andromeda, and Helen), as well as a juxtaposition of realms (male/female, tragedy/comedy, theatre/reality).
In Frogs (405BCE), Aristophanes once again mocks Euripides, but this time while making a comparison to the state of Athens at the time. Dionysus and his slave, Xanthias, travel to the underworld to bring back the recently-deceased Euripides. The equal-footing of the characters Dionysus and Xanthias in this play are a reference to the newly awarded citizenship to Athenian slaves, and the retrieval of Athens acclaimed tragedian from the underworld symbolizes the readmittance of exiled oligarchs. However, due to a competition between Aeschylus (representing Athens of old) and Euripides (Athens of late), Aeschylus wins the favor of Dionysus and returns with him to earth to restore tragedy and Athens.
Following this group of plays there is a 12 year gap in Aristophanes’ surviving works. With these late plays we glimpse the transformation of comedic styles. With a reduction in theatrical budgets, the plays become less flashy and more intellectually stimulating. Both of the later plays reflect the social revolution occurring as Athens rebuilds and restructures itself.
Women in the Assembly (c. 393BCE) is about women disguised as men taking over Athens and instituting a utopian communist society. The end of the play suggests impending failure of this overambitious reconstruction of the Athenian state.
Wealth (388BCE) is described by NJ Lowe as “a sober, moralistic, often unfunny play” which questions the role of wealth and poverty in society. In this play a doctor corrects the vision of the god of Wealth so that only the righteous are blessed with wealth.
After Aristophanes: Middle and New Comedy
Aristophanes’ last works can be considered to be a part of Middle Comedy. Middle Comedy was short-lived (about 40 years) and not well documented, serving more as a transitional period.
With the development of New Comedy, though, came many changes to comedy. A movement towards “stock characters” who were widely relatable was very different from the local figures often characterized in Old Comedy, such as Aristophanes’ frequent use of Cleon-characters which required a familiarity with the Athenian general. There was a move away from public events and into personal plots, and the plot also became an important comedic tool. As mentioned, the chorus became smaller, and less important with greater focus on the individual actors. The New Comedy period lasted from 320-260BCE, and the most notable comedic writers were Menander, Philemon and Diphilus. With the lack of “inside jokes” and move away from specific figures and events, New Comedy insured its survival with greater ease than the Old Comedy plays, and its influence can be traced to places such as Victorian England and the Roman Empire.
“Aristophanes” Encyclopaedia Britannica <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/34467/ Aristophanes> accessed 28 Oct. 2013.
Dearden, C.W. The Stage of Aristophanes. London: Athlone Press, 1976. Print.
Parke, HW. Festivals of the Athenians. Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977. Print.
Lowe, NJ. 2007. “Aristophanes and Old Comedy.” Greece and Rome, 54(37): 21-63.
Redfield, James. 1962. “Comedy, Tragedy, and Politics in Aristophanes’ Frogs.” Chicago Review, 15(4): 107-121.
Rothwell, Kenneth S. Nature, Culture, and the Origins of Greek Comedy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print.