The Theatre In Greece - Old Greek Comedy

( Originally Published 1902 )

Sicilian origin : Phormis of Maenalus—Epicharmus : his plays—Creation of new characters—Athenian origin : Susarion—Fifth century : Cratinus and Eupolis—Aristophanes : character of his plays—Their influence—The Dionysia-The Lenaea—Costumes and masks in Old Comedy—The actors.

GREEK Comedy, like Tragedy, sprang from the worship of Dionysus. Sicily was its cradle.

From very early days it was the custom in Laconia to celebrate the close of the vintage by public rejoicings in honour of the god. These festivals included hymns chanted by the chorus, and improvised dialogues, which often were only bitter invective, even degenerating into insult.

Eventually these dialogues grouped themselves into a kind of unity of time, place, and action. The improvisateurs, on their side, assumed the character of charlatans, of athletes, or of fools, who acted on trestles, or on a table decorated with branches.

Phormis of Maenalus (the most ancient writer of comedies whose name has come down to us) imposed a uniform costume upon these primitive actors, i.e. a kind of white cloak descending to their feet ; and he also replaced the branches of trees by purple curtains. Finally, for the two buffoons he substituted sharply defined characters : <> the cunning slave and the deformed cook, the two oldest parts, properly so-called, in Comedy.

Epicharmus, who is generally considered the true creator of Comedy (and who left :Megara, his native town, to go to Syracuse, about 486 B.C.), continued in the direction of giving more unity to the subject and more force to the action. He augmented the number of actors, and instead of two interlocutors we find henceforward several persons speaking in their turn. The names of thirty-six comedies of Epicharmus have come down to us. Those best known are The Marriage of Hebe, The Braggart, the Cyclops, the Prometheus.

The principal personages in the comedy of Epicharmus were heroes and gods, and in this his plays resembled the satyric dramas of Athens. Their aim was political and moral, but the actors were careful to abstain from all direct allusion.

From being personal at the outset, Comedy in the hands of Epicharmus became general. For the rest, many of his pieces were only simple mimes, giving exceedingly faithful pictures of everyday life.

The great glory of Epicharmus lay in the creation of three types which have come down to us : the heavy peasant, the drunkard, and especially the parasite.'

The beginnings of Comedy were in Athens what they had been in Sicily. It originated in an extempore dialogue which formed part of the Festival of Dionysus in the country districts of Attica. Susarion, towards the end of the seventh century, was the first to submit these dialogues to a sort of versification. The style, however, remained undeveloped throughout the sixth century. It was not till the commencement of the fifth that true Comedy made its appearance in Athens.

The first comic poets worthy of the name are Chionides, Magnes, Ecphantides, but their productions have not come down to us.

The second half of the fifth century produced, alongside of Aristophanes, a few clever poets in Comedy. In the first place, we must mention Cratinus, who made a real political satire out of the comedy. His greatest success was in 423 B.C. One of his plays, The Women of Thrace, was a kind of protest against the importation into Athens of strange divinities. The principal subject of this comedy appears to have been a satire upon the worship of the goddess Bendis, a sort of Thracian Artemis.

Eupolis (whose first work was represented in 432 B.C.), the most famous of the contemporaries of Aristophanes, was distinguished by the charm and grace of his compositions. In some of his pieces, nevertheless, he carried political raillery to the verge of outrage ; such is his comedy The Flatterers, and still more that entitled The Dippers, directed against Alcibiades, who revenged himself by throwing the author into the sea. Nor must Phrynichus be forgotten, for his piece, called The Misanthrope, played in 414 B.C., tended to develop the Comedy of Character.

Aristophanes, the most celebrated writer of Old Comedy, was born in Aegina (about 450 B.C.) in easy circumstances. His first piece, which has been lost, dates from 427. It was an attack upon the education of the time, which he depicts as immoral. His second work (also non-extant), The Babylonians, written in 426 B.C., was an-other violent satire directed against the democratic government.

Eleven plays out of the fifty-four attributed to Aristophanes have been preserved. The Acharnians, played at the time of the Lenaean gathering, is the earliest of the comedies that have come down to us from this author. In this piece Aristophanes attacks Lamachus the general, and Euripides, whom he execrates. The Acharnians and also The Peace are an indictment of war. Lysistrata is an indirect plea for the emancipation of women : a question that was already the topic of the day at Athens. His other comedies are The Knights, The Clouds (directed against Socrates), The Women celebrating the Feast of Demeter, The Wasps, The Parliament of Women (attack on Plato), The Birds, and lastly Plutus, a satire on men who commit nothing but follies, and the gods who misgovern the world. This comedy, which dates from 388 B.C., is the latest work of Aristophanes that has come down to us. It contains all the elements of the Comedy of Character. The most famous of all the pieces of the great Greek comedian is that entitled The Frogs. The chief object of this play was to establish the superiority of Aeschylus over Euripides, and to represent the latter as an immoral and impious person. The Frogs obtained the first prize at the competition, as well as the rare distinction of a second performance very soon after the first had been given.

Aristophanes mocked at everything, even at what was good. If he set himself the task of correcting with a smile, he missed his aim, for far from making any improvement, his satires, though full of useful truths, did but help on the work of destruction then beginning. He had the bad taste to attack the accredited divinities of his country. ' By shaking the faith of his fellow-citizens in the oracles and prophecies, he discouraged hope, and arrested the impulse of the soul towards the future.' For this Victor Hugo declared Aristophanes to be ' the only evil and disastrous genius that has ever existed.'

The exact period at which the representations of comedies at the Dionysia were instituted is unknown, but certain Athenian inscriptions establish beyond a doubt that they were in full vigour by 459 B.C. The number of poets entered for competition was three, at the Dionysiac as well as at the Lenaean gathering.

Comedy, as we have said, was the principal feature of the Lenaea. Tradition tells us that these contests were instituted from the middle of the fifth century, but details of their nature and organisation prior to Aristophanes are wanting.

In the time of this author three poets only were admitted to compete, each of whom presented a single piece. Four of the comedies of Aristophanes, The Acharnians, The Knights, The Wasps, The Frogs, were given at the Lenaea. Otherwise, the great comedian seems to have produced his works indifferently at the Lenaean or the Dionysiac Festival.

In Old Comedy the costumes of the actors closely resembled those of ordinary life. The masks were usually of a grotesque and extra-ordinary type, harmonising with the character of the early comedy, in which parody and caricature were the principal elements. But where the piece was aimed at some well-known personality, such as Socrates or Euripides, the mask reproduced the features of the person indicated. The costume of the chorus-singers was the ordinary tunic, covered with a cloak, which was laid aside when they danced. Their masks were essentially grotesque, and for the most part represented distorted countenances. In addition, moreover, to the ordinary chorus, there were others of a highly fantastic character ; as in the plays of Aristophanes, where there is a chorus of birds in a play by Magnes, one of insects ; in Archippus, one of fishes ; in Cratinus, one of the seasons. In such instances the costumes and masks were arranged as realistically as possible.

We have said that in Comedy, as in Tragedy, the principal actors (properly so-called) were three in number. It should be added that these actors never interchanged their styles : both Tragedy and Comedy preserved a separate interpretation.

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