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The Theatre In Greece - The Middle Comedy And The New Comedy

( Originally Published 1902 )



Fourth century B.C.: transition from Old to Middle Comedy; suppression of the chorus—Antiphanes, Eubulus, Ale:Kis—General characteristics of the Middle Comedy : its function—The New Comedy : its characteristics ; the Prologue—Philemon—Menander and the Comedy of Manners—Characters in the New Comedy—Disciples of Epicurus—Dorian Comedy; Rhinthon and his successor Livius Andronicus—The Dionysiac and Lenaean gatherings—Masks and costumes in the New Comedy—The Athenian public and performances—Conditions of admission—The 'Lessee'—The different seats—Cabals in the theatre : methods of protesting—The claque—Susceptibilities of the spectators.

THE Old Comedy was in its essence the outcome of the free democracy of Athens, and with the temporary suppression of this by the Thirty, and the hampered and enfeebled condition of the State after the democracy had been restored, the Old Comedy decayed. Popular satire was not at the outset rejected by the Middle Comedy. The politicians and orators of the period were the special butt of its raillery. Its attacks, however, had little weight, since it was forbidden to satirise living persons by name. Another important event tended to accentuate the pacific tendencies of the Comedy. This was the suppression, some time before 388 B.C., of the choric songs, which had essentially usurped the rôle of mocking and slandering.

The decline of the comic chorus, thus reduced to the perfunctory part of interlocutor, is seen markedly in the Plutus, B.C. 388 ; and its withdrawal as a political organ is accounted for by the gradual evanescence of political interest. The comedies of Antiphanes are believed to have contained no choruses. This revolution, along with the inevitable changes entailed in the choice of subjects, involved some important modifications, both in stage properties and in costumes. The masks in particular, since they could no longer be made to resemble special personages, developed into a general travesty designed to excite laughter.

The style, too, was affected by these changes : it became less and less poetical, and more nearly resembled prose and the current language of the day.

This school, no work of which has come down to us, flourished between 388 and 322 B.C., and was illustrated by Antiphanes, Eubulus, and Alexis.

Antiphanes, who was born towards the close of the fifth century, and died at the age of seventy-four, a little before 330 B.C., is said to have composed two hundred and sixty comedies. In several of his pieces, he attacked the religious sects, more particularly the Pythagoreans, on whom he heaped the bitterest invective.

Eubulus, contemporary with Antiphanes, and the author of some hundred comedies, amused himself with parodying illustrious writers. Euripides and Plato were the subjects of his coarsest pleasantries.

The poet Alexis (uncle of Menander), who died at the age of one hundred, occupies the whole of the fourth century. To him are attributed two hundred and forty-five comedies, in which there is little introduction of mythology. He attacked the philosophers with great bitterness.

The attacks of the Middle Comedy are directed against certain general types, as well as against some social conditions. It frequently ridicules strangers and provincials. The courtesans of the day, the prostitutor, are brought on the stage to discuss theses. Various trades lent their name to the plays of the Middle Comedy : among others, players on stringed instruments of every kind, dancers, apothecaries, physicians, usurers, athletes, charioteers, fencing-masters, nurses, rascals, debauched old men, and swaggering soldiers, are all types dear to the Middle Comedy, which is essentially a Comedy of Intrigue. Character is little developed in it—a fact, a simply-told adventure forms its basis.

Two characters are integral parts of all these plays : the parasite and the cook, who for the rest bequeathed their names to particular comedies. The Middle Comedy devotes long passages to descriptions of eating and drinking, and to this, no doubt, it owes its reputation for coarseness. This charge, however, is much exaggerated, as is evident if we reflect that the banquet has always been one of the traditional elements in Greek Comedy. The Middle Comedy must be regarded as a kind of link between the Old and New Comedy. It is connected with the former by the taste for allegory and parody which predominated in Old Comedy, and characterised all the plays of the comic theatre during the first part of the fourth century. It is associated with the latter by a habit of observation, and of exposing the manners of a certain class of people and the absurdities of certain trades. Developing gradually, this study, which had been superficial in the time of Alexis and of Antiphanes, reached its highest degree of perfection under Menander.

An innovation of real importance, towards the middle of the fourth century, was the definite adoption of the prologue of Tragedy, which in Middle Comedy had made but a timid appearance. This prologue assumed the character of a friendly conversation, permitting all kinds of observations about the comedy. This marks an initial difference from the previous style ; but what distinguishes the New Comedy from the Old, and also from the Middle Comedy, is its search after truth, its portrayal of contemporary manners, and still more its treatment of the erotic passions, which underlie all subsequent drama.

Intrigue also was perfected, and, as Schlegel points out, the New Comedy `endeavours after union and connection, and has in common with Tragedy a formal development and catastrophe' : in short, a unity which is lacking in the plays of Aristophanes. As M. Jacques Denys has well said, ` The Old Comedy, which had been only a caricature of life, was transformed with the New Comedy of Menander into a real painting of existence.

The most celebrated poets of the New Comedy are Philemon and Menander. Philemon, a native of Cilicia, began to exhibit about 330 B.C., and died in 262 at the age of ninety-nine. Ninety to ninety-seven comedies are attributed to him, from which Plautus often drew inspiration for his pieces. In fact he borrowed from Philemon the subject of The Merchant, the Trinummus, and the Mostellaria.

Menander, termed at Athens ` the star of the New Comedy,' was born in that city in 340 B.C., and began to make himself known about 322. He was brought up by his uncle Alexis, and had more particularly imbibed the principles of Theophrastus and Epicurus. Plautus took from him the subject of the Bacchis Sisters and of the Stichus ; Terence, that of the Andrian Woman, The Brothers, and The Self- Tormentor.

The comedies of Menander are par excellence comedies of manners, for notwithstanding the some-what deceptive titles of his pieces, e.g. The Misanthrope, The Superstitious Man, The Irritable Man, The Flatterer, they contain nothing profound or truly universal.

Menander modified some of the characters created by his predecessors : he raised the braggart soldier to the level of the fop, and transformed the parasite into the flatterer. As critic, he specially attacked the superstition imported from Asia, which was one of the plagues of Greece, and ridiculed those who were capricious and whimsical.

The greatest glory of Menander was the invention of a style from which the Comedy of Character, properly so called, was to spring in Rome a century later.

Among the remaining poets of the New Comedy we must cite Apollodorus of Carystus, who gave to Terence the original of the Phormio and the Hecyra ; Diphilus of Sinope, contemporary with Menander, from whom Plautus borrowed the subject of the Casina ; and Posidippus (of Cassandrea in Macedonia), who made his appearance about 290 B.C. All these poets were fervent admirers of Epicurus, whose name comes up constantly in their comedies.

As M. Croiset has said, ' What the poets of the New Comedy best exhibited to their public was the ways of thinking and feeling in which all men are alike ; what they brought out most successfully was the distinctions due to age, sex, and social conditions : to this end they created three or four types of fathers, two or three of young people, of slaves, of courtesans, and of married women.

Towards the commencement of the third century the Dorian Comedy took a new lease of life with the writings of Rhinthon, who gave his name to a development of it called Rhinthonica. This poet exaggerated the style of Epicharmus, and parodied the tragedies of the great poets of Athens to the letter. I t is believed that Plautus borrowed the subject of his Amphitryo from this author. The successors of Rhinthon, in the comic style, are Livius Andronicus and Naevius, who left their native country about the middle of the third century, and transferred the masterpieces of the Greek theatre to the Roman stage.

From the fourth century the comic poets admitted to the Dionysia were five in number. This increase was doubtless due to the disappearance of the chorus, which left a void, and allowed more time to be devoted to the representation of plays.

The increased number of competitors raised the number of comedies to five, for each poet presented a single piece. While the gatherings of comedians at the Dionysia were instituted later than the tragic competitions, they lasted for a longer period. Hence in the middle of the fourth century, that is, as late as the year 353 B.C., there was still no dearth of new comedies at the gatherings. We are, however, ignorant of the fate of Comedy at the Dionysia during the hundred and fifty years that followed. On the other hand, we know that from the second century the custom of inaugurating the feast by the representation of early comedies had become a normal occurrence. These old plays resembled the modern lever de rideau, and were drawn exclusively from the repertory of the New Comedy. Thus the most popular pieces of the day were The Ghost of Menander and The Phoeians of Philemon. The registers of the second century foreshadow the approaching dissolution of the Comedy, for the melancholy phrase, ` In this year there was no performance of comedies,' recurs from time to time. It seems probable that by the end of the second century the representation of any sort of comedy at the Dionysia had become an altogether exceptional event.

In the fourth century the number of competitors at the Lenaea, which had been three, was increased to five, and lasted thus into the third century, after which all trace of competitions of comedians at the Lenaean gathering is lost.

Although the New Comedy was a Comedy of Manners, and pretended to be a faithful mirror of the life and customs of the day, the masks of the actors by no means harmonised with the character of the piece. As in Old Comedy they were designed to give a grotesque expression, save in the case of a few young men and girls, who were represented under the most pleasing aspect. The chief types of the New Comedy are the inflexible father, the benevolent patriarch, the prodigal son, the boor, the heir, the bully, the pimp, the attorney's wife, the courtier, whose masks all differed by certain distinctive signs. The complexion and arrangement of the hair were the most important characteristics of the masks. Those who were sick or in love were pale ; strong persons had a bronzed tint ; rascals and slaves had ruddy cheeks and hair ; old men wore their hair cropped short ; soldiers had long manes ; courtesans wore ornaments in their hair ; fighters had their ears torn (corresponding with the broken nose of the modern pugilist). The costumes in New Comedy resembled those of everyday life : white was worn by slaves, purple by young men, black and grey by parasites. OId women were clad in blue or yellow. The beard, in men, was the sign of maturity.

On the days of the performances at Athens there was a general holiday, and all citizens, including slaves, were admitted to the entertainment given in honour of the god. Even criminals were Iet out of prison, and allowed to take part in the festival. The crowd, consisting of representatives from all classes of society, clad in tunics of white, red, brown, yellow, and other bright colours, assembled at daybreak, and even on the night before, at the doors of the theatre, to get the best places. Women as well as adults were admitted to the performance. Plato and Aristotle make various references to their presence in the theatre. Doubt has, however, been cast upon these statements by several authors, who see in the coarse and immoral character of the Old Comedy an objection to the attendance of respectable women and children. These writers lose sight of the fact that the Drama was primarily a religious office, and that what might under other circumstances have appeared unsuitable, was quite natural as homage to the deity.

Since the State organised these performances for the benefit of the people, the seats were originally free. Subsequently, to avoid the disputes which arose over choosing the best places, an entrance-fee of two obols a head was instituted. But in order to satisfy the poorer classes, who complained that the rich people bought up all the places before-hand, Pericles decreed, in the middle of the fifth century, that the less well-to-do citizens might demand from the State the two obols required for admission. The fee was received by the Lessee,' or contractor, who undertook the management of the theatre in terms of an agreement drawn up with the State. He was, moreover, bound to keep places in the front rows for the priests, the principal State officials, the ten generals, and the ambassadors.

When the theatre was filled, it contained about thirty thousand persons. In the centre, that is in the best place, sat the priest of Dionysus. Strangers were for the most part relegated to the back rows. Women were separated from men, courtesans from honest women. The performances began at sun rise, and lasted uninterruptedly till the evening. As there were no entr'actes, the spectators had to bring their provisions, which they ate during the less interesting parts of the play ; but as soon as the great actors came on the scene, the viands were put aside out of respect for them.

Among the spectators were to be found the different types of our modern theatrical assemblies, among them the grumbler and the enthusiast. There, too, were the young bloods, who sometimes combined in bands to hiss a piece and cry it down. The least act of violence, however, was held to be sacrilege, and exposed the delinquent to heavy punishment. Still, the audience expressed their discontent or satisfaction quite as noisily as in the present day. A habit, peculiar to Athenians when they desired to protest at the theatre, was that of knocking the stone or wooden bench on which they were seated with the heels of their sandals ; and to show disapprobation they provided them-selves with figs, olives, and even with stones, to throw at the heads of the actors.

The organised claque to excite the enthusiasm of the spectators for any given play, or in favour of some new actor, was an established thing from the fifth century.

The Athenians were perfectly willing that their divinities should be ridiculed upon the stage, but they were implacable directly there was any question of dogma. The slightest affectation of atheistic sentiments, the least violation of religious institutions, was liable to provoke an outburst of extreme indignation. Aristotle tells us that Aeschylus was nearly killed in the theatre, because he was accused of revealing part of some of the mysteries in one of his plays. Again, the expression of any low or simply vulgar sentiment on the stage excited severe resentment. Thus, according to Seneca, the Danaë of Euripides was hissed, and almost with-drawn from the stage, because it contained a passage which descanted on the advantages of money.



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