ORIGIN OF COMEDY

This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 1. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 26-28.

The evolution of comedy is much simpler than that of its sister art, though as to its origin and earlier development there is little exact information. All that Aristotle can tell us is that it first took shape in Megaris and Sicyon, whose people were noted for their coarse humor and sense of the ludicrous, while Susarion, the earliest comic poet, was a native of a Megarian town. Add to this that it arose from the Phallic processions of the Greeks, as did tragedy from the dithyramb, and we have about all that is known as to the inception of the lighter branch of the drama.

At country festivals held in celebration of the vintage it was the custom for people to pass from village to village, some in carts, uttering the vile jests and abuse unjustly attributed to the tragic choruses; others on foot, bearing aloft the Phallic emblem and singing the praises of Phales, the comrade of Bacchus. In cities it was also the custom, after an evening banquet, for young men to roam around the streets with torches in their hands, headed by a lyre or flute-player. Such a band of revellers was called a comus, and a member of the band a comoedus or comus-singer, the song itself being termed a comoedia, or comedy, just as a song of satyrs was named a tragoedia, or tragedy.

The Phallic processions were continued as late as the days of Aristotle, and we learn from one of the orations of Demosthenes that the riotous youths who infested the streets of Athens delighted in their comic buffooneries. Pasquinades of the coarsest kind were part of the exhibitions, and hence, probably, it was that comedy found a home at Athens during the time of Pericles, for it furnished the demagogues with a safe and convenient means of attacking their political opponents. When formally established as a branch of the drama it had its chorus, though less numerous and costly than the dithyrambic choir, and the actors, at first without masks, disguised their features by smearing them with the lees of wine.

By Plato comedy is defined as the generic name for all exhibitions which have a tendency to excite laughter. Though its development was mainly due to the political and social conditions of Athens, it finally held up the mirror to all that was characteristic of Athenian life. By a consensus of authorities comedy has been arranged in three divisions, or rather should they be termed variations in form--the old, the middle and the new--and these it will here be convenient to follow.

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