OLD 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. 28-29.

The old comedy, dating from the establishment of democracy by Pericles, about 450 B.C., arose, as we have seen, from the coarse jests of Dionysian revellers, to which was given a political application. In outward form these comedies were the most extravagant of burlesque, in essence they were the most virulent of abuse and personal vilification. In its license of word and gesture, on its audacious directness of invective, no restriction was placed by the dramatist, the audience or the authorities, this license running to an excess that to modern play-goers would seem incredible. The satire and abuse were directed against some object of popular dislike, to whom were not only applied such epithets as coward, fool and knave, but he was represented as saying and doing everything that was contemptible, as suffering everything that was ludicrous and degrading. But this alone would not have won for comedy such recognition as it recognition as it received from the refined and cultured community of the age of Pericles. The comic dramatist who would gain a hearing in Athens must borrow from tragedy all its most attractive features, its choral dances, its masked actors, its metres, its scenery and stage mechanism, and above all the chastened elegance of the Attic language--for this the audience required from the dramatist, as from the lyric poet and the orator. Thus comedy became a recognized branch of the drama, often presenting a brilliant sparkle in dialogue and a poetic beauty in the choral parts not unworthy of the best efforts of the tragic muse. Thus, also, it became a powerful engine in the hands of a skillful and unscrupulous politician.

It was upon this stock that the mighty genius of Aristophanes grafted the Pantagruelism, which, ever since it was reproduced by Rabelais, has had among European writers, as in Cervantes, Swift, Voltaire and others, some adequate representation. Though the word Pantagruelism is applied by Rabelais to the characters sustained by court fools, he made a free use both of the spirit and mechanical appliances of old Greek comedy, adopting the disguise of buffoonery to attack some prevailing form of cant and hypocrisy. And this is precisely what Aristophanes did, the term invented by the great French master accurately describing the chief characteristics of his prototype.

Purchase Books on Greek Comedy

Search eBay! for theatre collectibles

FURTHER STUDIES:

Home · Theatre Links · Script Archive · Bookstore · Email · © 2002 TheatreHistory.com