Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Birth of Comedy

Comedy arose out of embers of Greek cultural imagination. Dionysus, the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of ritual madness and ecstasy in Greek mythology, represented an aspect of religion we would call fundamentalist or evangelical: highly emotional, noisy, singing, clapping, shouting, and dancing.

Statue of Dionysus
Marble, 2nd century CE
(arms and legs were heavily restored in the 18th century)
Musée de Louvre, Richelieu Collection

The men drank wine heavily during these events and the women went into ecstatic convulsions and were then known as maenads. They wore human masks, such as the one below. This was the true origin of the drama, which in time bifurcated into comic and tragic performances.

Tragic Mask of a Young Man, Terracotta, c. 150 B.C., Greece, Musée du Louvre

In the early days of these events, music played a dominant role, and the main performers were the chorus. Reportedly these events were more of an oratorio than a play. In the original Dionysiac drama, the dithyramb to the god was a hymn in the form of an ode, and the action was a service of worship, the chorus being the Athenian people doing homage to their god. 

Vase depicting Music Lesson
ca. 510 BCE from Vulci
Music lesson: teacher (right, inscription: ΣΜΙΚΥΔΟΣ) and his student (left, ΕΥΔΥΜΙΔΕΣ). Between them, a boy (ΤΛΕΜΠΟΜΕΝΟΣ) narrates a text. 
Staatliche Antikensammlungen
Munich, Germany

Gradually the Dionysiac aspect disappeared, clinging on only in the comedies as a species of masked buffoonery. The immortality of the soul, a central theme in Socrates' thinking, was present in the Dionysian theater, especially in its tragic form, which gave rise to Dionysus being depicted as the Lord of Souls. 

Dionysus as Bacchus by Caravaggio
Uffizi Gallery

Similar notions of this belief were present in Egypt and in Hebrew Palestine. The Hebrews developed a form of drama as a result of these forces. In Faust's The First Part of the Tragedy, the play begins with a prologue in Heaven. In an allusion to the story of Job, Mephistopheles wagers with God for the soul of Faust. 

Faust I, first edition, 1808
Private Collection

A humorous adult male chorus was an element in Athen's Dionysiac feasting. Men dressed as horses and birds, and adorned giant strap-on bellies. Not unlike the majority of low-brow, bawdy comedy that exists today, enormous phalluses were carried in Dionysiac processions. Aristotle wrote of "phallic songs", crude jokes, and bawdy comic verses, which he said was "customary to many cities," but no longer in Athens, which had become too sophisticated. Another aspect was the crude abuse of audiences, a ploy that continues in modern-day comic routines. The Old Comedy of the fifth century B.C.E., as historians would say, was more like charades or a variety show than a play. 

A number of satiric plays survive. Plato's The Banqueters, written when he was eighteen and winning him second prize, survives, as does Acharnians. This play was about war and peace and was intended to be serious, though there are some comic elements. 

Aristophanes, classed as a comic playwright, went between enormous exaggerations of actual events and real people, and buffoonery. He was a satirist, in the proper sense of the term. The first play he produced himself, Knights (424 BCE), won first prize, and was an attack on the reigning demagogue, Cleon. Wasps (422) was a satire on the Athenian jury system. 

The famous orations and strongly held critiques of human behavior were paramount to the rise of comedy. Thereafter comedy took many forms of humorous critique on subjects ranging from embezzlement of public funds (sound familiar?), the superstitions of men, aspects of human behavior, etc. 

The competitive spirit of Ancient Greece as well as its manifestation - creativity - gave rise to playwrights such as Aristophanes, who won the first prize for comedy three times. Greek celebrations, which gave rise to both comedy and tragedy, are elements so interwoven into modern-day humor that it is often times difficult for many people to recognize when one "joke" is humorously tragic or tragically humorous. 

While I would like to claim that humor in its purest form is one that denotes positive celebration, the reality is that both tragedy and comedy are so integral to its survival that I must concede my initial claim. 

In the end, the type of humor we prefer is based perhaps more on personal preferences, which relate to gender, class, education level, popular and early childhood influences. 


Socrates (2011) by Paul Johnson

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