Friday, January 31, 2014

What do you think, Fulano? [pointing to an audience member]

Though they may have played on the same stage, Greek Tragedy and Greek Comedy have some stark differences. Obviously, as their labels imply, there is the difference in content, but that aside there are also a number of conventional variations between the two dramatic genres. In all honesty I'm still relatively new to Greek Comedy, and so with this post, I'd like to raise some questions for pondering, rather than presume to provide answers of any sort. Think of it as an exercise in taking a moment to think about classic theater. Who wouldn't want to be able to say they did that, right? That being said, this post is no good without people commenting to share their thoughts! That's right: audience participation! Some minor generalizations are bound to follow, but bear with me, I think this might be worth contemplating.

First of all, there's the chorus. As time passed and we shift from "Old Comedy" (400's BCE) through "Middle Comedy" (404-321 BCE) and finally to "New Comedy" (323-ca.250 BCE), the chorus becomes increasingly marginalized, so for the purpose of this post, we'll focus on comparing Old Comedy with tragedy. Tragedy had a Chorus of 15, whereas comedy had nearly twice that, with a chorus of 24, and at least in the case of Aristophanes, these comedic choruses were usually animals or features of the scenery (like clouds). The tragic choruses tended to be some group of people from the city/area where the play was supposed to take place. And so...

Question number 1!
What do you think the difference in experience would be between these two types of choruses? (Tragedy= 15 normal citizens [usually], vs. Comedy= 24 fantastical things [usually. e.g. frogs, clouds, etc.])
Follow up question:
What advantages/disadvantages would these differences provide their respective genres?

Next, (and this may be one of those generalizations,) tragedy was usually to the point of pensive, philosophical commentary on such classic questions as the meaning of man's existence, fate vs. choice, and man's relationship with divinity. Comedy on the other hand was often used to lighten the mood (satyr plays being a good example of this) as well as to make socio-political commentaries on their contemporary issues. This too, faded somewhat with time as the political situation in Greece shifted, and freedom of speech was largely subdued. But again, focusing on Old Comedy...

Question number 2!
These Philosophical and Socio-political commentaries raise certain questions about life and society.
What does it tell us about ourselves and our entertainment that these questions have not changed much in the last 2500 years?

Finally there are the irreverent elements of Old Comedy which include: exaggerated phalluses (yup), poop jokes, fart jokes, cross-dressing, and just general slapstick and tomfoolery. So just jumping straight to the question...

Question number 3!
Why do you think it is that so many of these elements of humor are almost universally considered funny?? (regardless of era, language, and culture)

Well that's it, don't forget to share your thoughts in the comments, I'd love to hear what people think about these questions! Until next week.



  1. Wow.. three huge questions. You could write a book on each of these (and I think people have). Some possible answers: more people in the chorus provides more potential for comic stage business. Comedy, then and now, is often about repetition and multiplicity, which is why twins plots are still a standby in various comic genres. More is funnier.

    Your last two question can be tied together: what makes us laugh and what do we use laughter for? According to Freud, laughter can be produced to expiate certain unpleasant feelings such as a fear, disgust, or unfulfilled sexual desires. There is a certain shock value to the ridiculously obscene (such as over-sized phalloi on stage) that produces a psychic energy that can be expelled through laughter. As far as linking comedy to socio/political commentary, one thing that laughter can do, according to the theorist Henri Bergson, is police the boundaries of what is acceptable in society and bring the egregious elements back into line through ridicule. But at the end of the day, laughter and comedy is much more than these few ideas here - we could write books on it, but still we wouldn't adequately explain the joy we get from having a good laugh.