Greek Comedy

General Information on Comedy

Comedy from Aristophanes’ time period is often referred to as Old Comedy.  It was a satirical reflection on the society at the time.  It poked fun at a wide range of subjects such as Literature, Education, Statesmen; anything that they felt would amuse the public.  The themes within Old Comedy were local in colour and theme which helped the audience relate to the subject matter. Often the subjects were disfigured by grossness and licentiousness but this is what made the audience enjoy it so much!  The exact origins of Comedy are not very clear and it was not until around 486 BC that comedy gained official recognition at Athens and came under supervision of the State.

In the spring in the City of Dionysia there was a week-long festival in honour of Dionysus, a God associated with fertility.  These festivals were important for the City and they became a celebration of Athens’ civic identity.  In 534 BC dramatic performances were first included as part of the festival program.  Alongside performances there were readings of religious rites, speeches commemorating those who had died in war and entrusting their orphans to the care of the state, handing over of monies contributed by the allied states as well as many other significant civic events.  There was also another festival celebrating Dionysus where performances were an integral part. It was called Lenaea and was held in mid winter.

The two festivals had a similar schedule of performances.  At the City of Dionysus three tragic playwrights were commissioned to each write three tragedies and a satyr play and five comic playwrights each submitted a comedy.  At Lenaea there were four tragedies produced by two playwrights and five comedies.  There was a complex system of judging and prizes were awarded for the best production.

Most commonly there were three main actors who all had speaking roles.  These actors were professionals.  At that time acting was seen as an art form and was thought to be an honorable calling.  In Comedy there were usually around 24 men or boys who made up the chorus.  The choruses in Greek Tragedy were much larger and sometimes had as many as 50 participants.  The chorus in comedy was split into two equal groups each with a leader.  The role as leader of the chorus had great responsibility.  They led chanting of the Parados, sang choral lyrics, led the dances, delivered recitative and participated in the dialogue.  After Aristophanes’ time the use of a chorus died out however the importance of the actor grew.  In the 4th century BC an Actors Guild was established in Athens.  Members of this guild were exempt from Military and Naval Service.  This demonstrates how important actors were to the City.

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