A Brief Intro to Greek Tragedy & Comedy

Today we come to talk to you about some more classical and ancient history. This time I will be giving you a quick introduction to the subject of Greek tragedies and comedies. The arts and the entertainment industry by proxy find themselves under a lot of tension these days, particularly since the Covid pandemic has threatened so many artistic venues to close forever. With this I hope to keep you all engaged with this sad reality of events, but also to remind you that the arts have been a crucial part of human history since the dawn of civilisation. Greek Tragedies: Origin & Development We have evidence that Greek tragedies have been performed since the 6th century BC though record for most of these pieces don’t appear to have survived until c.472BC. Of these early plays, we do not have a lot of information, but we have some records from Aristotle in his Poetics that seem to indicate it may have evolved from choral song. Tragedies back then were not necessarily what our expectation of the same word is. Most of the Greek tragedies have varied themes, often covering things like mythology, but these aren’t necessarily sad stories: they often work to present some form of dilemma or controversies to the audience of the time; things that people could in one level or another relate to. According to Laura Swift, it seems that these pieces would have been about major or serious events, but they did not have to be catastrophic. It seems that, so long as they were describing some form of human suffering, the tragedy box was checked. Also, I think it is important at this stage to clarify that actually when we say Greek tragedies, we really ought to say Athenian tragedies. According to Simon Goldhill most of these compositions took place in Athens. The importance of these performances is remarked by the annual celebration of a kind of competition during the festival of the Great Dionysia, taking place towards the end of February/beginning of March. These plays were often specially created for this event. Aeschylus’ Persians was the first tragedy to ever win the festival. Unfortunately, it hasn’t survived to date in its entirety. However, we know that it tells the story of the Persian defeat in the Persian Wars, which actually made it a very unusual tragedy. Many plays since then seem to have a strong connection with the decision-making process of Athenian democracy and this can be seen reflected in their thematic. Therefore, we could say that Athenian tragedies are a directly reflection of whatever was the atmosphere of Athens at the time, and by proxy of its citizens. Moving on to another playwright from the period whose work survives to date, we got Sophocles. His Ajax is perhaps one of the earliest tragedies ever written by the author that survive to date. It narrates the story of Ajax before the end of the Trojan war, following the death of Achilles when Ajax then becomes the Greek champion by default. Sophocles is one of the only three (only!!!) great Athenian tragedy authors whose work has survived, and for 50 years he was the most renown author in Athens with several winning plays at the festival (24 victories out of 30 competitions he entered). Such a winning strike surely represents the importance of his work, even in ancient times. This could be one of the reasons why so many of his tragedies survive today: if they were popular, they may have been more easily available and the chances of them being preserved to modern times would have increased. The popularity of these pieces of art and culture is also highlighted by Swift by the number of theatre goers in ancient Greek society. Plato reported an estimate of about 30000 people attending the City Dyonisia festival, however modern historians estimate this may be an exaggeration and a more conservative number of around 5000 viewers per performance during the 5th century BC is the general consensus. Nonetheless, this shows that there was an active participation from society in these events and that they meant something to the people from a cultural viewpoint. Greek tragedies indeed brought people together, and they were clearly understood as a major form of entertainment. This start changing in the 4th century BC however. As Athenian power changes and the empire starts a new metamorphosis, the topics that we see in the tragedies change as well. At that stage, theatre becomes a vit more “universal”, meaning that the themes tend to relate to issues that would have affected all citizens anywhere in Greece and beyond at the same level. Issues such as love and war became staples of these tragedies. The Essence of Greek Comedy Although people think comedies to be the direct counterpoint to Greek tragedies, that’s not exactly the case and there are many points of contact. The key difference is the treatment of the subject: in comedies, even if the topic may be serious, it is still approached in a satiric way.  Comedies also tend to have a different thematic. They talk about individuals, institutions, attitudes, and general day to day activities being evaluated and mocked for public amusement. According to Michael Scott (University of Warwick) one of the key comics of the period was Aristophanes, who he claims was a master of ridicule. Unfortunately, only 2 plays by Aristophanes survive to date out of the 40 that we believe he wrote. Aristophanes also seems to mark a style known as the old comedy. His plays as those of his contemporaries tend to be political in nature, often with critical commentaries of the current affairs. According to Thomas Bertram, this type of satire will become the staple for most of the 5th century and part of the 4th century BC. A key concept within this type of comedy is “komoidoumenoi” which literally mean those spoken of in comedies – or rather, the characters, people, etc that comics use to make fun off. Matthew C. Farmer states that there actually seems to have been a repository of catalogues where these people appear, almost like a list of jokes or funny remarks to go to. Like a “Funnies” index.  It seems that these were indeed some form of repositories where to keep certain things that poets, authors and comics said that that could be reflected back to or referred to with the knowledge that the audience would somehow be aware of it. Unfortunately, these catalogues often include these commentaries without their original context so it is difficult for us to know exactly what the full point of the joke may have been. However, Sebastiana Nervegna  says that this type of abusive comedy changes with time. Aristotle introduces Crates as seemingly one of the first Greek authors to move away the political satire and specific tropes used in Athenian comedy, moving to more universal plots – just like we see starts happening in the tragedies around this period, and properly mirroring the same themes in the 4th century BC. Considering that comedy was used as a way of letting steam off whilst addressing certain issues or bringing them to the public’s attention, this si hardly surprising. And one of the key authors for this shift in the treatment of comedic plays is Menander. Living in the later half of the 4th century BC (c.342 – c. 290 BC), Menander starts to creates plays based on character studies and general satiric commentaries, which were better suited to a more diverse audience beyond Athens. He wrote around 108 comedies and won the Lenaia festival 8 times. The Lenaia  was a lesser drama festival, similar to the City Dionysia, that took place in January (or Gamelion according to the Greek calendar). However, and in a similar fashion to those of the previously mentioned tragic playwrights, only one of Menander’s pieces survives almost entirely (Dyskolos), whilst the rest of his pieces are fragmentary. Dyskolos won the first prize at the Lenaian festival and is about a grumpy old farmer called Knemon and a love story that develops around his daughter. The author uses the various characters in the play to portray different aspects of philanthropy and its consequences. It is also interesting that Menander uses the play to highlight the clear social strata of Greek culture by introducing different layers through the perspective of each character. That’s the end of the post for today. Please remember to support the arts and come back for more history 🙂

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