Aristophanes : biography
c. 446 BC – c. 388 BC
- Dirty jokes: A relaxation in standards of behaviour was permitted and the holiday spirit included bawdy irreverence towards both men and gods."Greek Drama" Peter Levi in The Oxford History of the Classical World, Oxford University Press 1986, page 175 Old Comedy is rich in obscenities and the crude jokes are often very detailed, as when the Chorus in The Acharnians places a curse on Antimachus, a choregus accused of niggardly conduct, wishing upon him a night-time mugging as he returns home from some drunken party and envisioning him, as he stoops down to pick up a rock in the darkness, accidentally picking up a fresh turd instead. He is then envisioned hurling the turd at his attacker, missing and accidentally hitting Cratinus, a lyric poet not admired by Aristophanes.Aristophanes: Lysistrata, The Acharnians, The Clouds A. Sommerstein, Penguin Classics, pages 243-4, notes 69,80,81 This was particularly funny because the curse was sung (or chanted) in choreographed style by a Chorus of 24 grown men who were otherwise known to the audience as respectable citizens.
- The musical extravaganza: The Chorus was vital to the success of a play in Old Comedy long after it had lost its relevance for tragedy.Aristophanes: The Frogs and Other Plays David Barrett, Penguin Classics 1964, pages 14-15 Technically, the competition in the dramatic festivals was not between poets but between choruses.Aristophanes: Lysistrata, The Acharnians, The Clouds A. Sommerstein, Penguin Classics, page 23 In fact eight of Aristophanes’ eleven surviving plays are named after the Chorus. In Aristophanes’ time, the Chorus in tragedy was relatively small (twelve members) and its role had been reduced to that of an awkwardly placed commentator, but in Old Comedy the Chorus was large (numbering 24), it was actively involved in the plot, its entry into the action was frequently spectacular, its movements were practised with military precision and sometimes it was involved in choreographed skirmishes with the actors.The Acharnians lines 280-301 ; Knights lines 247-72; Wasps lines 452-460 The expenditure on costumes, training and maintenance of a Chorus was considerable,Aristophanes: The Frogs and Other Plays David Barrett, Penguin Classics 1964, page 9 and perhaps many people in the original audience enjoyed comedy mainly for the spectacle and music.Aristophanes: Wasps Douglas MacDowell (ed), Oxford University Press 1978, page 14-15 The chorus gradually lost its significance as New Comedy began to develop.
- Obvious costumes: Consistent with the holiday spirit, much of the humour in Old Comedy is slapstick buffoonery that doesn’t require the audience’s careful attention, often relying on visual cues. Actors playing male roles appear to have worn tights over grotesque padding, with a prodigious, leather phallus barely concealed by a short tunic. Female characters were played by men but were easily recognized in long, saffron tunics.Aristophanes: Lysistrata, The Acharnians, The Clouds A. Sommerstein, Penguin Classics, page 29 Sometimes the visual cues are deliberately confused for comic effect, as in The Frogs, where Dionysus arrives on stage in a saffron tunic, the buskin boots of a tragic actor and a lion skin cloak that usually characterized Heracles – an absurd outfit that provokes the character Heracles (as no doubt it provoked the audience) to guffaws of helpless mirth.Frogs lines 45-47
- The farcical anti-climax: The holiday spirit might also have been responsible for an aspect of the comic plot that can seem bewildering to modern audiences. The major confrontation (agon) between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters in a play is often resolved decisively in favour of the former long before the end of the play. The rest of the play deals with farcical consequences in a succession of loosely connected scenes. The farcical anti-climax has been explained in a variety of ways, depending on the particular play. In The Wasps, for instance, it has been thought to indicate a gradual change in the main character’s perspective as the lessons of the agon are slowly absorbed.Aristophanes: Wasps Douglas MacDowell, Oxford University Press 1978, page 7 In The Acharnians, it has been explained in terms of a unifying theme that underlies the episodes, demonstrating the practical benefits that come with wisdom.Aristophanes: Lysistrata, The Acharnians, The Clouds A. Sommerstein, Penguin Classics, pages 33-34 But the early release of dramatic tension is consistent with the holiday meanings in Old ComedyAristophanes’ Old-and-new Comedy Kenneth J.Reckford, UNC Press 1987, page 15 and it allows the audience to relax in uncomplicated enjoyment of the spectacle, the music, jokes and celebrations that characterize the remainder of the play. The celebration of the hero’s victory often concludes in a sexual conquest and sometimes it takes the form of a wedding, thus providing the action with a joyous sense of closure.Aristophanes: The Frogs and Other Plays David Barrett, Penguin Classics 1964, pages 13-14