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Greek Comedy – Not just for laughs

Evan TaylorUniversity of Winnipeg

From July 15 to July 26, Winnipeggers gather together to celebrate the Fringe Festival. A unique celebration of the dramatic arts, the Fringe is a community-centred event that brings people together to enjoy an art form with ancient roots: the art of dramatic performance. This popular modern festival owes its very existence to the innovations of the ancient Greeks who, over two thousand years ago, began to perform plays in front of mass audiences and kick-started our own Western dramatic tradition.

In Classical Athens, the birthplace of Greek theatre, dramatic performances were not staged merely for the purpose of entertainment. In fact, theatrical performances in Athens were always performed as religious worship to the god Dionysos (god of wine and irrational emotion), and were held at specific points of the year. The two major Athenian dramatic festivals were the Lenaia (roughly January/February) and the City Dionysia (March/April). Unlike our own Fringe Festival, which showcases a variety of types of plays, the Greeks performed just three: tragedy, comedy, and the rather mysterious “satyr play” about which little is known.

I personally enjoy Greek comedy the most, and particularly the plays written by the Classical comedic playwright Aristophanes (c. 449 BCE–386/80 BCE). His plays, although extremely humorous and filled with raunchy subject matter, were not solely intended as simple entertainment. Aristophanes used his comedies to dramatize many politicized ideas and draw attention to specific, high profile individuals. Drama was used as a tool to enable audience members to work through complex intellectual issues and conflicts. As a true democracy, Classical Athens relied on the governance of many citizens rather than an elite few. As a result, it became increasingly important in this turbulent period to gain citizens’ support for specific courses of action (notably, in Aristophanes’ lifetime, Athens and her allies were embroiled in a deadly conflict with Sparta, the Peloponnesian War, which threatened Athens’ very survival and independence). Comic plays were an effective medium of communicating politically-charged concepts and opinions under the guise of entertainment.

Greek comedies, similar to modern television programs such as The Daily Show and This Hour Has 22 Minutes, often poked fun at people in the public spotlight. One notorious example is found in Aristophanes’ Clouds, a play which uses a satirized caricature of the famous philosopher Socrates to make fun of the “sophists,” self-styled wise guys who claimed to uncover the mysteries of the world through observation. The sophists taught rich young men various subjects (including the controversial topic of rhetoric)–often in unorthodox ways–for a fee. Many Athenians objected to this new form of education on the grounds that it subverted established tradition. In Aristophanes’ Clouds, Socrates is depicted as running his own secretive school, “The Thinkery,” where he teaches his students to believe in female deities known as the Clouds rather than in the traditional Olympian gods, and how to win any argument using the art of persuasion.

Aristophanes’ characterization of Socrates is quite different from that of other ancient authors. Plato and Xenophon presented Socrates as an intellectual who was primarily concerned with challenging Athenian society’s traditional assumptions through a relentless pursuit of reason–and certainly not a man concerned with teaching rhetoric for money. In contrast, Aristophanes presents Socrates as an impious, morally deficient quack with a total disregard for Greek traditions. Some scholars have even suspected that this negative portrayal of Socrates eventually led to accusations of impiety during his trial, and the decision to execute the philosopher in 399 BCE.
One thing is certain: although one main purpose of Greek comedies was to entertain a mass audience, comic plays were not written just for laughs.

Evan Taylor is an undergraduate student at the University of Winnipeg majoring in Classics and History entering his final year of studies. He is currently working as an Archaeology Assistant with the Government of Manitoba's Historic Resources Branch.