Comedy: The Laughter of Dionysus

September 8, 2015 in General

As a dramatic genre, comedy first arose as a performance festival topic in ancient Athens, in BCE 486. In tribute to the god of inebriation, Dionysus, a slightly inebriated audience was serenaded by a musical chorus of obscenely costumed men who cracked jokes, abused sodden audience members and insulted rulers and high-profile citizens. Costumes consisted of comic masks with antic grins, fake pot bellies and ithyphalloi (large artificial penises). Sleaze, government corruption and the personal hygiene and other habits of rulers were popular topics and mercilessly skewered. Sadly, only eleven classical Greek comedies still exist, courtesy of the playwright Aristophanes.

Comedy was thus a benchmark of popular sovereignty and plays were chosen by a democratically elected magistrate. Aristophanes’ most savage political comedy was Knights, in which the Athenian tyrant Cleon was robustly lambasted for his militarism and depicted as a sausage vendor entrusted with political power, but inept at it, susceptible to bribery, corruption, intimidation and fabrication or belief in false oracular prophecies. Unfortunately, after the fall of Athenian democracy, other political regimes of antiquity proved not to have a comparable sense of humour.  In CE 215, the Roman Emperor Caracalla massacred thousands of Alexandrians after they allowed a satirical political play to be staged about the Emperor and his family. More recently, the Greek government shut down the Greek Arts Theatre’s production of the anti-war comedy Lysistrata  in 1959. As recently as 2002, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi interfered with a production of Aristophanes Frogs.   Humourlessness has always been an adjunct to tyranny and repression, it would seem, and still is- and so is hamfisted censorship against works of aesthetic merit.

Recommended:

Martin Reverman (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Greek Comedy: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2014.

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