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1. Greek

The Greek comedy, like the Greek tragedy and satyric drama, had its origin in the festivals of Dionysus. As its name, κωμῳδία, or the song of the κῶμος, implies, it arose from the unrestrained singing and jesting common in the κῶμος, or merry procession of Dionysus. According to the tradition, it was the Doric inhabitants of Megara, well known for their love of fun, who first worked up these jokes into a kind of farce. The inhabitants of Megara accordingly boasted that they were the founders of Greek comedy. From Megara, it was supposed, the popular farce found its way to the other Dorian communities, and one Susarion was said to have transplanted it to the Attic deme of Icaria about B.C. 580. No further information is in existence as to the nature of the Megarian or Dorian popular comedy. The local Doric farce was developed into literary form in Sicily by Epicharmus of Cos (about B.C. 540-450). This writer gave a comic treatment not only to mythology, but to subjects taken from real life. The contemporary of Epicharmus, Phormus or Phormis, and his pupil Dinolochus, may also be named as representatives of the Dorian comedy.

The beginnings of the Attic comedy, like those of the Attic tragedy, are associated with the deme of Icaria, known to have been the chief seat of the worship of Dionysus in Attica. Not only Thespis , the father of tragedy, but also Chionides and Magnes (about B.C. 550), who, if the story may be trusted, first gave a more artistic form to the Megarian comedy, introduced by Susarion, were natives of Icaria. Comedy did not become, in the proper sense, a part of literature until it had found welcome and consideration at Athens in the time of the Persian Wars; until its form had been moulded on the finished outlines of tragedy; and until, finally, it had received from the State the same recognition as tragedy. See Tragoedia.

The Old Comedy, as it was called, had its origin in personal abuse. It was Crates who first gave it its peculiar political character, and his younger contemporary, Cratinus, who turned it mainly or exclusively in this direction. The masters of the Old Comedy are usually held to be Cratinus and his younger contemporaries, Eupolis and Aristophanes. It attained its youth in the time of Pericles and the Peloponnesian War—the period when the Athenian democracy had reached its highest development. These three masters had many rivals—who fell, however, on the whole beneath their level—among others Pherecrates, Hermippus, Teleclides, Phrynichus, Ameipsias, Plato, and Theopompus.

A good idea of the characteristics of the Old Comedy may be formed from the eleven surviving plays of Aristophanes (q.v.). The Greek tragedy has a meaning for all time; but the Old Comedy, the most brilliant and striking production of all Athenian literature, has its roots in Athenian life, and addressed the Athenian public only.

Dealing from the very first with the grotesque and absurd side of things, it was the scourge of all vice, folly, and weakness. The social life of Athens, so restless and yet so open, offered an inexhaustible store of material; and the comedian was always sure of a witty, laughter-loving public, on whom no allusion was lost. The first aim of the Athenian comedy was, no doubt, to make men laugh, but this was not all. Beneath it there lay a serious and patriotic motive. The poet, who was secured by the license of the stage, wished to bring to light and turn to ridicule the abuses and degeneracy of his time. The Attic comedians are all admirers of the good old times, and accordingly the declared enemies of the social innovations which were beginning to make their way—the signs in many cases, no doubt, of approaching decline. It was not, however, the actual phenomena of life which were sketched in the Old Comedy. The latter is really a grotesque and fantastic caricature; the colours are laid on thick, and propriety, as we moderns understand it, is thrown to the winds. These plays abound in coarseness and obscenity of the broadest kind, the natural survival of the rude license allowed at the Dionysiac festival. The choice and treatment of the subjects show the same tendency to the grotesque and fantastic. Fancy and caprice revel at their will, unchecked by any regard either for the laws of poetical probability or for adequacy of occasion. The action is generally quite simple, sketched out in a few broad strokes, and carried out in a motley series of loosely connected scenes. The language is always choice and fine, never leaving the forms of the purest Atticism. The metres admit a greater freedom and movement than those of the tragedy.

A comedy, like a tragedy, consisted of the dramatic dialogue, written mostly in iambic senarii, and the lyrical chorus. The division of the dialogue into πρόλογος, ἐπεισόδιον, and ἔξοδος, and of the chorus into πάροδος and στάσιμα, are the same as in tragedy. But, while the tragic chorus consisted of fifteen singers, there were twenty-four in the comic. A peculiarity of the comic chorus is the παράβασις, a series of lines entirely unconnected with the plot, in which the poet, through the mouth of the chorus, addresses the public directly about his own concerns or upon burning questions of the day. (See Parabasis.) Like the tragedies, the comedies were performed at the great festivals of Dionysus, the Dionysia (q.v.) and the Lenaea (q.v.). On each occasion five poets competed for the prize, each with one play.

For a short time, but a short time only, a limitation had been put upon the absolute freedom with which the poets of the Old Comedy lashed the shortcomings of the government and its chief men. The downfall of the democracy, however, deprived them of this liberty. The disastrous issue of the Peloponnesian War had, moreover, ruined the Athenian finances, and made it necessary to give up the expensive chorus and with it the παράβασις. Thus deprived of the means of existence, the Old Comedy was doomed to extinction. In its place came what was called the Middle Comedy, from about B.C. 400 to 338. This was a modification of the Old Comedy, with a character corresponding to the altered circumstance of the time. The Middle Comedy was in no sense political; it avoided all open attack on individuals, and confined itself to treating the typical faults and weaknesses of mankind. Its main line was burlesque and parody, of which the objects were the tragedies and the mythology in general. It was also severe upon the lives of the philosophers. It dealt in typical characters, such as bullies, parasites, and courtesans. The writers of the Middle Comedy were very prolific, more than eight hundred of their plays having survived as late as the second century A.D. The most celebrated of them were Antiphanes of Athens and Alexis of Thurii; next to these came Eubulus, and Anaxandrides of Rhodes.

A new departure is signalized by the dramas of what is called the New Comedy. In these, as in the modern society drama, life was represented in its minutest details. The New Comedy offered a play regularly constructed like that of tragedy, characterized by fine humour, and but seldom touching on public life. The language was that of ordinary society, and the plot was worked out in a connected form from the beginning to the dénouement. The chief art of the poets of the New Comedy lay in the development of the plot and the faithful portraiture of character. The stock subjects are illicit love affairs; for honest women lived in retirement, and stories of honourable love, therefore, were practically excluded from the stage. The ordinary characters are young men in love, fathers of the good-natured or the scolding type, cunning slaves, panders, parasites, and bragging officers. Besides the dialogue proper, we find traces of parts written in lyric metres for the higher style of singing. These were, in all probability, like the dialogue, performed by the actors.

The fate of the New resembles that of the Middle Comedy, only a few fragments of its numerous pieces having survived. Of some of them, however, we have Latin adaptations by Plautus and Terence. Its greatest master was Menander, besides whom should be mentioned Diphilus, Philemon, Philippides, Posidippus, and Apollodorus of Carystus. The New Comedy flourished from B.C. 330 till far into the third century A.D.

In about B.C. 300, the old Dorian farce was revived in a literary form in Southern Italy by Rhinthon, the creator of the Hilarotragoedia (Ἱλαροτραγῳδία). The Hilarotragoedia was for the most part a parody of the tragic stories. It is also called, from its creator, fabula Rhinthonica.

2. Roman

Like the Greeks, the Italian people had their popular dramatic pieces—the versus Fescennini, for instance, which were at first introduced, in B.C. 390, from Etruria, in consequence of a plague, to appease the wrath of heaven. (See Fescennini Versus.) From this combination sprang the satura, a performance consisting of flute-playing, mimic dance, songs, and dialogue. The Atellanae Fabulae (q. v.) were a second species of popular Italian comedy, distinguished from others by having certain fixed or stock characters. The creator of the regular Italian comedy and tragedy was a Greek named Livius Andronicus, about B.C. 240. Like the Italian tragedy, the Italian comedy was, in form and contents, an imitation, executed with more or less freedom, of the Greek. It was the New Greek Comedy which the Romans took as their model. This comedy, which represents scenes from Greek life, was called palliata, after the Greek pallium, or cloak. The dramatic satura and the Atellana, which afterwards supplanted the satura as a concluding farce, continued to exist side by side. The Latin comedy was brought to perfection by Plautus and Terence, the only Roman dramatists from whose hands we still possess complete plays. We should also mention Naevius and Ennius (both of whom wrote tragedies as well as comedies), Caecilius, and Turpilius, with whom, towards the end of the third century B.C., this style of composition died out.

About the middle of the second century B.C., a new kind of comedy, the fabula togata (from toga), made its appearance. The form of it was still Greek, but the life and the characters Italian. The togata was represented by Titinius, Atta , and Afranins, who were accounted masters in this kind of writing. At the beginning of the first century B.C., the Atellana assumed an artistic form in the hands of Pomponius and Novius; and some fifty years later the mimus, also an old form of popular farce, was similarly handled by Laberius and Publilius Syrus. The mimus drove all the other varieties of comedy from the field, and held its ground until late in the imperial period. See Fabula; Mimus; Pantomimus; Satira.

The Roman comedy, like its model, the New Comedy of the Greeks, had no regular chorus, the intervals being filled up by performances on the flute. (See Chorus.) The play consisted, like the Roman tragedy, partly of passages of spoken dialogue (diverbia) in iambic trimeters, partly of musical scenes called cantica. See Canticum.

For the details of comic acting and a bibliography, see Drama; Theatrum.

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