Why is comedy important? This is a question that many fails to answer. Though for some people comedy is a way of life, for others it’s offensive nature sounds unpleasing. Yet at the heart comedy, is a genre that is referred to dramatic work and comprises a happy ending. Along with this comedy includes amusement, entertainment as well as satire in nature. The theme of a comedy is victory and it aims to entertain the audience and save them from unpleasant circumstances. But do you know how comedy originated? Or to be more precise, who originated comedy?
The answer dates back to 446 BC to the ancient town of Athens. Aristophanes, the son of Philippus, is considered to be the father of Comedy. During his lifetime, he staged about 40 comedies out of which only 11 survived.
Athens is always squarely at the center of Aristophanes comedies.
Aristophanes was an Athen native and is believed to live around 446 – c. 386 BC. He was a comic playwright and a comedy writer of ancient Athens and wrote several old Attic Comedies. Very little is known about his life but researchers have insight through his surviving works. It’s only his plays that provide the main source of information on his life.
His one of the first plays called “The Babylonians” was staged at the annual Athenian Drama Festival in 426 BC and won the first prize. Unfortunately, the play is lost today. It was a depiction of Athens’s conduct during the Peloponnesian War. The play was a controversy and it is believed that a politician named Cleon denounced it and said its a slander against the Athenian policies. The case was even argued in the court but this encouraged Aristophanes to write even more plays and he caricatured Cleon in his another play called ‘The Knights.’
It is argued that Aristophanes mostly wrote his plays to entertain audiences and win prizes. Yet his target audience was clever and humouristic people. His plays are the earliest surviving comedy dramas and are full of songs, sexual jokes, and heroic fantasies. In his plays, politics and the perception of social decay are the major critique staged in fantastical scenarios. For instance, he portrayed heroes flying to heaven on a giant dung beetle, or net cast on a house to trap its owner. One example is Birds, where an average Athenian persuades a bird to build a city in the sky and politically disrupt the cosmic order.
The word comedy comes from an ancient Greek word ‘Komos’ which means revel and ‘oide’ means singing and is very much different than Tragedy. In early Athens, most of the plays of tragedy focused on the downfall of the mighty, but Aristophanes’ plays totally portrayed a different emotion of the same scenario. Perhaps, absolutely no one in Athens was out of Aristophanes satirical approach and he always used current affairs rather than the legends.
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In his plays, he entertained ordinary people by targeting wealthy and arrogant politicians, self-important intellectuals, and war-loving soldiers. He even challenged the so-called philosophers who studied to portray wrong as right in his play called the ‘Clouds’. The theatres were certainly huge, with seating for at least 10,000 at the Theatre of Dionysus. The language of Aristophanes’ plays was valued by ancient commentators as the ancient Attic dialect and is referred to as Old Comedy.
Aristophanes is also considered the master of parabasis, which is a comic technique where actors address the audience directly. For instance in his play ‘Birds’, the actors threaten the judges that if they won’t win the first prize, they’ll defecate on them. But the satirical joke wasn’t taken well by the judges as they came second in the competition. This way, Aritophanes made a one on one connection with the audience.
Thus it could be assumed that Aristophanes was a comic poet in an age when it was conventional for a poet to assume the role of teacher. His principles of comedy could still be seen even today. Be it double role, impersonation, political satire, or even societal cringe, Aristophanes teachings survived and didn’t diminish with his death. Perhaps, if not the father of comedy he was certainly the one whose teachings are the foundation of today’s comedy.