On Phalluses and Satire and Sitcoms

Last class, we discussed the origins of Greek tragedy from the very phallic-heavy fertility ritual of the diathyramb into an entirely new form of storytelling that used new techniques such using actors to show events taking place rather than solely relying on a choir through the course of two centuries (from 7th century BCE to 5th century BCE) by dramatists and playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. This has made me rather curious to find out a bit more about how the other two ancient Greek theatrical genres, the satyr play and comedy, developed. After doing some research into this subject, which I found rather interesting, I thought I would share some of my findings with you.

The satyr play was an early form of burlesque/tragicomedy which was often performed after serious tragedies to lighten the mood. It was developed by Pratinas of Philus around 500 BCE after he combined the newly developed form of tragedy with the earlier diathyramb out of which tragedy originally developed by retaining the religious connection to Dionysus. The City Dionysia festival, which was held in the honour of Dionysus, required each entrant to the dramatic competition to submit one satyr play along with three tragedies. These plays featured a chorus of bawdy satyrs singing rowdy and sexual songs and dance wildly around the stage waving about phallic props all the while the heroes of the story (e.g., mythic heroes like Odysseus and the gods) carried themselves in a dignified manner befitting a tragedy. Very few examples of these plays have survived, the only complete example being The Cyclops by Euripides and this genre of theatre more or less died out with the end of the Classical Greek civilization.

Greek comedy is often divided into three general eras, Old Comedy (archaia), Middle Comedy (mese) and New Comedy (nea) for academic purposes, although in many cases the distinctions are completely arbitrary, especially concerning Old and Middle Comdey. Old comedy, with Aristophanes being its best representative, was primarily focused on political satire and the lampooning of public figures (such as Socrates in The Clouds) in addition to the use of innuendos related to bodily functions and sex. s. Middle Comedy is largely lost, with only a few fragments of texts remaining. Unlike Old Comedy, they did not mock public figures or politics but instead used a wide variety of stock comic characters, such as courtesans, philosophers, lazy vagrants, arrogant soldiers, and conceited cooks. They are more involved with the affairs of the common people than Old Comedy rather than celebrities and politicians. New Comedy emerged after the death of Alexander the Great, during the reign of Macedonian kings in Greece before the Roman takeover. Plays from this era tended to focus on people’s everyday problems with relationships, family life, and social interactions rather than politics and public life or tales involving gods and the supernatural. Put another way, Old Comedy is like Saturday Night Live or the British radio/TV impressions show Dead Ringers, Middle Comedy is a bit like comedia dell’arte, while New Comedy is like Friends or All in the Family.

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