History of Theatre 3 – From Satyr Play to Comedy (Subtitles: English and Español)


History of Western Theatre From Satyr Play to Comedy Around five hundred and one BC the ‘Dionysia’ was again extended with a dramatic innovation: the Satyr Play. In Greek mythology satyrs are half beast, half human companions of Dionysos, often depicted with horse-tailes and ears. They make up the chorus in a satyr-play. So, in the fifth century BC the playwright not only had to produce a trilogy of tragedies, but also a satyr play, that served as an short afterpiece of the tragedies, providing a kind of comic relief for the serious plays that had gone before. Satyr plays were often a burlesque version of a mythological subject, ridiculing gods or heroes, situated in a rural area, with boisterous scenes, a lot of drinking, vigourous dancing, and indecent, colloquial language. Only one complete Satyr play is extant: ‘Cyclops’ by Euripides, based on a episode of the Odyssey. On this famous vase, the actors and chorus of a satyr play with their masks, are shown. The chorus members wear a scanty savage dress of goat-skips with a phallus for comic effect. The structure of a satyr play is similar to that of a tragedy, play episodes alternate with choric odes. Popularity of the satyr plays declined, public preferenced comedy, probably because of its connection with contemporary events. In the fourth century BC only one satyr play was produced each year for the Dionysia. Roman Mosaic, Pompeii, Probably Aeschylus directing a satyr play. In four hundred and eighty seven BC the ‘City of Dionysia’ was extended with the last major dramatic form: the comedy plays. Five comic writers presented a single play, probably on each of five days of the Dionysia. The general structure of old comedy was similar to that of tragedy, play episodes and chorus alternated rythmically. However, the chorus of Old Comedy was often composed of non-human creatures, such as wasps, frogs, or even clouds. Chorus of horses While tragic actors wore elaborate pattern-woven garments, which were similar to the robes of priests and musicians, comic actors wore ludicrous costumes padded at the breast, buttocks, and stomach, with long floppy, leather phallus for the male characters, not the chorus. The masks of Old Comedy were distorted caricatures, sometimes of real people. They were meant to be ugly and silly, just as the costumes. It is suggested that on these famous phlyax vases from southern Italy, scenes of the old comedy are depicted. The origin of Greek comedy might be found in old Dionysian, phallic songs, but also influences from outside Athens, namely the Dorian farces, have to be considered, particularly comic drama performed in the Dorian colony on the Island of Sicily. Sadly, the only remaining comedies of the fifth century are by a single comic poet: Aristophanes. From the forty plays he seems to have written, eleven have survived. His comedies were largely politically and socially based satire. In outward form they were the most extravagant of burlesque, in essence they were the most virulent of abuse and personal vilification. He mocked the politicians and other celebrities of Athens, The circumstances of the Dionysia allowed him to get away with criticisms, he would not normally be allowed to voice. In a distinctive section of the play: the parabasis, with a choral ode the playright even takes the opportunity at a break
in the stage action to discourse at liberty on whatever subject he wishes, not necessarily having to do with the play as such. At the height of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, in four hundred and eleven BC Aristophanus produced an anti-war comedy: ‘Lysistrata’, in which the women of the two states take an oath to deny men sex until they stop fighting. Now follows a short fragment of this scene. Remember that in Aristophanus’ days the female characters were played by men wearing female masks.>>Lysistrata: Put your hands on the bowl. Repeat for all the rest, the solemn terms I will recite, then you must all swear and pledge to them yourselves I will not satisfy lover or husband.>>Calonice: I will not satisfy lover or husband. I’ll be at he come to me erect, I’ll be at he come to me erect, Oh, I cannot bear it! I will live unmounted. Beautifully dressed in my finished gowns. To the end I will inspire with my husband
with the most ardent longings. Never will I give myself voluntarily. If he has me by force I will be as cold as ice and never stir a limb. Tragedy was at its height in Greek society when that society was at its height, while comedy – an outlet for the frustrations of society a diversion for the masses – was most popular during the decline of Greek government. In four hundred and four BC the Athenians lost the Peloponnesian war against Sparta, and in three hundred and thirty six the macedonian king Alexander the Great came to power in Athens. Understandably, in comedy political issues were ignored, and more familial and societal relationships were favored. This later period is called the period of ‘New Comedy’. For the first time love became a principal element in drama, but it was seldom an honest love. The role of the chorus was often diminished, but the dialoge was still cast in verse. In New Comedy costume was based on the dress of ordinary life. Comic masks were more realistic than in Old Comedy, but in particular the masks for slaves and certain old men were still caricatured. There is only one all-but-complete play of a new comedy playwright extant, which is recently rediscovered, entitled: ‘Dyskolos’, or ‘The Grouch’, written in three hundred and sixtien BC, by Menander. This comedy treats a standard theme in comedy: the disapproval by a parent of a child’s choice in marriage – with a happy ending. Menander’s characters spoke in the contemporary dialect, and concerned themselves not with the great myths of the past, but rather with the everyday affairs of the people of Athens. ‘Dyskolos’ was not presented at the Dionysia, but at a smaller drama festival: the Lenaia After the third century BC comedy began to decline, just as tragedy had a century earlier, The City of Dionysia dramatic contests ceased in the first century AD.

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