Saturday 30 May 2015

Comedy's 2,500th Birthday

Supremely Aristophanic 'Joseph Smith, American Moses' number
This week has been all about comedy. On Wednesday I spent my birthday present money rediscovering  the therapeutic power of laughter at the musical Book of Mormon. My rib-cage ached and my mascara ran after two straight hours of hilarity. 

The work is a trenchant satire on imperialism. Its climax—the Ugandan villagers’ riotously obscene musical-pageant reprise of the Mormon foundation story, complete with artificial phalluses and frog-shagging—is the nearest thing any of us will ever experience to Greek Old Comedy. This is not surprising, given that Trey Parker (of South Park), one of Book of Mormon’s creators, has previously milked an ancient Greek text, the Odyssey, in his cultish Cannibal: the Musical!

And I’ve achieved a long-held ambition by making it onto the cover of the June issue of the admirable magazine History Today with an article about the birthday of comedy.  It was exactly 2,500 years ago, in 486 BCE, that comic theatre was born when it was integrated, for the very first time, in the drama competitions of the democratic Athenian state.  In an outdoor theatre in the sanctuary of the wine-god Dionysus, a musical chorus of men dressed in obscene costumes accompanied knockabout actors who yelled versified abuse at an audience of tipsy citizens.

What is in the basket on his head? Frogs? Figs? 
The inventor of comic theatre was a man called Sousarion. The prize for the best comedy in that first competition was a basket of figs and no fewer than forty litres of wine. The actors will have worked up a thirst mocking anybody who ‘put their head about the parapet’ in public life. They talked freely about sleaze, corruption, and personal toilet habits. They subjected gods and powerful humans to trial by vitriolic laughter which makes most modern equivalents—Private Eye, Spitting Image, Not the Nine O’clock News—look half-hearted in comparison. Eleven Athenian democratic comedies survive, all by one dramatist, Aristophanes.

The Actor on the right plays a King or Tyrant (eagle-topped sceptre)

In 486 BC, when that epoch-making first competition in comic theatre was held, a comic attitude to life was of course not new. The ancient Greeks were cracking jokes from the first minute in history when we can hear their voices: the Cretans who lived in Bronze-Age Knossos must have had their tongues in their Mycenaean cheeks when their called their ploughing cows ‘Nimble’, ‘Swift’ and ‘Chatterbox’, names we can read in the early script, Linear B. Celebrants of festivals connected with fertility and viticulture had for centuries hurled abuse at local individuals while they processed in mummers’ costumes through the villages. The stem kom- in komoidia, ‘comedy’, means ‘revel’ or ‘carousal’, while also sounding like the Greek word for an unwalled rural village: komoidia thus means a ‘revel-ode’, with rustic overtones.

But ad hominem satire incorporated into a musical drama, along with a wildly imaginative plotline, was something completely new. A brilliant idea which has had a long future. Any tips on shows offering Aristophanic laughter as hardcore as Book of Mormon will be very gratefully received.

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