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Ancient Greek comedy was one of the final three principal dramatic forms in the theatre of classical Greece (the others being tragedy and the satyr play). Athenian comedy is conventionally divided into three periods: Old Comedy, Middle Comedy, and New Comedy. Old Comedy survives today largely in the form of the eleven surviving plays of Aristophanes; Middle Comedy is largely lost, i.e. preserved only in relatively short fragments by authors such as Athenaeus of Naucratis; and New Comedy is known primarily from the substantial papyrus fragments of Menander.

The philosopher Aristotle wrote in his Poetics (c. 335 BC) that comedy is a representation of laughable people and involves some kind of blunder or ugliness which does not cause pain or disaster.[1] C. A. Trypanis wrote that comedy is the last of the great species of poetry Greece gave to the world.[2]

Figurine of an actor wearing the mask of a bald-headed man, 2nd century BC

New Comedy followed the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and lasted throughout the reign of the Macedonian rulers, ending about 260 BC.[5] It is comparable to situation comedy and comedy of manners.[4] The three best-known playwrights belonging to this genre are Menander, Philemon and Diphilus.

The playwrights of the New Comedy genre built on the legacy from their predecessors, but adapted it to the portrayal of everyday life, rather than of public affairs.[6] The satirical and farcical element which featured so strongly in Aristophanes' comedies was increasingly abandoned, the de-emphasis of the grotesque - whether in the form of choruses, humour or spectacle - opening the way for greater representation of daily life and the foibles of recognisable character types.Sicily and Magna Graecia in this period, suggesting that they had considerable widespread literary and social influence.

New Comedy followed the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and lasted throughout the reign of the Macedonian rulers, ending about 260 BC.[5] It is comparable to situation comedy and comedy of manners.[4] The three best-known playwrights belonging to this genre are Menander, Philemon and Diphilus.

The playwrights of the New Comedy genre built on the legacy from their predecessors, but adapted it to the portrayal of everyday life, rather than of public affairs.[6] The satirical and farcical element which featured so strongly in Aristophanes' comedies was increasingly abandoned, the de-emphasis of the grotesque - whether in the form of choruses, humour or spectacle - opening the way for greater representation of daily life and the foibles of recognisable character types.[7]

Apart from Diphilus, the New Comedians preferred the everyday world to mythological themes, coincidences to miracles or metamorphoses; and they peopled this world with a whole series of semi-realistic, if somewhat stereotypical figures,[7] who would become the stock characters of Western comedy: braggarts, the permissive father figure and the stern father (The playwrights of the New Comedy genre built on the legacy from their predecessors, but adapted it to the portrayal of everyday life, rather than of public affairs.[6] The satirical and farcical element which featured so strongly in Aristophanes' comedies was increasingly abandoned, the de-emphasis of the grotesque - whether in the form of choruses, humour or spectacle - opening the way for greater representation of daily life and the foibles of recognisable character types.[7]

Apart from Diphilus, the New Comedians preferred the everyday world to mythological themes, coincidences to miracles or metamorphoses; and they peopled this world with a whole series of semi-realistic, if somewhat stereotypical figures,[7] who would become the stock characters of Western comedy: braggarts, the permissive father figure and the stern father (senex iratus), young lovers, parasites, kind-hearted prostitutes, and cunning servants.[8] Their largely gentle comedy of manners drew on a vast array of dramatic devices, characters and situations their predecessors had developed: prologues to shape the audience's understanding of events, messengers' speeches to announce offstage action, descriptions of feasts, the complications of love, sudden recognitions, ex machina endings were all established techniques which playwrights exploited and evoked.[9] The new comedy depicted Athenian society and the social morality of the period, presenting it in attractive colors but making no attempt to criticize or improve it.[citation needed]

In his own time, Philemon was perhaps the most successful among the New Comedy, regularly beating the younger figure of Menander in contests; but the latter would be the most highly esteemed by subsequent generations.[10] Menander’s comedies not only provided their audience with a brief respite from reality, but also gave audiences an accurate, if not greatly detailed, picture of life,[11] leading an ancient critic to ask if life influenced Menander in the writing of his plays or if the case was vice versa.[12][13] Unlike earlier predecessors, Menander's comedies tended to centre on the fears and foibles of the ordinary man, his personal relationships, family life and social mishaps rather than politics and public life. His plays were also much less satirical than preceding comedies, being marked by a gentle, urbane tone,[14] a taste for good temper and good manners (if not necessarily for good morals).[11]

The human dimension of his characters was one of the strengths of Menander's plays, and perhaps his greatest legacy, through his use of these fairly stereotype characters to comment on human life and depict human folly and absurdity compassionately, with wit and subtlety.[15] An example of the moral reformations he offered (not always convincingly) is Cnemon from Menander's play Dyskolos, whose objections to life suddenly fade after he was rescued from a well.[14] The fact that this character was not necessarily closed to reason makes him a character whom people can relate to.

Philemon’s comedies tended to be smarter, and broader in tone, than Menander’s;[10] while Diphilus used mythology as well as everyday life in his works.[16] Both had their comedies survive only in fragments, but both also had their plays translated and adapted by Plautus. Examples are Plautus' Asinaria and Rudens. Based on the translation and adaptation of Diphilus' comedies by Plautus, one can conclude that he was skilled in the construction of his plots.

Substantial fragments of New Comedy have survived, but no complete plays. The most substantially preserved text is the Dyskolos ("Difficult Man, Grouch") by Menander, discovered on a papyrus, and first published in 1958. The Cairo Codex (found in 1907) also preserves long sections of plays including Epitrepontes ("Men at Arbitration"), Samia ("The Girl from Samos"), and Perikeiromene ("The Girl who had her Hair Shorn").[citation needed] Much of the rest of our knowledge of New Comedy is derived from the Latin adaptations by Plautus and Terence.

Influence

  • Horace claimed Menander as a model for his own gentle brand of Roman satire.[17]
  • The New Comedy influenced much of Western European literature, primarily through Plautus and Terence: in particular the comic drama of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, Congreve, and Wycherley,[18] and, in France, Molière.[19]
  • The 5-act structure later to be found in modern plays can first be seen in Menander's comedies. Where in comedies of previous generations there were choral interludes, there was dialogue with song. The action of his plays had breaks, the situations in them were conventional and coincidences were convenient, thus showing the smooth and effective development of his plays.
  • Much of contemporary romantic and situational comedy descends from the New Comedy sensibility, in particular generational comedies such as All in the Family and Meet the Parents.

Dramatists