Sunday, January 25, 2015

Los Pajaros: Aristophanes and Old Comedy

Most HSU students today have lived much of their lives with the US at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Aristophanes was around 14 when Athens first engaged Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian War, which lasted for a quarter century. When it began, Athens was an imperial power, fighting to hold on to its empire and then extend it. When the war ended, Athens was an impoverished and subjugated state, and its years of cultural as well as economic and political glory were over.

Aristophanes is believed to have written some 40 plays, though only 11 survive. Many express his antiwar sentiments and opposition to the imperial ambitions of the Peloponnesian War, particularly to war profiteering.

 His comedies target political and military figures, and other prominent people of his time, including fellow playwright Euripides and the philosopher Socrates (who was amused by the caricature, but his disciples were upset, especially Plato.) He was a controversial and sometimes feared critic of Athenian society.

 Theatre as we know it was born on the Greek stage in this era. Tragedy was the predominant form at the festivals where plays were presented, and after a series of such tragedies, a comedy was the classic definition of comic relief. Aristophanes is the major proponent of comedy whose plays survived. His work defines comedy as it changed during and after his lifetime.

 Scholars divide this period into Old, Middle and New Comedy. Women in Congress by Aristophanes (presented last year at North Coast Repertory Theatre) is Middle Comedy, with less pointed caricature of known figures. It’s a little closer to the story-dominated comedies of our age, which developed from New Comedy through the Romans and branched off into everything from commedia dell’arte to situation comedy.

The Birds however is Old Comedy. The story is less prominent. Old Comedy is closer to the bawdy fertility revels and rituals in honor of the god Dionysus, which are believed to be a major source of both comedy and tragedy. Old Comedy was highly musical.

 But even with less of a story in our sense, there was a set form to Old Comedy. There was a prologue spoken to the audience (parados), a staged debate (the agon) and the chorus addressing the audience (parabasis.)

 In between there were episodes we recognize as story, though there is less development of a complete beginning, middle and end. In our terms, Old Comedy combined sketch comedy, farce, political satire, physical comedy, rude stand-up and the kind of bragging to the audience that boxers and wrestlers engage in before matches.

 Many of these elements of Old Comedy are preserved in this Culture Clash adaptation, including addressing the audience and lots of music. But it has more of a story shape, and while not quite a black comedy, it has elements of classical tragedy and no happy ending. Within its southern California urban Latino milieu, stylistically it might be thought of as Saturday Night Live meets Duck Soup and Doctor Strangelove.

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