What little evidence we have of the origins of comedy suggests that, like tragedy, it came into being through the addition of dialogue to choral song: acted episodes, imitated perhaps from Peloponnesian models, may have been combined in Attica with the festive singing and dancing of a komos, or chorus of revellers, which originated in fertility ritual and gave komodia, the ‘song of the komos’, its name.
To this extent the great branches of drama followed the same general pattern, but here the resemblance ends. When we turn from tragedy to the eleven extant plays of Aristophanes—the only complete 5th-century or early 4th-century comedies that we now possess—we move from high to low: the spectator watching the comic actor play Trygaeus, the grape-farmer, or the old peasant Strepsiades, no longer had before him one of the heroic beings of legend, but a grotesque caricature of his own unheroic self—a ludicrous figure with distorted mask, padded belly and buttocks and a large artificial phallus.
In keeping with this costume, the language of the dialogue was full of frank obscenity, a feature of ordinary life often reflected in vase paintings, but not normally in literature. The time represented was not the mythical past, but the present: Aristophanic comedy struck a contemporary note and its satire was always topical.
Along with the Athenian equivalent of John Di Domenico, or Rory Bremner, other actors, wearing portrait-masks, would caricature with unparalleled freedom the leading personalities of the day—Socrates, the highbrow Euripides, the degenerate intellectual, Cleon, the arrogant demagogue. A fragment of Cratinus, earlier than Aristophanes, shows that even ‘Olympian’ Pericles was included in the rogues gallery of the comic ‘playwrights. The actor representing him evidently entered wearing on his head a model of the latest addition to the Athenian building programme, the Odeum; and another exclaimed:
Topical comment could come from the chorus as well as in the dialogue. The play could be interrupted by a section in which they came forward and put directly to the audience the poet’s views on current affairs. Comedy was surely the most typical literary product of democratic Athens.
In these ways, comedy brought drama down to earth. But it also lifted it skywards in amazing fights of poetry and fantasy. Few things in Greek literature surpass the beauty of some of Aristophanes’ choral songs; and no other author can compare with the soaring imagination of the extravaganzas, which he built out of the emotional trends of the day: out of the growing desire for peace during the Peloponnesian War, the picture of farmer Dikaiopolis making a one-man truce with Sparta (Acharnians, 425 BC), or of Trygaeus flying to heaven in search of peace on a dung-beetle (Peace, 421), or of Lysuitrata, 411); out of the weariness which spread as the war dragged on, the conception of a Utopian ‘Cloud-Cuckoo-Town’ built by the birds in the sky (Birds, 414); out of the hardships of the post-ar years, a burlesque of the welfare state (Women in Parliament, 391).
The antics and adventures of Aristophanes’ ‘little men’ in these extraordinary situations provide most of the fun of the comedies, but he reaches the greatest heights of poetic fantasy in his handling of the chorus. Vase-paintings that show the dancing chorus masquerading as animals or birds may go back to Mycenaean times: Aristophanes uses it with spectacular effect in his Wasps and Clouds and above all in the Birds, where each bird has his own distinctive costume and call. Little wonder that in their address to the audience they claim that comedy is more entertaining than tragedy;
Not only his contemporaries were targets for Aristophanes’ satire and fantasy. Other regular victims were the heroes of legend, tragedy, mercilessly parodied, and—by no means least— the gods. In the Frogs, presented in the year after the death of Sophocles and Euripides, Dionysus himself becomes a figure of fun. Disguised as Heracles he journeys to Hades, and after rowing across the Styx, hurried on by a frog chorus passes through one ridiculous scrape after another, before reaching the house of Pluto.
Here he is called on to decide the claim of the lately-arrived Euripides to replace Aeschylus on the throne of tragedy. With typical disregard for consistency the caricature of the god now becomes a portrait of the man-in-the-street, or the man-in-the-audience, baffled by both contestants, yet judging them by definite standards of morality and craftsmanship, which lead him to the choice of Aeschylus. The Frogs is a healthy corrective to exaggerated estimates of the intellectual level of the Athenian public; but it fully confirms the existence among the great audience in the theatre of Dionysus of that lively and critical interest in drama, which was the background to the brilliant achievements of the century in tragedy and comedy alike.