Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Old Comedy

Classicists often refer to the philosophical and political plays of Aristophanes as "Old Comedy" to distinguish them from the more situational "New Comedy" of Menander, whose works influenced the later Roman dramatists Plautus and Terence.

However, Aristophanes was not the only playwright penning philosophical and political comedies during the Golden Age of Athens. He is the only comic dramatist of his era for whom whole scripts survive, but we do have fragments of plays by other writers who appear to have written in a similar vein.

One writer whose plays have only survived in fragments is Metagenes, who wrote Homer or the Athletes and Thurio-Persians. While The Persians is a famous tragedy by Aeschylus about the defeat of the splendid Persian Empire, the comedy Thurio-Persians seems to combine the luxuriousness of Persia with the Italian city of Thurii, which likewise had a reputation for opulence.

How opulent was life in Thurii? According to the play, the city had a river with food just floating on it, including barley loaves, cakes, and meat. According to one translation, "Fish slices that barbecue themselves fly from above right into the mouth." However, pescatarians should be cautioned that in a play by the rival comic poet Archippus, there are political negotiations between Athenians and the fish to establish a truce between them.

Another author of Old Comedy whose plays survive only in fragments is Crates, who acted in the comedies of Cratinus before writing his own works. In his play The Knights, Aristophanes praises the writings of Crates, who in Wild Beasts depicted animals objecting to being eaten (perhaps like the fish in the comedy by Archippus). The play depicts inanimate objects performing labor all by themselves, including automatically pouring pitchers and self-rinsing cups.

According to Aristotle, Crates turned away from making personal attacks on individuals. This was not true of Aristophanes, whose play The Clouds directly satirizes the philosopher Socrates. The few fragments we have of plays by the contemporaries of Aristophanes seem to indicate that Old Comedy was quite diverse in both its themes and its comic methods.