Back in 2008 I gave a talk to the Land Registry History Society called ‘A History of Comedy.’ This is the amended script. My talk was over an hour long and so before you now is Act One. Enjoy…
To be more precise it is really my history of comedy. It will be biased, politically incorrect and probably xenophobic! As we get to modern times your favourite comedians may or may not get a mention but I cannot discuss every comedy act there has ever been otherwise I would be writing forever! What I hope to do is show you the landmarks of comedy from how it evolved in Ancient Greece to more modern times. Also I hope to show you how performed comedy has made the journey across two thousand years or more. Performed comedy as we know it is written down, the script learned and then staged. Of course visual comedy has been around since Neanderthal times. The caveman on his way back from a hunting trip falls over a rock and lands face down in a puddle. Cue laughter from his fellow cavemen! The fact that the victim then tries to club his mates to death need not concern us here!
Before we head for Ancient Greece I thought I would set the tone for this blog with an item from the Tommy Cooper joke book.
“Blind man and his dog walk into a department store. The man picks up the dog and starts to whirl it around his head. A horrified shop assistant rushes over to him and asks: “Excuse me sir, is everything all right?” “YEP,” replies the blind man, “Just looking.”
Just like that! More from Mr Cooper in a couple of thousand years. And so to Ancient Greece, or rather Ancient Athens.
This is the Parthenon. Or as Eric Morecombe might have said, “That won’t keep the rain out!” And it is the Parthenon, not the Acropolis. The Acropolis, the translation of which is “High City” is the large rocky area on which the Parthenon stands. It was the seat of administration for the city of Athens. Below the Acropolis would live the slaves, criminals and workers. Those with money lived well above it all!
The origins of Theatre began in Athens. Performances may well have taken place in other parts of Greece but all the historical evidence available shows that Athens was the starting point. And of course Athens was the starting point for civilisation in Western Europe. Here was born democracy, the art of political debate, trial by jury, literature, language, and the beauty of art in sculpture and design. Democracy in Athens was for a very select band of citizens. To be able to vote you had to be rich and male. Thus, Athens was controlled by those who had a vested interest in its prosperity. But they still voted and adopted principles of discussion that have survived the centuries. Athens in particular and Greece in general would come under all sorts of pressure from forces outside and inside the country. If it wasn’t the Persians, it was the Spartans, if not them it was the Macedonians and then along came the bloody Romans to nick all their ideas! There were various other petty squabbles too numerous to mention. The one thing I omitted when mentioning what the city of Athens had been responsible for was of course theatre. From out of this theatrical tradition was born comedy. Greek scholars seem to think from the various documentary sources they have consulted that there may well have been at least eighty playwrights over the period we are looking at. However we only have the works of three dramatists and two writers of comedy available to read. I thought I would show you a time line to put all of the above into context. Education, education, education! (The only good words ever issued by the idiot Blair!)
I thought the Romans should be allowed in as they stole all the Greek plots anyway!
Across this timeline we have the birth of Socrates (470) who had Plato (428) as a pupil. Plato in turn was the tutor to Aristotle (384) who in turn was the tutor of Alexander the Great! Got all that? And just to add to the mix there were various wars and battles raging around the Mediterranean.
Greek theatre was born out of idol worship, fertility rites and poetry readings which fused into theatre. The early plays would have consisted of a chorus of say twelve men chanting the lines. In the fifth century BC Thespis comes along. He is the playwright credited with introducing the first actor into the proceedings and the use of the masks of tragedy and comedy which now adorn most theatres in one way or another. Thespis was the first actor to actually play a character rather than someone just reading out statements. Thespis is well remembered by his followers. You will find a good few of them along Shaftesbury Avenue around 7:30 on most evenings. They are known as Thespians! So now you know!
In between the battles and wars you will see the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Say that after a glass or two! And I’ve still got Aristophanes to come! But a chorus and one actor was hard work for the one actor. Thus by the time Euripides came along it was the chorus and three actors! The actors would play all the characters, hence the masks. The mask as such is still in use today of course. Though it is now called make-up and costume. The plays of the three I mentioned were all tragedies based on Greek mythology. No playwright at that time would have had the nerve to portray contemporary issues. They would be all male casts. No violence would take place on stage. And in Greek mythology there is quite a bit of violence! Any one due to be killed as part of the play would be taken off stage. Suitable cries of anguish would be heard and the “dead” body carried back onto the stage.
A couple of play titles you may be familiar with that are still performed today, The Oresteia, Oedipus the King and Elektra. The Oresteia by Aeschylus gets an airing every ten years or so on BBC2!!! This is the one about Clytemnestra and her lover plotting to kill her husband Agememnon. Then her son plots to kill her and someone plots to kill him and there is blood everywhere! One thing to come out of the Oresteia is that at the trial of Orestes, the son mentioned above, is found not guilty by virtue of the fact that the jury cannot agree. In the play the goddess Athena states that in any other future trial whenever the jury cannot agree the defendant must be found not guilty. The Oresteia is a trilogy and can be hard to follow.
So with all this gloom and doom around the Athenian play going public must have been in desperate need of a good laugh!So along came Aristophanes overlapping Sophocles and Euripides. He would use some of his work to take the mickey out of his predecessors but the play that tends to be performed the most today is one beloved of amateur theatre groups. Lysistrata. Why so popular? Well the plot centres around a central theme. The ladies of a particular Greek town inform their menfolk that unless they stop constantly going off to fight there will be no more sex when they return home. It sells tickets! Though I would guess that back in Ancient Athens it was seen as an anti-war play. Comedies were far more daring in that they dealt with contemporary issues and were not afraid to satirize the great and the good. Although that would come to end when Athens came under the domination of Macedonia. Then as now people from that area are sadly lacking in humour! Mind you it is not just the Macedonians. We do of course have the laugh a minute Germans. I’m not sure but whenever I hear a German man speaking for all I know they could be giving the weather forecast; why then does it always sound as if they are declaring war on Poland? But given the choice between German and Afrikaans give me German. That South African accent can cut plated steel at fifty paces. I believe the white South Africans are descended from the Dutch whom I have always thought of as a friendly lot. I regard white South Africans as sort of Germans with sun tans!
Now where were we……………………The Greek plays yes……
The plays were acted out on the stage of the classic Greek theatre.
The terms used for various parts of the theatre have passed onto us in translation. The rear area would be known as the “Theatron.” From which we get theatre. Theatron translates as “seeing place.” Not to be confused with the Latin word Auditorium which translates as “hearing place!” The flat area in front of the audience was known as the orchestra. The large wall at the rear was known as the skene and behind that another wall which came around both sides of the raised area was known as the “Proskenion.” This word translated to “Proscenium. As in arch which is now the standard outline in all theatres at the front of the stage. Theatres were normally built into hillsides to allow the terracing to be supported and shaped to ensure the acoustics were at their best.
Aristophanes died in 380BC. After that there is another name mentioned in the Greek theatre, Menander. He is generally accepted as the link between the Greek Theatre and the start of theatre in this country some 1500 years later. He became the first Greek writer to use everyday domestic situations as the themes for his plays. Mistaken identity, father does not like the look of future son-in-law, romance going wrong, you might say it was the start of situation comedy! Menander had a rival playwright called Philemon about whom not much is known. Other than they appeared to vie for the affections of the same lady in their life!
Menander is believed to have written over 100 plays but only a couple survive plus fragments of others. In the first decade of the 20th century a hugh pile of ancient manuscripts was discovered in the ruins of an ancient settlement about 100 miles south of Cairo. Known as the Cairo Codex they found fairly mundane things among the papyrus but they also found a number of ancient Greek items which included some of Menanders work. Most of the excavated paper went to Oxford and some of it is still waiting for translation! Some of it was of course in a dire state and only recently with modern techniques have researchers been able to read the original writing which has been burnt by the sun, buried in the sand and generally mistreated! In 1957, again in Egypt one complete play of Menanders was discovered. Menander lived and worked during Macedonian rule. That would probably explain why he chose ordinary people for his characters, not wishing to offend the ruling elite. However for historians he epitomises Greek New Comedy.
He drowned while swimming of Piraeus in 291 BC. After that date there are no records of any other Greek playwrights. Although undoubtedly the plays of the writers we have mentioned would have been performed. The Romans conquered Greece in 146BC.
In Rome the works of the Greek playwrights would have been performed and would have been the inspiration to Roman playwrights. While the works of a number of Roman writers have come down to us only two playwrights have survived the Roman Empire. Titus Maccius Plautus was born in 254BC and started out on a career as a merchant. He was quite successful until a number of ships carrying valuable cargo belonging to him were sunk without trace. This bankrupted him and he took a job working in a grain mill. He had been involved in the embryonic Roman stage as a youth and what spare time he had from the mill he put to writing. Depends who you read but the number of plays that have come down that are accredited to him is anywhere between one hundred down to twenty-one. The majority seem to favour twenty-one. All of them derivative of Greece and all of them set in Athens. Roman rulers did not take kindly to theatrical productions and plays were performed on temporary stages. The work of Plautus would be used by Stephen Sondheim in his musical, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
“Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone, a comedy tonight!”
The second Roman playwright was one Publius Terentius Afer. Known to history simply as Terence. He was born in Carthage in 190BC. Captured and taken as a slave to Rome. There his master made sure the boy was educated. Seeing that he undoubtedly had talent he was encouraged to write by his master. His first play was produced when he was nineteen. His master rewarded him with his freedom and allowed him to take the name by which he became famous. Sadly his life was cut short when he was drowned at sea on his way to Greece. An identical death to that of his hero and inspiration Menander. He was thirty-one. All his plays were Latin adaptations of the works of Menander. But this ensured his place in history and most theatrical histories place Menander and Terence as the main influences on early theatrical writing in Western Europe.
The first theatre in Rome was built by Pompey in about 55BC. The objections to theatre building were overcome by naming it the Temple of Venus. It just happened to have a stage and seating for thousands of people! Excavations on the site where it was built indicate that it was probably the largest theatre ever built.
However the two playwrights whose names we have were long gone by the time it was built.
For the average Roman theatre did not provide enough thrills. By the time the Republic had ended and Rome was ruled by an Emperor there was little evidence of any sort of dramatic writing, comedy or otherwise. The theatres would be used for acrobats, jugglers, mime shows but even they gave way in the end to the live show at the Coliseum. Here of course gladiatorial contests were fought to the death. With the coming of Christianity the shows in the Coliseum became even more gruesome. The Roman population never tired of the result “Lions Three Christians nil!
But all empires come to an end. That of the Roman Empire is put at around 476AD. After that the former empire was subject to fights and battles, treaties made, treaties broken. But it would be around 1400 years from Terence to the writing of the next comedy play anywhere.
END OF PART THE FIRST … PART THE SECOND COMING SOON!