History of Comedy in Ancient Greece

An Overview of Satire in Greek Theater

Theatre of Epidaurus Peloponnese Greece
Theatre of Epidaurus Peloponnese Greece. Michel Gunther/Getty Images

Modern movies such as The Hangover, 40-Year-Old Virgin, and American Pie owe a great deal to the Greeks. Why? Because playwrights invented the ever-popular but always controversial genre known as "the sex comedy." Of course, that's not what they were called during the days of Ancient Greece. Instead, they were known as satyr plays.

During the Festival of Dionysus, audiences would sit and watch three tragedies in a row. How depressing is that? So, to expunge the seriousness of the viewing experience, the evening would conclude with a satyr play. Thousands of years before there was Saturday Night Live, the playwrights of Ancient Greece were poking fun at the world around them. Very often, these comedies featured half-man / half goat characters known as Satyrs. They were obnoxious, dim-witted, and usually drunk. And let's face it - these goat men were perverts. The Satyr characters lusted after everyone on stage, and they delivered the most humorous lines, often at the expense of others. (Not just the other characters, but sometimes they poked fun at Athenian society.) Hence, the notion of "satire" is derived from the Satyr play.

Although many Satyr plays are mentioned by Greek historians, only one complete script remains Cyclops. is an adventurous comedy by Euripides. The storyline is borrowed from Homer's Odyssey; however, this version has a good deal more ribald jokes (some of which unfortunately gets lost in translation).

But for the most part, these satyr plays were briefer than a regular drama. And the plot was always a lampoon. It wasn't until later that writers such as Aristophanes began inventing longer and more original comedies, such as the highly provocative Lysistrata.

Written during the Peloponnesian War - a conflict Aristophanes felt was a pointless waste of human life, this comedy begins with the heroine, Lysistrata, explaining to her fellow women how to prevent their husbands from going off to battle:

LYSISTRATA: All we have to do is idly sit indoors With smooth roses powdered on our cheeks, Our bodies burning naked through the folds Of shining Amorgos' silk, and meet the men With our dear Venus-plats plucked trim and neat. Their stirring love will rise up furiously, They'll beg our arms to open. That's our time! We'll disregard their knocking, beat them off -- And they will soon be rabid for a Peace. I'm sure of it.

In short, they withhold sex from their husbands until the men submit to their wives and call of their ongoing battle. The alternative title of the play could be: "Make Love, Not War." Considering the plays political views, powerful female characters, and overt sexuality, it's no wonder the play has been banned, off-and-on, for centuries.

Aristophanes had a knack for controversy. He would populate his comedies with social and political figures of his era. He would poke fun at philosophers, politicians, and playwright, most of whom were probably in the audience at the time. But more than a celebrity roast, Aristophanes criticized the direction of his community. He felt that his society was going backward instead of forwards.

Euripides and Aristophanes and other Greek dramatists pushed the boundaries, and I'm sure they made audiences gasp now and then. The audience probably felt uncomfortable or annoyed at times. But were the plays controversial during their own time?

Historians believe that the front row seats were filled with dignitaries and religious officials. Audience members were also likely to be the judges of the festival productions. And guess which playwrights won the most awards over the years? Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes. (I should probably toss in, but I can never pronounce his name.) All the so-called boundary pushers were also the winners. So, like today's Academy Awards, the shows that generate a lot of "buzz" are often shocking and satirical, as well as wrought with heavy themes.