As mentioned in episode 6, the theater was invented in ancient Athens, and its invention may have been connected to the emergence of democracy. In fact, public entertainment contributed in important ways to the functioning of the world's first democracy. Several times a year in Athens, at the festivals of the god Dionysus, thousands of people would gather to watch tragedies and also comedies.
Athenian "Old Comedy," as it is called, was quite vulgar. These plays were full of scatological humor and sexual profanity. They were also highly political (as were the tragedies, albeit in a different way). Comedies often directly attacked prominent individuals in the city (who were in the audience). As mentioned in episode 8, Socrates was often parodied in the theater. Politicians like Pericles and Cleon were also periodically roasted and humiliated on the comic stage.
The role of satire in society is an issue that is as relevant today as it ever was. In this episode we further explore the relation between entertainment and politics in Athens but through a comedic lens this time. We look at what it was like to see Athenian comedies, what these plays were all about, and what they tell us about life in ancient Athens.
These plays are not only of historical interest. In recent years, there have been many revivals of ancient Athenian comedies by artists who feel that these plays resonate with contemporary issues. A good example of this is Spike Lee's film Chiraq, which is based on the play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, the only Athenian playwright whose comedies we still have. And there have been many other recent productions of Aristophanes' plays. But what is it about Aristophanes that seems to have lasting appeal?
Joining us in this episode to help us understand what all the buzz is about is someone who needs no introduction. Edith Hall is one of the most internationally known scholars of ancient Greece. She is based in King's College, London, where she is professor of classics, She has written many books, including her latest hit, Introducing the Ancient Greeks, which has already been translated into seven languages. She has also written many books on the history of theater, including her 2010 book Greek Tragedy: Suffering under the Sun (which you can read for free on her website).
MORE FROM EDITH HALL:
Episodes of "In Our Time" where Edith Hall discusses Ancient Greek Comedy and also Aeschylus' Oresteia.
Lecture delivered at Cornell (video): "What Do the Ancient Greeks Have to say to the Third Millennium?".
Lecture on Aristophanes' Birds delivered in Athens (video).
If you want more on Aristophanes in podcast form, be sure to check out the amazing Literature and History podcast.