The Roman Stage: A Short History of Latin Drama in the Time of the Republic

By W. Beare | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
GREEK NEW COMEDY

THE OLD Comedy of Aristophanes and his contemporaries dealt in outspoken terms with the political and social life of Athens in the closing decades of the fifth century. That war ended in a defeat for Athens which destroyed not only her empire but much of the freedom of speech and the national spirit which had made Old Comedy possible. Aristophanes himself showed his recognition of the new order in his two fourth-century plays, the Ecclesiazusae and the Plutus, which deal, not with current politics, but with broad problems concerning humanity at large. Why are public affairs so plainly mismanaged? They have always been in the hands of men; then give them over to the women, and see what happens. Why is wealth so ill-distributed? Because Plutus, the god of wealth, is blind; then give him his sight, and see what happens.

In addition to changes in theme and tone, the form of these two fourth-century comedies (our only examples of what some grammarians call Middle Comedy) is different from that of their predecessors. The chorus, which had formed the original element in drama and had decided the structure of Old Comedy, is now, it seems, felt to be an anachronism. Its part is shrinking, and occasionally its entrance is denoted by nothing more than the stage-direction xopoy, 'a performance by the chorus'. Half a century later it seems to be entirely restricted to occasional appearances which have little bearing on the plot.

The final destruction of Greek independence by Macedon in 338 B.C. was reflected in the tone of New Comedy. Finding their city states reduced to political insignificance, men turned their eyes to themselves and their own affairs. As private life is more or less the same in every land, the New Comedy is cosmopolitan in tone. The relations between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between masters and slaves; the adventures and misfortunes which affect private

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