Greek Comedy: Definition

1. An Attic* comedy is a self-contained piece of fantasy, poetically elaborated in a low style for performance by a chorus of Athenian citizens and two or at the most three actors and intended as a part of the public festival in the sanctuary of Dionysus or at the Lenaea.  (This definition is a parody of the definition of tragedy by Ulrich von Wilamowitz, Einleitung in die griechiesche Tragödie, 1889.)

2. For the dates to which this definition applies, see Time Line.  the fifth century is the period of Old Comedy.

3. This definition is based on the surviving comedies of Aristophanes.  He is the only comic poet of Old Comedy of whom complete comedies survive.  Eleven of his comedies survive from an output of about forty.

4. To the definition given above a formal component can be added.  Like tragedy, the extant comedies of Aristophanes have a regular form or structure: prologue; parodos (entrance of chorus); alternating dialogue (in scenes or episodes) and choral song-and-dance (stasima; singular: stasimon); exodos (conclusion).  Singing was accompanied by a double pipe (a reed instrument called the aulos).  Unlike tragedy, comedy also has a parabasis, in which, sometimes still in character, sometimes speaking for the poet, it addresses the audience directly.

5. The civic and ritual contexts for comedy were the same as for tragedy.  They were performed as part of the annual civic festival in honor of Dionysus called the City Dionysia.  The venue was the Theater of Dionysus.  They were also performed at the Lenaea (see Time Line.)

Comedies were also performed in some of the towns in Attica* outside of Athens.

These dramatic events were only a part of a larger program that included processions, sacrifices, and libations.  The civic context of comedy and tragedy has received a great deal of attention from scholars in the past twenty years.

The performances of comedy were organized as a competition among the comic poets.  The city regulated the choice of the comic poets (five for the City Dionysia and five for the Lenaea, though the number was reduced during the Peloponnesian War) and all aspects of the performance.

*Adjectival form of "Attica," the name of the territory in which Athens was located.