Conditions of Playwriting and the Comic Dramatist’s Craft in the Fourth Century


The early fourth century was a period of determinative transformations for Greek comedy. Aristophanes’ last extant plays (Ecclesiazusae, Wealth) seem old-fashioned, still clinging to the modes of Old Comedy while contemporary comic drama was moving towards new directions (mythological burlesque, domestic comedy of stock characters and recurring plots). In his two final plays, Kokalos and Aiolosikon, Aristophanes acceded to the new tendencies, taking up myth burlesque and introducing love-affairs and recognitions. The most influential factor conditioning the form of comic drama in the fourth century was the diffusion of Athenian comedy in the entire Hellenic world (“pan-Hellenization”). This is attested by archaeological finds (South-Italian vases illustrating Attic comedies, widely diffused terracottas of stock comic personages, festival inscriptions of various cities), as well as by literary authors referring to theatrical events in the Macedonian court and elsewhere. The huge productivity of the major fourth-century comic poets is explained as a response to an equally great demand for plays posed by cities and festivals all around Greece. The comic poets became professionals that earned their living from the theatre. The decline of political mockery in fourth-century comedy was largely a result of this new reality. Full-scale political plays became extremely rare: the last specimens are concentrated in the time of the Macedonian expansion, which sparked off a serious political crisis in Athens and reinvigorated to some extent political playwriting. Otherwise, the references to political figures and affairs are only incidental jokes inserted in comedies with entirely different plot (e.g. myth burlesques or domestic plays), in order to give topicality to the script. The comic playwrights knew that their plays had to appeal to broader, pan-Hellenic audiences; a comedy concentrating on Athenian political affairs would have no chance of such broader success. Similarly, the decline of choral parts is connected with the new conditions of travelling troupes performing their repertoire in various cities. These troupes usually did not carry along their own chorus but expected to collaborate with a chorus locally provided by each festival. The time available for rehearsal of these choruses with the actors would have been very limited. This led to a drastic restriction of choral parts, eventually reducing them to mere interludes.