The Birth of Comedy

From sausage-sellers to suffragettes, questioning and puncturing our political leaders through satire has been essential for democracy ever since comedy was born in Ancient Greece, argues Edith Hall.

Greek comedy mask, terracotta, second century BC.

The theatrical genre of comedy was formally recognised by being integrated, for the first time, into the programme of the drama competitions of the classical Athenian state two and a half millennia ago, in 486 BC. In an outdoor theatre in the sanctuary of the wine god Dionysus, a musical chorus of men dressed in obscene costumes accompanied a knockabout actor or two who cracked jokes and shouted versified abuse at an audience of tipsy citizens. The epoch-making incorporation of the rumbustious new genre into the competitions at the festivals of Dionysus came a few years, or even decades, later than that of the far more dignified genre of tragedy. The man responsible for introducing the tragic competitions had probably been Peisistratos, the last successful tyrant of Athens during the previous century. He courted the favour of his citizens and advertised the glory of their city to the wider Greek world by bankrolling spectacular entertainments at the city's festivals.

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