The Structure of Old Comedy
The most important playwright of comedies and almost exclusive source of our knowledge about old comedy is Aristophanes, author of about 40 plays from which 11 have survived, all written in between 425 and 388 B.C. Aristophanes used a set of theatrical and stylistic devices in all of his comedies, thus setting the rules for a common structure of old comedy. In this paper I am going to focus on his plays “The Birds” and “The Clouds”, in order to exemplify and compare the use of the structural elements as unique features of old comedy.
Both plays start with a prologue which introduces the main conflict or idea of the play. In “The Clouds”, Strepsiades has a sleepless night because he is plagued by financial problems. He expresses the main issue of the play in form of long monologue passages, spiked with scatological humor.
In “The Birds”, the two Athenians Peisetaerus and Euelpides have grown weary of the life in Athens and plan to convince the birds of the world to unite against mankind and the gods and found a city in the sky called Cloudcuckooville. Both prologues serve to provide the audience with expository background information, while promoting what in modern times might be called a very loose plot.
Usually the prologue is followed by the parodos, the entering of a usually fantastically dressed chorus. The chorus is the most important element of old comedy, and probably the most extrinsic one to modern audiences. Its functions range from actively participating as a character in the play to its use as a mouthpiece for the author. Unlike the choruses in ancient Greek tragedies, the chorus in all of Aristophanes’ comedies consisted of 24 members instead of 12 and was split up into debating parties of 12 at certain points in the play. In general, the chorus is initially introduced as an important, non-human entity in the play and is represented by a chorus leader: In “The Clouds” the chorus...