Tag Archives: plays

This Is The End: Old Comedy makes its return!

This is the End is closer to an ancient comedy than a modern one.  When I think about Greek and Roman comedy I think of things playing out just like This is the End.  First, let me say this is a hilarious movie and is incredibly well done. There are so many good jokes as well as situational comedy so it doesn’t rely entirely on the jokes. Go see it, especially if you grew up in the 90s with all of the love for 90s things. If you haven’t seen it there are some slight spoilers in this post, so beware moving on.  Anyway, back to the ancients. I hope in this post to spread a little knowledge about ancient comedy while showing how This is the End is very similar to these plays.

There are two categories in which ancient comedies are usually classified. Those are Old Comedy and New Comedy; there is also Middle Comedy, but it is a confusing subject and is really just used to talk about some works which bridge Old and New and therefore are hard to define. Old comedy is mostly talked about with Aristophanes.  Old Comedy is mainly seen as political satire. Aristophanes wrote comedies which were social commentaries on Socrates (The Clouds), war (Lysistrata), overuse of the justice system (The Wasps), etc.  This is the End fits into this style as it discusses some political issues like legalizing marijuana as well as being centered on an apocalyptic event which has been in people’s minds recently with the passing of the year 2012, but I would not consider it a political satire. It does, however, have many of the farcical aspects of Old Comedy.

Another characteristic of Aristophanes’ comedy was the use of the phallus. To put it bluntly there were penises everywhere. Actors wore giant penises, some scholars say it was to be sure that the audience did not mistake the gender of the character, however I think it was more of a comedic device than anything. Watch the scene in HBO’s Rome where there is a play going on in a the background to see this; that’s New Comedy, but that’s okay because this is an aspect they share. This is actually what gave me the idea for this post because as soon as the demon is shown we see that he has been given a giant penis. The idea was probably to be equally scary and hilarious; it succeeded. This immediately struck me as ancient comedy, though.  This movie had more penis jokes than, I think, any other movie I have watched. Craig Robinson trying to pick up the giant penis art is probably my favorite. In this way I say that This is the End was very similar to Aristophanes and Old Comedy.

New Comedy is situational comedy at its earliest beginnings. This comedy is considered shallower and doesn’t take many risks as far as political commentary goes. The best known Ancient Greek writer of New Comedy is Menander. This was also the genre of comedy which was adapted in Rome by playwrights Plautus and Terence.   New Comedy is based more on stock characters and depictions of daily life. In this way it is very much like our modern sitcoms such as Friends, How I Met Your Mother, or Modern Family.  The way This is the End fits into New Comedy is that in the beginning we are getting a glimpse of the daily life of these people we see as actors so often.

I see This is the End as very close to Old Comedy. In fact if Aristophanes were alive today it wouldn’t surprise me to see his name scrolling through the credits as a writer. The penis jokes really stand out to me as a reference to antiquity; they probably did this without even realizing it. There are, of course, many things I didn’t touch on in this post like the religious aspects, the fact that these characters are over-exaggerated versions of themselves, and the use of small role female characters (something that is huge in ancient comedy). Please leave a comment and I will be happy to chat about these things in the comments section.

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Happy Birthday Douglas Adams: Hitchhiker’s Guide and Greek Tragedy

As Google animated so perfectly, today is Douglas Adams birthday. When I think about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I can only think one thing: DON’T PANIC! I remember my excellent Greek professor using this reference whenever he introduced a new grammar rule. “There are exceptions to the rule, but as The Guide says, ‘Don’t Panic.’” In Ancient Greek if you panic you are screwed. The whole system is based on exceptions. There is only one entirely regular verb and I say that hesitantly. The words “Don’t Panic” kept me going through many late nights with a Greek textbook, but enough of my nostalgia. The reason I am writing about Douglas Adams and this great work is because of the way he composed this work.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Hitchhiker’s Guide from here on) was composed in a way which an Ancient Greek playwright would probably relish. At first Hitchhiker’s Guide was a series of six episodes for the radio. Later a second and third series were released. The work was rewritten many times from many view points and focal points. It was slowly adapted for several different media. This is the part that I find interesting. There are novels, movies, radio series, TV series, LPs. The whole story takes on so many forms and so many different episodes.  This reminds me of Ancient Greek plays. In most Greek plays the audience is given only a small episode in a very large story. The larger story is written episode by episode by different playwrights with different focuses.

Aeschylus was one of the earliest playwrights whose works survive. He wrote an Oedipus play of which very little survives, but Euripides and Sophocles also wrote Oedipus plays, the most famous being that of Sophocles. Euripides’ Oedipus is also a fragmented work, but it is known that there are some major differences like Oedipus being blinded before the truth is revealed that Laius is his father.

Another play covered by all three of these writers is Philoctetes. This compares perfectly to the way Hitchhiker’s Guide was written because Douglas Adams discovered that the central point of his series was the book while writing the first series. The hitchhikers guide comes out of a small plot point made in his original series about an alien looking for a special book. This very minute point was then expanded to become a huge work of its own. The same happened with Philoctetes. Philoctetes was a character mentioned in passing in Homer’s Iliad. Each of these playwrights expanded on the passing mention made by Homer to create a new story, and certainly borrowed from those who had written the plays before them.  It is also important to note that since the plays were performed at a yearly competition they were sometimes rewritten and performed again in order to gain better favor in the contest.

For commentary on the 3 Philoctetes plays see the writings Dio Chrysostom. Aeschylus and Euripides plays are in fragments and most of what is known about them comes from this source.

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