Tag Archives: Theater

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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Game of Thrones Red Wedding and Ancient Greek Xenia

WARNING MAJOR SPOILERS: If you have not watched Season 3 Episode 9 and care about being surprised, do not read any further!

So I’m a bit of a Game of Thrones fan which is probably no surprise being that it draws some influence from the classical world, although probably more influence comes from the northern myths, stories, and legends. I found myself spending the last few days watching reactions to the last episode because they are completely hilarious (clip above).  I usually don’t write about obvious evidence of classical influence, but this particular episode brought up a very important theme in ancient literature and epic. This theme is known in Greek as xenia. Xenia is a common rule in ancient cultures of guest-friendship meaning that there is a certain expectation of safety and hospitality among travelers, guests, and hosts. There is also a cool small souvenir and novelty shop in Philly called Xenos (guest/foreigner) but that’s another story.  In Game of Thrones this custom was clearly not upheld as just about everyone who was a guest at the wedding was killed.

Breaking the customs of xenia has a tradition in ancient literature of leading to terrible things and usually huge wars which kill far more people than those involved in the original dispute. I have no doubt that this will be the case in Game of Thrones. This blog is not about my predictions for HBO television shows so I won’t go into them more than that, but what I know from reading ancient literature is that once the rules of xenia are broken, Pandora’s box is opened because those customs of trust are what made travel possible in the ancient world and were necessary to a functioning civilization. Once one side breaks the rules, all sides break the rules. This was so important that to violate xenia was actually insulting Zeus.

Side note: The documentary Craigslist Joe is an experiment in modern American xenia.

Some examples in Ancient Greek literature of breaking these rules are as follows.

  1. The Trojan War- Yes the Trojan War started as a result of a breach of hospitality. This was opposite of the Red Wedding though in that the guest was the perpetrator. Paris stole Menelaus’ wife while he was a guest at Menelaus’ house; whether Helen went willingly or not has always seemed irrelevant to me.
  2. The Odyssey- Xenia is all over this story as it is basically an epic of travel. The most important in my mind is that of Odysseus’ house in which the suitors were demanding things beyond the custom; this doesn’t end well for them.
  3. Euripides Alcestis– This entire play is based on the importance of xenia. Alcestis’ husband Admetus was such a great host that Apollo convinced the Fates to allow him to live past his given time of death.  Ademtus is so devoted to the custom of hospitality that he betrays the last wishes of his dying wife in order to be a good host to the famous Heracles.
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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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Battlestar Galactica and Sophocles’ Ajax

In case this blog isn’t nerdy enough, I thought I would up the nerd factor a little bit and write about not only classics, but Battlestar Galactica. I’m not usually a big fan of sci-fi anything, but people kept telling me to watch this show so I finally broke down and started it. Now I’m addicted. I should note here that I have just started the 3rd season and therefore I may be missing things and I will most likely not be spoiling much.  For the sake of this post not being incredibly long and unfocused, I would like to ignore some of the more obvious allusions to Greek mythology like the usage of Greek gods and even the less obvious use of the Pythia oracle. This post will focus on one (possibly accidental) reference to Greek mythology: The relationship between Gaius and Number 6 (also known as Caprica 6, but she shall be called Number 6 here).

Their relationship is definitely a large focal point for the show, but what got me really interested in it is that after only a few episodes I saw a parallel between their relationship and that of Ajax and Athena in Sophocles’ Ajax. In the Greek tragedy Ajax is continually manipulated by Athena who speaks directly to him. Some scholars have interpreted Athena as Ajax’s madness incarnate (well sort of since she’s a goddess).  Some theatrical interpretations and adaptations have shown Athena as only being seen by Ajax and being on stage the entire time to direct the events of the play. The use of deities as mental illnesses or madness in many of Sophocles’ plays has been contemplated by scholars. I enjoy entertaining the notion that Greek playwrights used the gods to portray what we today would consider internal working of the mind as well as mental health issues.

As I have not finished the series yet I cannot say what is going on between Gaius and Number 6, but when she is instructing him and manipulating him aboard Galactica while he is the only one who can see her, there is a striking resemblance to Ajax and Athena. I look forward to seeing how this plays out, if he is crazy, a cylon, or there is another explanation. No matter what though, there is no denying the similarities between the two relationships. I wonder if this was influence or accidental, but either way it is awesome.

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