Classical Studies
CLA 1-364-2009

Masterpieces of Greek and Roman Theater

Comedy: Greece and Rome to Hollywood

Study Questions and Paper Topics/Projects


Week 1: Aristophanes and Charlie Chaplin

1. Compare Chaplin's comic hero with one of Aristophanes' or compare one of Chaplin's villians with Aristophanes'.

2. Write an essay on "Aristophanes as Comic Hero," looking with care at his self portrayal in the parabasis of a single play and comparing the character depicted there with the comic hero of the play, and exploring the relationship of the parabasis with the rest of the play. For help on the parabasis in general, see Dover, Aristophanic Comedy, pp. 49-53.

3. Some consider Aristophanes' plots as structurally weak. Others consider them structured as fairy tales. Still others say that the idea of plot and narrative structure is overrated and not necessary for comedy to succeed. What do you think?

4. There is evidence that Clouds was rewritten, esp. lines 521-25 and 549-59 (see Ian Storey's Appendix in our translation). An ancient commentator on the play says that the parabasis and ending of the play was rewritten, and the agon added. Why would Aristophanes make these changes? How successful are the changes?

5. In what senses can one say that Aristophanic comedy is democratic? To what extent does he honor the common person? If he is democratic, why does he poke fun at Athens' leaders? It might be helpful to read a little about Athenian democracy in The World of Athens, pp. 196-213.

6. Agon in Greek means a contest. It may be athletic, musical, rhetorical, or political. It is often a contest about status and honor, about who is best. Its formal structure in Old Comedy is explained in the General Introduction. To what extent is the contest between Superior and Inferior Argument parallel to the contest between Strepsiades and Pheidippides in Clouds? To what extent can one say that Birds has an agon? How does "comic logic" work in choosing the winner? Does Chaplin utilize the concept of an agon in his films?

7. Discuss verbal humor or visual humor in one or two episodes of Aristophanes' comedies. Analyze the different types of humor in Aristophanes. What effect does each type of humor have on the audience? How does it contribute to themes in the play?

8. Since there are no written stage directions by Aristophanes, use Chaplin's visual humor to help reveal potential visual humor in Aristophanes.

9. To what effect does Chaplin make use of obscenity or scatological humor? How does Chaplin's use of obscenity and/or scatological humor compare with Aristophanes'?

10. Divine Princess in Birds, the chorus of Clouds, and of course the major characters of Lysistrata are women. How does Aristophanes treat women in his plays? Is it consistent or does it change from play to play for comic effect?

11. The chorus is often overlooked as a character by modern readers of Aristophanes. Choose one play and analyze its role in the play. Does it exhibit a consistent character through the play? How does it create unity for the play? How does its presence and actions help the audience respond to the play? Is there the equivalent of a chorus in Chaplin's films?

1. Rewrite a scene or several scenes of A. so that it would play to contemporary American audiences.

2. Rewrite the plot of a single play as a fairy tale, attempting to bring out the restorative nature of Aristophanic comedy. To prepare, it might be helpful to read Reckford, "Dionysian Fairy Tales," 93-104 from Aristophanes' Old and New Comedy and to reread some of your favorite fairy tales.

3. Prepare sketches of costumes for several of A's characters or for the chorus members. It may be helpful to refer to A. Pickard-Cambridge, Dramatic Festivals of Athens, 210-223, esp. 220-223 and Richard Green and Eric Handley, Images of the Greek Theater, pp. 49-57 (on reserve).

4. Prepare a pantomime a la Chaplin for a scene from Aristophanes.

Other ideas?

Week 2: Menander, Mae West, and Frank Capra

1. Compare the women in Lysistrata with Myrrhine and Knemon's daughter in Dyskolos or Chrysis in Samia or Glykera in Perikeiromene. What do the different depictions of women tell us about the playwrights view of comedy? of society?

2. Why does Menander introduce Dyskolos with a prologue by Pan or Perikeiromene with a prologue by Misapprehension? Do the gods play any role in the rest of the play? What sort of freedom do the characters have within the plays? To clarify the role of the prologue, it might help to think about how Aristophanes began his plays and what he used instead of divine prologues.

3. Compare Knemon in the Dyskolos with Polemon in Perikeiromene. How do their actions affect the plot and outcome of the play? To what extent are they outsiders in society?

4. To what extent can we consider Menander's plays fairy tales? How do they differ from Aristophanes'? To what extent are Menander's plays "realistic"? To what extent are they "democratic"?

5. Who is the comic hero in Menander's plays? Is there anyone comparable to Makemedo in the Birds? Where does the comedy focus in Menander's plays? Who, if anyone, is the comic hero?

6. How well do Aristophanes' and Menander's comedies follow Aristotle's views on drama in general and comedy in particular? How do they differ? What is Aristotle leaving out that you think is important for a description and theory of comedy?

7. Compare Cleo Borden (Mae West) with the women or men in Lysistrata. Or compare Mae West's character with the women in Menander or Ellie Andrews in It Happened One Night.

8. To what extent is the plot of Goin' to Town similar to Aristophanes' plots or Menander's plots? To which playwright is Goin' to Town most indebted?

9. Critics debate whether comedy reaffirms the status quo in society or stakes out new ground. Where do Menander and screwball comedy fall on this continuum?

10. It Happened One Night was produced during an age (1934) when women were beginning to have a more important role in American society than ever before. What in this film shows this new role? Is the film a statement about women's liberation? How does Ellie Andrews compare with Glykera in Perikeiromene who has also left her husband?

1. There are many gaps in our text of Menander's Perikeiromene. After thinking about the characters and plot of the play, write the dialogue and stage directions for a missing or incomplete scene which would be consistent with the characters in the play and with the plots and situations in other plays.

2. Create a mask for one of Menander's old men, young men, courtesans, soldiers, or slaves.

3. Re-write a scene of Menander a la screwball comedy.

4. Prepare a pantomime a la Chaplin for a scene from Menander.

5. Describe how you would rewrite a play of Aristophanes so that Mae West was featured as the comic hero.

Other ideas?

Week 3: Plautus, Terence, the Marx Brothers, and Road movies

1. Duplicity, deception, and intrigue has a central role in Plautus' plays. Analyze the theme in one of Plautus' plays. How does the playwright create the right situations and characters for this theme to work? Why is it so prominent in his plays? Does Groucho use duplicity or simply anarchy in Night at the Opera?

2. Pithy maxims are said to be the hallmark of Menandrian comedy. To what extent do we see Plautus and Terence using this type of wisdom? What is their attitude toward this sort of rationalizing and moralizing? How does it develop characterization and plot in the two plays? What is the point of Plautus using maxims in his play? of Terence?

3. Slaves have prominent roles in Roman comedy. Why do you think they have larger roles in Roman comedy than in Greek? How do Terence's slaves differ from the slaves in Plautus? In what ways do the Marx Brothers take on the role of servus callidus (tricky slave) because of their ethnicity?

4. Plautus uses metatheatrical techniques throughout his plays, such as monologues, asides, eavesdropping, role-playing, improvising to break the imaginary 4th wall between the actors and the audience. What effect do these metatheatrical techniques create a relationship with the audience? How does Night at the Opera or Road to Morocco use these same techniques? Do they have the same effect on the audience?

5. Cicero compared Plautus to Aristophanes and Old Comedy. To what extent is this comparison valid?

6. Both Plautus and Terence used Greek originals for their plays (Poenulus is based on a play called Karkhedonios (The Carthaginian); Adelphoe remakes Menander's play of the same name but also borrows from another Hellenistic play. In the same way, films are often remade. How do the playwrights/screenwriters adapt their originals? What does this tell us about how they worked at putting together their plays? Do these plays/films differ in theme or tone from comedies adapted from other playwrights? In other words, to what extent do the originals influence the finished product?

7. One of Terence's innovations was the use of the double plot. Explore how Adelphoe make use of this device for comedic effect. How does Road to Morocco develop a double plot (or not)? After all, both Jeff and Turkey get hooked up with a woman by the end of the film.

8. How do Poenulus, Persa, and Road to Morocco depict characters from the East? What qualities do these exotic orientals tend to have in common? Are the characters simply stereotypes or are they more complex, having both positive and negative qualities? What advantages are there to putting comedies in a faraway, exotic locale rather than close to home as Aristophanes and Menander do?

9. Compare Groucho Marx with Chaplin. What is the source of their humor? How do they deal with bullies? with women? What, if anything, does Groucho's ability to talk in his films add or detract from his comedy?

10. Compare Groucho with Makemedo or Toxilus (Bowman). What are their goals? their modus operandi? their type of comedy? Could we say that Groucho represents an Aristophanic hero? Plautine heroic badness?

11. Is the structure of A Night at the Opera more similar to the plays of Aristophanes or of Menander. What scenes in Plautus, Night at the Opera, or Road to Morocco are not essential to the plot? If they are not crucial for the plot, why are they in the script?

12. What role do lovers have in the plays of Plautus compared to Menander? What attitude does each playwright have toward love? Who/what makes the lovers eventually unite? What is the attitude toward love in Night at the Opera or Road to Morocco? Closer to Menander or to Plautus?

13. How is music and dance used in A Night at the Opera and in Plautus? to advance the plot? add to the carnivalesque atmosphere? Realistic or not? As a source for humor?

1) You are the director. Take your favorite episode from Rudens, Pseudolus, Adelphoe, or Hecyra and write detailed stage directions. What is physically happening on stage, i.e. the blocking, slapstick, entrances and exits? Some things to keep in mind as you are doing this project: What makes it funny (or not)? What do we learn about the characters in this scene? Is their portrayal here consistent with the rest of the play? How does this scene further the plot? What imagery or metaphors occur? What do they add to the scene or to the rest of the play? In short, what does the scene add to the rest of the play and how does it fit in with the rest of the play?

2) Plautus and Terence use many of the same types of characters as Menander. Take a single character type (e.g. young man, soldier, slave, courtesan, old man) and give a dramatic reading of one of their big scenes. You should choose two passages altogether--e.g., one from Plautus and one from Terence, or one from Menander and one from Terence--in order to shed light on the character type as well as how the two playwrights differ in their approach to a particular character type. In other words, through your reading you will be interpreting what is similar between the two poets and what they have done as original. Certainly a monologue by the character would be appropriate, but it need not be.

3) Write your own modern version of an act of Plautus or Terence. In other words, adapt a play (or really part of a play) to the modern stage just as Plautus or Terence adapted Menander.

4) Put one of these scenes on film/videotape and act as producer and director. Think about what differences there are between putting something on screen as opposed to putting it on stage.

Other ideas?

Maintained by: Last Update: April 16, 2013 6:32 pm

Professor John Gruber-Miller
CLA 1-364-2006
Masterpieces of Greek and Roman Theater

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