Is the comic stage a safe haven for freedom of expression?

City Dionysia

City Dionysia

By Ashley Mehra

Is the comic stage a safe haven for freedom of expression? Today, we watch the stand-up comedy of Amy Schumer or Chris Rock with a mixture of unease and admiration for the comics’ unabashed frankness.

This tug-of-war of emotions has faced audiences for centuries. Comics in the mid-to-late fifth century, like Aristophanes, did not shy away from being zany, obscene, bawdy and explicit. They tested the limits of free expression by relentlessly crossing the line between what was lawful and appropriate. Their brazenness “required a buoyant Athenian culture to sustain it,” however. When Athens came under pressure during the Peloponnesian War, the liberty of comedy was questioned (Halliwell xxi). Alan Sommerstein wrote, “The law gave comedy no special protection; but public opinion … that could not be disregarded, even by a leader as powerful as Cleon, believed that attempts, by direct or indirect means, to silence its voice, were unacceptable” (Sluiter 166).

I think that the introduction of comedy to ancient Athens, the world’s first democratic society, and the subsequent reactions to its extremities by both public authorities and the general public, sheds light on the continuing current debates regarding free speech, particularly when the content is scurrilous.

Ancient comedy began from the sub-literary level of folk humor and festival sideshows, and eventually was added to the repertoire of theatre presented at the two major religious festivals in Athens (Halliwell xi). One of the religious festivals, known as the Great or City Dionysia, was held every March in honor of the god Dionysus. Dionysus is most famously known as the god of wine and revelry, but he is also referred to as “Eleuthereus” (“the Freer”) and also as the god of metamorphosis.

Accordingly, the Athenians thought it befitting to incorporate a play competition to honor the god’s love for freedom from constraint and for transformation of identity. The key to the god himself was supposedly ‘ecstasy,’ meaning the ability to stand outside of oneself. The theater was considered a Dionysian experience, in which actors underwent a profound state of ecstasy by acting as other people. Members of the audience, too, may experience ecstasy by falling into the dramatic trap, being transported by the play before their eyes.

Eventually by the mid-fifth century, comedy had developed into a “self-consciously poetic and theatrical genre that was able to sustain a coexistence alongside tragedy at the major civic festivals” (Halliwell xi). Nonetheless, comedy had preserved its folk origins. Aristotle himself suggested that the uninhibited freedom of comedy stemmed from its absurd, indecent former practices, such as the infamous phallic processional songs (Poetics 1449a10-13). Comedy seemed especially appropriate for the City Dionysia, since the derivation of comedy, komodia, meant “revel song.” The comic plays were a type of religious devotion according to the Athenians.

The combination of secular and religious components was certainly a unique characteristic of the City Dionysia. The festival intrinsically had a double-headed nature — it was religious and secular, tragic and comic, serious and lighthearted. The festival attracted an especially international crowd, and ambassadors from Athens’ allied cities brought with them “tributes that embodied their subservience to the Athenian hegemony” (Halliwell xix).

All of the tributes that the Athenians had collected during the year were placed in the orchestra of the amphitheater for all to see. Orphans were given junior armor as a reminder of the costs of war, and honors were given to especially brave Athenian soldiers.

Comedy had a funny way of inverting the atmosphere of civic seriousness so that audience members felt contained within a bubble apart from the norms of the social world. The city’s political leaders, who themselves were the “recipients of honorific attention,” found themselves as “the object of vilification in the very plays they were watching” (Halliwell lii). Although the victims of comic abuse were often powerful and influential, the audience joined the comic in laughter and mockery. For the comic, humor was a persuasive tool; if the audience was laughing, perhaps he had managed to overcome the rigid norms of shame and inhibition that had become so fundamental to Athenian society.

Stephen Halliwell, the Wardlaw professor of classics at the University of St. Andrews, appropriately refers to the Old Comedy of fifth century Athens as an “institutionalized shamelessness” (135). By engaging the audience, the comics evade the potentially penalizing results of their shameless practice. They include the audience in a special contract of licensed abuse.

On the one hand, the comfort of this social bubble was a push factor for playwrights, encouraging them to make frank contributions in the public arena. On the other hand, despite the bubble, some comic playwrights were criticized for having taken their comedic license of abuse too far. A developing unease resulted in a brief period in Athens where it was actually forbidden to make certain kinds of personal attacks on named individuals. Cleon led the charge for policing free expression after Aristophanes staged “The Babylonians” (now lost) at the City Dionysia. Cleon complained to the Boule (council) that it was especially inappropriate for Aristophanes to have been critical of Athens in the presence of non-Athenian visitors.

Despite Cleon’s disapproval and success in enacting a temporary censure, Aristophanes unforgivingly caricatured Cleon in his subsequent plays. Cleon was the target of ridicule in “Acharnians” and “Knights,” although, interestingly, these plays were not performed at the City Dionysia but at the less international Lenaean festival. Aristophanes demonstrated that the masses did actually rule in Athens by writing his plays to appeal to the public, rather than to public authorities. He even revised his play, “The Clouds,” after it came in last at the City Dionysia in 423 B.C. and was ill-received by the masses.

The question still remains as to whether or not Aristophanes had a particular political agenda in mind by including defamatory remarks about the city’s generals in his plays. Or, since the play productions were staged in the form of a contest for a prize, perhaps he simply did whatever he thought was necessary to win, regardless of any message. Whichever stance Aristophanes and his fellow comic playwrights upheld, they made clear through their forthright writing that they were not afraid to speak their minds. They were able to use comedy to suspend the normal views and behavior of audience members, if even for only the brevity of the festival.

When I reflect on today’s political discourse, I can’t help but think of Donald Trump’s refusal to speak like a conventional politician. Like Aristophanes, Trump uses aggressive humor to convey a political point of view. The American public watches Trump in the news with awe because he lacks self-censorship. He occupies the stage as a poet would during the parabasis of Aristophanes’s comedy. He is skeptical and ridiculing, yet sometimes sanguine about America, as Aristophanes was about Athens. Moreover, like Aristophanes, he disregards the need to make any apologies.

For the most part, characters like Trump and Aristophanes are the outliers. Most people do not engage in freedom of expression in conversation, because being conscious of social norms and other peoples’ feelings inhibits them from fully speaking their minds. On the Internet and in social media, however, perhaps we are moving toward a more ‘Dionysian’ reality.

Halliwell’s description of the City Dionysia sounds eerily like the more controversial activities over the Internet which, in recent years, have troubled the courts with questions over regulating free speech online: “There were occasions when … carnivalesque pleasures of ritual mockery and licensed obscenity were prominent in the form of masked revelers on wagons or floats who processed through the city hurling ribald abuse at one another and at the watching crowds” (lii).

The participants of online discussions today can use their computer screens and anonymity as their masks. On the one hand, anonymity allows individuals to “redefine themselves in a social environment, to hack into their personhood, their identity, and truly become who they want to be” (Stryker 14). Oscar Wilde once said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Yet sometimes the exchanges and comments expressed online are insulting and egregious.

Although I agree that even hateful Internet communications are a part of the necessary exchange in a democracy — that freedom of expressions means that views we dislike or even hate are likely to come to surface at times – I wonder how the changing state of free speech will affect the American public, as it did the Athenian community, over time.


Referenced Works:

I am thankful for a conversation with Professor Paul Cartledge of Cambridge University and Mr. Bob Mankoff of The New Yorker through the Reading Odyssey for topic inspiration.

Halliwell, Stephen, and Aristotle. Aristotle’s Poetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Print.

Halliwell, Stephen. Aristophanes: Birds and Other Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Rosen, Ralph M., and Ineke Sluiter. Free Speech in Classical Antiquity. Boston: Leiden, 2004. Print.

Stryker, Cole. Hacking the future: privacy, identity, and anonymity on the Web. New York: The Overlook Press, 2012. Print.


About the author

Ms. Ashley Mehra is an Echols Scholar at the University of Virginia where she double-majors in Classics and the Politics Honors program. As an author for Exchange, Ms. Mehra writes on First Amendment issues from a historical perspective. She is deeply interested in how free expression both at home and abroad will evolve given the changing nature of our social space, and applies her knowledge of the Classics to bring to light the history of ideas and philosophy in this ongoing dialogue on free speech.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *