Aristotle remarks in The Parts of Animals that ‘man is the only animal that laughs’, and comedy, the object of which is to produce laughter, is a particularly human phenomenon. As such, it is also deeply conditioned by culture: who laughs, what is laughed at, and why. These questions take on a special saliency, moreover, in the unusual context of a state-sponsored institution of comic drama that existed in classical Athens. This article suggests that interpreting these works may shed light on ancient Greek ideology and society. Modern performances, for example, may inform people not only about problems of staging, in itself an important and still-open area for scholarship, but also about the reception of ancient comedy, which in turn has very largely conditioned how the genre is perceived today, despite the ostensibly objective methods of modern philology.
This chapter discusses the institution of choregia for comedy in Classical Athens performed at the City Dionysia, the Lenaea, and the Dionysia held in the Attic demes. The choregia was part of the system of liturgies whereby state authorities assigned rich Athenians the task of providing funding and accommodating special public needs (in the military and the religious festivals). The choregos was responsible for recruiting the members of a chorus (dithyrambic, tragic, or comic), for providing whatever was necessary for its training, and for paying all associated expenses. The competitive context of theatrical performances explains why the choregia was termed an “agonistic liturgy” and why victorious choregoi dedicated monuments. Over the course of the fourth century BCE, the role of the comic chorus waned, and, in the last two decades, the choregia itself was abolished.