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Comedy Terms

Aristophanes, Charlie Chaplin & Mae West

Menander & Screwball Comedy

Plautus, Terence, & Marx Brothers






In Aristophanes' Birds, Clouds, and Lysistrata, each feature the four elements described in the Tractatus, and more. In addition to the prologue, choral passages, episodes, and exits, Aristophanes' works also feature a parodos, a parabasis, and an agon, which are characteristics of Old Comedy. Although the plays have a formal structure, they do not have a succinct plot. The humor comes from wit and interactions between the characters.



The prologue in Aristophanes' plays introduces the characters and the problem to be solved, along with the plan to solve it. For example, in Birds, we are immediately introduced to the main characters Peithetaerus and Euelpides, who are bemoaning their dissatifcation with Athens' excessive laws and taxes. This sets in motion the events that are to come.

Choral Passages

Choral passages in general serve to break up the action of a play and/or provide transitions between episodes. The chorus in Lysistrata is actually two semi-choruses, one made up of men and one made up of women. The choral passages of the women provide support for Lysistrata's argument, whereas the male chorus serves as the opposition. The chorus often represents the community in an Old Comedy play, and its assumed reaction to the events therein. It can either assist or oppose the main character.


Episodes make up the dramatic action of the play. Essentially they lead the audience from plot point to plot point. For the most part, however, the episodes do not have an important part in the structure of the plot. The importance lies within the beginning of the play (the prologue) and the end conclusion; what occurs in between is, for the most part, not as important plot-wise and does not always relate directly to the development of the story. This is seen especially in Old Comedy, where the fantastical elements reign supreme.


The most important exit within plays is the exodus, which is the end of the production.


The parodos is the entrance of the chorus. In Birds, after meeting with the Hoopoe, Peithetaerus develops a plan to create a new city of birds. This leads to an exciting entrance of the many birds who make up the chorus. The parados brings the prologue to an end. It was an important part of the structure of Old Comedy, as the chorus held a key role within the play.


The parabasis is a break from the action of the play where the chorus speaks directly to the audience on behalf of the playwright.

Chorus: Dear audience, allow me to speak candidly for a moment. It is time to hear the truth, sworn by Dionysus, the very deity that nurtured my rare talent and raised me to win great dramatic victories. I thought that you were an intelligent audience, I thought that you would truly enjoy this, the most intellectual of all my comedies. I sweated night and day over a hot script to serve up to you the very first taste of the fruits of my labor. But look what happened. I was utterly defeated, thwarted by those other vile, despicable hacks! And it is you people who must bear the blame for this disgrace, for you should have known better. I did all for you, and just look how you chose to repay me! (Clouds 517-528)

In the case of this parabasis from Clouds, it is widely accepted that Aristophanes rewrote it, after failing to gain the acclaim the playwright felt it deserved.


The agon, or contest, took place between two characters. During the agon, the characters are in contest over the central issue of the play, with each character outlining his or her argument. In Lysistrata, the magistrate and Lysistrata debate about Lysistrata's ability to solve the problem of the war.


It is Aristophanes from whom we get the structure of Old Comedy. His plots feature characters trying to escape, or even end, a problem faced within the larger body of the polis. Thus, we see a clear beginng and end, but the middle is not nearly as defined. The middle is made up of episodes and choral passages, but these episodes and choral passages feature an array of characters and fantastical elements that pull the plot this way and that, before it reaches its intended end.


Charlie Chaplin

In the Poetics, Aristotle says that "just as organized bodies and animals, if they are to be beautiful, must have size and such size as to be easily taken in by the eye, so plot, for the same reason, must have length and such length as to be easily held in memory. The limit of length considered in relation to the public contests and production in sensible form has nothing to do with the art of poetry...the longer the plot is, while still remaining perspicuous, the more beautiful in virture of its magnitude."

Charlie Chaplin's two-reel films, The Immigrant, The Count, and Easy Street are, if anything, a series of episodes. Because they are short films, they lack the length necessary to fully develop a plot. They lack the formal structure of an Old Comedy play, but they do illicit humor through the same kinds of interconnected incidents. Because they are silent films, the laughter is not derived from diction, but relies solely on physical comedy and comedic situations.

This scene from The Immigrant is an example of the circumstantial comedy that makes up the bulk of the films.


However, Aristotle also mentions that "if the length is sufficient to permit a change from bad fortune to good or from good fortune to bad to come about in an inevitable or probably sequence of events, this is a satisfactory limit of magnitude." According to this qualification, Chaplin's films do still have the semblance of a comic plot, as we see a change of fortune and a logical sequence of events."


Mae West

The film Going to Town, starring Mae West, clearly displays the elements of a beginning, middle, and end. The movie has a clear, structured plot with one event progressing into the next, always developing the plot and moving towards the solution. The film clearly has three of the four elements discussed in the Tractatus: a prologue, episodes and exits.



Like in Aristophanes' plays, the beginning of the movie serves as a prologue that introduces the main characters as well as the problem faced by the comic hero, in this case, Cleo Borden. Cleo, after being left a wealthy widow, sets out to earn her new social status as well as a new mate.


As in Aristophanes, there are countless numbers of episodes in Going to Town. Unlike the episodes in his works, however, those found in the movie have a clear purpose of moving the plot towards its conclusion. Each plot point gets Cleo one step further to reaching her goal.


The movie reaches its conclusion when Cleo finally succeeds in winning Carrington over. Thus the movie end with a song sung by Cleo, affirming her new social status.



This movie, of course, exhibits most of the elements necessary to fit a comic plot as described in the Tractatus, as well as having a definite beginning, middle, and end. But with this brand of cinematic comedy we see a structure much different from Old Comedy. There is no fantastical elements, no need for a chorus, and the episodes have clear sequential steps. However, Goin' to Town has an obvious comedic plot. Like Aristophanes, the movie elicits laughter through diction and incidents.






For questions or comments, please contact John Gruber-Miller