Plot & Structure Home

Comedy Terms

Aristophanes, Charlie Chaplin & Mae West

Menander & Screwball Comedy

Plautus, Terence, & Marx Brothers





With Menander's works Dyskolos, Perikeiromene, and Samia, we make a transition from Old Comedy to New Comedy. Here, we see a change in plot structure, with the traditional elements of the prologue and choral passages taking on new characteristics, and those we see in Old Comedy such as the parabasis and agon disappearing alltogerther. Overall, the plot of New Comedy gains a more cohesive feeling, with events and characters being more relevant and less abstract. While in retrospect Aristophanes employed what can be interpreted as a five-act structure, Menander's use of a definite five-act structure gives his plays more organization.





While the prologue in a work by Aristophanes is subtle and works to ease us gently into the story, the exact opposite is true for one in Menander. His plays feature a primarily a deity delivering an address to the audience, introducing characters as usual, but also laying out a basic summary of the events preceding the action of the play and those to come.

Pan: The old man lives alone with his daughter, and an old servant woman. He's always working, fetching his own wood and doing his own digging - and hating absolutely everyone, from his neighbors here and his wife, right down tothe suburbs of Athens. The girl has turned out as you'd expect from her upbringing, innocent and good. She's careful in her service to the Nymphs who share my shrine, and so we think it proper to take some care of her, too. There's a young man. His father's well-oft, farms a valuable propert here. The son's fashionable and lives in town, but her came out hunting with a sporting friend, and happened to come here. I've cast a spell on him, and he's fallen madly in love.

There, that's the outline. Details you'll see in due course, if you like - and please do like. Ah! I think I see our lover coming with his friend; they're busily discussing this very topic.

(Dyskolos 30-49)

Choral Passages

The chorus has a notably minimal role in Menander's works. This is due to several reasons: 1) The cultural conditions of the time caused a shift in focus from the polis to the oikos, resulting in less of a need for a chorus representing the community to have a role in plays; 2) A lack of funding to hire someone to train the chorus; 3) The increasing professionalism involved with music that kept just anyone from joining a chorus and being in a production; and 4) The growing popularity of acting troupes, which increased the professionalism of acting, as well. All of these reasons cause us to see very little of the chorus in Menander's plays. When we do see them, it has nothing to do with the plot of play, but it is rather simply a musical interlude to break up the action. These interludes help to create the five-act structure of each play, with the interlude serving as the transition from one act to the next.


Episodes have the same function in New Comedy and in Old: they keep the plot moving from point to point. They differ between works of Aristophanes and works of Menander only in that in Menander, the episodes do not have a fantastical element and feature real time, a natural setting, and a focus on the conflict and motivation of the characters.


The exits in New Comedy are the same as those in Old Comedy: they provide the resolution of the problem and end of the play. A definite conclusion is reached, and the audience is satisfied in seeing the comedic hero triumph.



In Menander, we see another aspect (two aspects, really) mentioned by Aristotle in his Poetics in relation to tragedy: peripeteia (reversal) and anagnorisis (recognition). Though Menander's works are comedies, these two plot devices still apply.


Peripeteia, specifically, is "a change from one state of affairs to its exact opposite." The best example of this can be seen in Dyskolos, when Knemon relents his prior claim that he would never give away his daughter's hand in marriage and allows her to be married to Sostratos.


Anagnorisis is "change from ignorance to knowledge, leading either to friendship or to hostility on the part of those persons who are marked for good fortune or bad." A gradual anagnorisis can be seen in Samia, as the true parentage of the baby is revealed.

Since these two elements are characteristic of tragedy - in fact, Aristotle claimed they were the most important part of a tragic plot - how do they serve a purpose in comedy, and why? The answer can be found in parallels between tragedy and comedy. The Tractatus states that "just as the function of tragedy is to arouse pity and terror through the representation of pitiable and terrifying actions, which come about through and error that is painful or destructive in some way, so too the function of comedy is to arouse pleasure and laughter through the representation of laughable actions, which also come about through an error, though not a painful or destructive one. Each kind of poetry aims to purify that part of the soul concerned with these emotions." Essentially, the goals of tragedy and comedy are the same (to arouse emotion) as the means to reach the goal. Similar elements and structure are employed to create a framework for the play, and the difference lies only in the situation and atmosphere of the situation. Menander, of all the playwrights we discuss here, best exemplifies the ability to take the framework of a tragedy and create comedy.


It Happened One Night


Considered to be the first screwball comedy as well as the first romantic comedy, It Happened One Night starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert does indeed display attributes belonging to both categories. Because it is a feature-length film, it of course has a beginning, middle, and end. The formal structual elements are less clearly defined in the film, but it does have a prologue, episodes, and exits.

Scene from It Happend One Night found at http://www.filmreference.com/images/sjff_01_img0240.jpg



The prologue of this film is more reminiscent of Old Comedy, in that it does not provide a summary of the plot or a glimpse at the conclusion, but rather intoduces us to the main characters and the problem encountered in the story. We meet Ellie, and learn that she has married a man of whom her father disapproves. In an effort to assert her indepence and be with the man she thinks she loves, Ellie sets off on her own to get from Miami to New York. The real action of the story begins when Ellie sets off on this journey and meets Peter.


This movie is full of episodes, as Ellie and Peter's trip to Miami to New York is full of obstacles, detours, and, of course, high jinx. Just as in New Comedy, these episodes move the plot steadily towards its conclusion with clear progression.

In this scene, Ellie and Peter must thwart the detectives sent by Mr. Andrews to bring Ellie back to him and prevent her from returning to Westley. Their success ensures that they are one step closer to getting Ellie back to her husband.



While this movie does have a happy ending, it is not the one intended at the onset of the film. Indeed, along the way, Ellie's goal changes, as she falls in love with Peter and out of love with Westley. This has little effect on the audience, however, as we have been rooting for Ellie and Peter from the beginning. It is possible that the movie could have ended when Ellie is temporarily reunited with Westley and attempts to re-marry him, but this would have been very unsatisfying and not at all characteristic of the romantic comedy genre which the film pioneered.


Again, this film fits into the basic model of plot with a beginning, middle, and end, as well as mostly fitting into the structure in the Tractatus by having three of the four required elements. Like the works of Menander, It Happened One Night also contains peripeteia and anagnorisis. We see Ellie's reversal from a pampered heiress to an independent, yet temporarily penniless, woman right after the prologue. We see Peter's reversal from just a reporter looking for his next big story to a man falling in love with the subject of that story. His focus changes from getting his job back to getting his lady. Ellie's recognition comes near the end of the film when she realizes and admits to Peter that she loves him, and not Westley. Her recognition triggers Peter's own that he, too, loves her.






For questions or comments, please contact John Gruber-Miller